At this stage in the 2024 GOP presidential primary cycle, the fact that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) hasn't officially declared his candidacy for his party's nomination feels more like an administrative afterthought than a sign of genuine electoral reluctance. With his reputation bolstered by a rare good showing during an otherwise disappointing GOP midterm election, DeSantis has spent the early part of 2023 crisscrossing the country with conspicuous stops in presidential primary hubs like Iowa and New Hampshire, hawking his "make America Florida" memoir, and weighing in on matters ostensibly outside the scope of someone content to stay in state government for long.
Despite his early reputation as a potential Trump-slayer — coupled with a number of encouraging, if largely premature, polls — the light from DeSantis' political star seems to be dimming.
A 'very bad week' for DeSantis supporters
Data analytics firm Morning Consult released an updated 2024 GOP primary tracking poll taken over the weekend of March 17-19 that showed DeSantis tied with his record low. Meanwhile, Trump surged to more than double the Florida governor's support.
DeSantis' slippage comes amidst a particularly rocky stretch of headlines for the governor. He downgraded Ukraine's defense against an ongoing Russian invasion as not part of the "vital national interest" for the United States — a foray into international politics which earned him the surprisingly caustic ire of many of his fellow Republicans. This foreign policy squabble was overtaken by rising questions over DeSantis' personal touch on the campaign trail, and his capacity for retail politics. That was followed by the most open warfare to date between DeSantis and Trump, whose allies blasted the governor as a "weasel" for raising Trump's alleged hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels in a backhanded attempt to denounce the possibility of criminal indictments.
"It's the trend that's important, and the trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better," The New York Times' Nate Cohn concluded, while cautioning against trusting a single poll for electoral forecasting.
"It's easy to tell a tidy story about why Mr. DeSantis has slipped," Cohn continued, pointing to a confluence of factors like DeSantis' midterms bump subsiding, increased criticism from Trump, and DeSantis' lackluster rebuttals.
But DeSantis' downturn in the polls isn't just the result of a few days of bad headlines and GOP squabbles. Rather, it's just as much a byproduct of DeSantis' own local successes, argued longtime political consultant and commentator Simon Rosenberg. Those successes may alienate him from voters in battleground states still stinging from Republican losses by candidates who embraced the right-most reaches of the political spectrum. It's into this dynamic that DeSantis has "decided to become even more MAGA, super MAGA," Rosenberg said. The end result is that for Republicans "hoping DeSantis would be a reasonable and capable alternative to Trump this has been a very bad week."
Can he make a comeback?
DeSantis has largely made a series of prudent decisions for someone gearing up for a presidential run. The problem is, "you can do all the things you think a presidential candidate should do, and none of it will matter, because at the end of the day, you have to face off with the political equivalent of a rabid badger on bath salts," USA Today's Rex Huppke explained. Noting that "all Trump has to do is step away from the waffle bar at his golf resort for 10 seconds and tweet something like 'RINO Ron DeSATANis'" to see a surge in the polls, Huppke lamented the "wealthy donors and non-MAGA conservatives" who still "hope against hope that Trump's base of voters will wake up and abandon their toxic idol."
Will that ever happen?
The very things that have made DeSantis a national figure — picking fights with Disney, banning "woke" curriculum in schools, and so on — were intended to obscure his ultra-conservative positions, including his "radical and unpopular views on social insurance and the welfare state," Jamelle Bouie wrote in The New York Times in January, suggesting DeSantis' opponents focus on these "more unpopular political commitments" rather than "play his game."
"Interestingly," Bouie concluded, "this is the approach that Donald Trump might take to rebuff DeSantis in a Republican primary contest." And indeed, Trump has gone after DeSantis on those very points.
A lot can change between now and the Republican National Convention. DeSantis may ultimately decide this is not the year to run, and leave Trump a wide open lane to capture the nomination. Trump's looming criminal exposure could potentially only serve to bolster his standing among the GOP base. But if DeSantis does decide to run, his challenge remains as it has always been: to take out a politician with no shame, no restraint, and everything to lose.