Is DeSantis positioning himself as more than the anti-Trump?


It seems safe to say that there were two fundamental elements to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the Republican nomination in 2016.

The first was that he opposed the “elites”, but he decided that they showed up any day. It was the Republican National Committee or Hillary Clinton or the media or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or people who had supported his opponents. The consistency was only that they could be positioned as somehow opposed to real Americans, Trump’s base.

The other element was that Trump’s rhetoric on these topics largely mirrored popular anti-elite conversation in the conservative media. He said what people said on Fox News and Breitbart, and that created the veneer of his “truth” for supporters: he said what others (like Jeb Bush) wouldn’t say, including things which were wrong.

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It was a remarkable approach for someone seeking the presidential nomination of a major party: Presenting party leaders as the enemy and saying the things about them that were said by their most fringe critics. It was not clear that this would work; Trump got the nomination largely because the majority of Republicans who didn’t want him as a nominee couldn’t agree on who they wanted. But then he won the presidency.

In doing so, his strategy spread. Other candidates have used the same anti-elite and fringe approach, including standing behind Trump and cheering him on. At the very least, this tactic from other Republicans helped ensure that Trump’s base wouldn’t go sideways during the party’s primaries, even if that didn’t necessarily ensure victory overall. In fact, it seemed to get in the way of winning at times, as became evident in 2022.

Last weekend, Trump traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina for (very) early rallies focused on his bid for the 2024 nomination. Clearly Trump’s plan is to do what he wants. he did in 2016, making his candidacy the last bulwark against America’s oppressors, including those in the Republican Party itself.

But this time, he’ll potentially be running against a group of contestants who not only recognize this playbook (and its effectiveness), but have also used it themselves. Chief among them is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), whose rise to his current post depended on an explicit strategy of currying favor with Trump with Fox News appearances and then convincing the Florida Republicans in 2018 that he could be a replica of the president.

Once elected (and especially once Trump lost the bullying pulpit of the presidency), DeSantis stayed on this path, focusing on issues of race and sexuality to position himself as a noble warrior against excess. perceived by liberals. His twin slogans since 2021 are that Florida is where ‘revival will die’ and that he rules ‘the Free State of Florida’ – a reference to his quick recognition that people were frustrated by efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Many Floridians died as DeSantis grew increasingly hostile to vaccines, especially Republicans, but his political career flourished.

Now, DeSantis is in an enviable position for 2024. He generally trails Trump in the polls for the nomination, but as a clear second-place contender, not simply as a front-runner. In other words, he is what there was not in 2016: someone who could serve as a place of anti-Trump support. That’s partly because the Republican establishment sees it as acceptable, with Jeb Bush attending his second inauguration as governor (as Trump and his allies have repeatedly pointed out).

It’s also because Trump’s base sees it as acceptable. Earlier this month, YouGov conducted a remarkable poll for The Economist in which respondents were asked how they viewed both Trump and DeSantis. Among those who said they voted for Trump in 2020, 51% said they had a very favorable opinion of the former president. Among that same group, 64% said they had a very favorable opinion of DeSantis. Only 57% of that group said they want Trump to run again in 2024.

Above all, Trump still leads DeSantis with the group, by 13 points. The point is not that this is how the elections will go; polls a year before the start of the presidential primaries don’t have the strongest track record for accuracy. What it shows, instead, is that DeSantis has made inroads with Trump voters — and that Trump is still their first choice for the nomination.

The fact that we’re so far from the nominating contest itself reminds us that the fight hasn’t really begun. Trump’s approach to politics centers on removing all obstacles in his path, and he’s started working on DeSantis. On Truth Social, functionally a Trump bullhorn at his base, he shared repeated bashings of DeSantis for taking action in early 2020 to combat the spread of the coronavirus or for being disloyal to Trump personally (which is likely less resonant with voters).

“Ron DeSanctimonious, whom I have appointed Governor of BOTH Primary and General,” Trump wrote early Monday morning, “is also a Globalist, and so are his donors. Jeb ‘Low Energy’ Bush was next to him. last week. Check PAST!”

Can DeSantis stand up to Trump’s direct and relentless bashing? Did he manage to neutralize Trump’s anti-elite head start by appealing to Republican voters? Or is he positioned in much the same way as a number of former Republican candidates, as an opponent of the frontrunner? We have seen this role regularly over the past two decades, with Republican leaders facing waves of opposition to ultimately emerge victorious: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee against John McCain in 2008, for example, or around 300 people challenging Romney in 2012 Is DeSantis just playing that role?

In these cases, of course, the establishment desperately wanted the favorite to win. This time, they clearly don’t. For The Atlantic, McKay Coppins wrote about the lingering, silent hope that something would get in the way of Trump, a hope that was also present in 2016 but failed to materialize. A consultant suggested the party was looking for a “deus ex machina” to suddenly appear and overthrow Trump’s candidacy.

But it’s not that the machine hasn’t produced obvious potential saviors. DeSantis is there, ticking the right boxes. The question is whether this is enough.


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