Is the Ron DeSantis campaign already over?
But as he finally announces a presidential bid, expected later today, it is worth mulling his path back to contention. Despite it all, Ron DeSantis could still be the next Republican nominee.
That might seem hard to imagine, but fortunes can change astonishingly quickly in presidential primaries. There are still more than six months until the Iowa caucuses, and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to right his ship.
In the end, the factors that made Mr. DeSantis formidable at the beginning of the year could prove to be more significant than the stumbles and miscues that have recently hobbled him. The damage is not yet irreparable.
Of course, the fact that he could mount a comeback doesn’t mean he will come back. His campaign’s decision to announce his bid on Twitter tonight forfeits a rare opportunity to be televised live on multiple networks in favor of a feature, Twitter Spaces, that I don’t even know how to use as a frequent Twitter user. And even if his campaign is ultimately run differently than it has been so far, it’s not clear that even a perfectly run Republican campaign would defeat Donald J. Trump — at least if the former president survives his various legal challenges politically unscathed.
But if you’re tempted to write off Mr. DeSantis, you might want to think again. The history of primary elections is littered with candidates who are written off, only to surge into contention. Unknown candidates like Herman Cain briefly become front-runners. Early front-runners like Joe Biden and John McCain are written off, then come back to win. Even Barack Obama spent six months struggling and trailing an “inevitable” Hillary Clinton by double digits.
Perhaps one day we’ll say something similar about Mr. DeSantis’s candidacy. As with the candidates who ultimately surged back to victory, the strengths that made Mr. DeSantis seem so promising after the midterms are still there today. He still has unusually broad appeal throughout the Republican Party. His favorability ratings remain strong — stronger than Mr. Trump’s — even though his standing against Mr. Trump has deteriorated in head-to-head polling. He is still defined by issues — like the fight against “woke” and coronavirus restrictions — that also have broad appeal throughout his party. If this was enough to be a strong contender in January, there’s reason it might be again.
While it’s easy to see Mr. DeSantis’s decline over the last few months as a sign of profound weakness, the volatility of the polling can also be interpreted to mean there’s a large group of voters open to both candidates. They might be prone to lurch one way or the other, depending on the way the political winds are blowing.
Mr. DeSantis’s strategy so far this year may have also increased the likelihood of big swings. As I wrote last week, there are two theories for defeating the former president — Trumpism without Trump, and a reinvigorated conservative alternative to Trump. Of the two, the proto-DeSantis campaign can more easily be interpreted as a version of Trumpism without Trump. If his campaign has done anything, it’s to narrow any disagreement with Mr. Trump — even to a fault. Mr. DeSantis hasn’t really made either an explicit or implicit case against the former president. Perhaps worse, he hasn’t punched back after being attacked.
This combination of choices has helped set up an unusually rapid decline in Mr. DeSantis’s support. After all, the only thing that unifies a hypothetical Trumpism without Trump coalition is opposition to Mr. Trump and the prospect of beating him. If you’re not attacking him and you’re losing to him, then you’re not saying or doing the only two things that can hold your supporters together.
The evaporating basis for Mr. DeSantis’s support has played out subtly differently on two different fronts. On the right, conservative voters open to someone other than Mr. Trump nonetheless have returned to the side of the former president. What kind of conservative wants Trumpism without strength? Toward the center, the many relatively moderate and neoconservative establishment Republicans who yearn for a candidacy opposed to Trumpism, not just to the conduct of the man himself, have withheld crucial support for Mr. DeSantis and flirted with other options, from Chris Christie to Chris Sununu.
But if the DeSantis campaign can revitalize the case for his Trumpism without Trump candidacy, he might quickly reclaim many of the voters who backed him a few months ago. Indeed, it’s even possible that the current media narrative and low expectations are setting the stage for a DeSantis resurgence.
Imagine what it might feel like if he launched a successful, vigorous attack against Mr. Trump after all of these months on defense. What might have otherwise been a routine sparring match would be imbued with far greater significance, unleashing months of pent-up anxiety among his supporters. What if part of the reason he’s announcing his candidacy on Twitter is to mock Truth Social? Silly as it sounds, successfully putting down Mr. Trump might breathe life into his candidacy — and the media loves a comeback story.
One important factor keeping Mr. DeSantis’s path open is that, so far, none of the potential moderate alternatives to him have gained a foothold in the race. If they did, it would deny him the moderate and neoconservative voters who supported the likes of John Kasich and Marco Rubio in the last primary. He would essentially become another Ted Cruz.
But for now, Mr. DeSantis is the only viable not-Trump candidate in town. As long as that’s true, he will have every chance to rebound among the voters who would prefer someone other than Mr. Trump — if there is a market for someone other than Mr. Trump.
In the end, whether there’s sufficient demand for a Trump alternative may be the bigger question than whether Mr. DeSantis can resuscitate his campaign. With Mr. Trump already holding more than 50 percent support in the polls, actually defeating Mr. Trump might require some breaks, like the possibility that his legal challenges are worse than we might assume. It might also require a DeSantis win in Iowa to break Mr. Trump’s grip on a crucial segment of the party, much as the midterms seemed to temporarily crack Mr. Trump’s base last winter.
But even if Mr. Trump is a clear favorite, it’s easy to see how Mr. DeSantis can at least make this a competitive race again. When he’s able to focus on his own issues, he has a distinctive political brand with rare appeal throughout a divided Republican Party. With expectations so low, the groundwork for a recovery might even be in place. It’s happened before.