Why has Ron DeSantis been such a flop?

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Photo illustration of Ron DeSantis.

What’s happening

Just two months into his fledgling — and floundering — presidential campaign, Ron DeSantis has already been forced to reboot.

Once heralded as the GOP’s likeliest Donald Trump slayer, DeSantis vaulted to a 5-point lead over the former president among potential primary voters after coasting to reelection as Florida's governor last November. The fact that DeSantis triumphed on a night when the rest of the party faltered — Trump’s handpicked MAGA candidates most of all — only burnished his next-big-thing brand.

But sadly for DeSantis, it has been all downhill from there. In April, the polls showed rank-and-file Republicans rallying around Trump after his first indictment of the year (for his alleged role in paying hush money to a porn star). In May, DeSantis’s official campaign launch — an awkward, glitchy Twitter Spaces event with Elon Musk — fell flat. Since then, surveys have consistently shown Trump averaging more than 50% of the primary vote. DeSantis now trails him by more than 30 points.

In recent days, the governor’s problems have seemed to pile up at an even faster pace. Campaign finance reports showed lavish spending on luxury hotels and private jets and zero spending on television ads. Dozens of staffers have been fired. A bizarre DeSantis video slamming Trump as too friendly to LGBTQ people triggered widespread backlash. Reports surfaced that billionaire Fox News baron Rupert Murdoch had soured on his early favorite. Donors began to balk.

In response, advisers vowed over the weekend (via a splashy New York Times story) to reset the DeSantis candidacy as an “insurgent” run: a “leaner-meaner” operation that will burn less cash, engage more with the press and burrow deeper into Iowa, the first caucus state.

But DeSantis’s latest do-over raises some make-or-break questions: Why, exactly, has the Floridian been such a bust? And can he actually turn things around in time to dethrone The Donald — or is it too late?

Why there’s debate

Despite Trump’s incumbent-like status, a significant — and potentially growing — group of Republicans would rather not renominate him in 2024. In fact, the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that less than half of potential GOP primary voters now prefer Trump (49%) over a hypothetical “someone else” (43%).

The problem is: Who’s that “someone else”? For now, DeSantis looks like the only viable Trump alternative. According to the poll aggregators at FiveThirtyEight, the governor is averaging about 18.6% nationally; the next-closest candidates are entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (6.8%) and former Vice President Mike Pence (6.3%), neither of whom, for different reasons, seems poised to win over a plurality of primary voters. No other candidate clears 4%.

So for Republicans who favor someone other than Trump (i.e., 43% of the party), figuring out why DeSantis has flopped is the first step in determining how he can stop flopping in the future — or how a different “someone else” can avoid making his mistakes.

What’s next

There’s not much on the horizon that could radically alter the dynamic of the race — at least not until the first GOP debate in Milwaukee on Aug. 23. Even then, Trump might not show up.

Which further signals that the biggest factor shaping DeSantis’s fate is Trump himself. Another federal indictment against the former president (in the Jan. 6 case) is likely to land any day now. Criminal charges in Georgia’s 2020 election probe could follow. DeSantis clearly hopes to capitalize on any collapse in the Trump’s support. But there’s no guarantee any such collapse will come — or that Republicans would unite around the governor if it does.


DeSantis’s problem is … DeSantis

“Stories about DeSantis’s lack of charisma and general off-puttingness abound, reinforcing the idea that he’s cold and awkward. He has entered what can only be called the Ted Cruz zone: a self-perpetuating narrative in which tales of a candidate’s aloofness (to put it mildly) are constantly being pushed to the fore. For most of the last three years, Ron DeSantis’s story was about him being the future of the Republican Party. Now, he already looks like a loser.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic

He is emphasizing his extremism when he should be emphasizing his electability

“Both money and media hype are, of course, important for a successful campaign, so it’s not totally crazy that DeSantis is courting people who wish Trump were more extreme. But because that’s the only group he’s courting, DeSantis is — despite the money and the hype — flaming out with voters who think it’s good that Trump maintains tactical flexibility in pursuit of the larger cause of beating the Democrats. … Locked in a cage with Trump, ‘hit him from the right’ is the only move that occurs to DeSantis. This hasn’t worked, and it’s also gotten him very far away from the initial source of his appeal, which was the notion that he’d be more electable than Trump.” — Matthew Yglesias, Slow Boring

Actually, DeSantis still has a plausible — if unlikely — path to the nomination

“We’ve seen repeatedly how Trump’s supporters always seem to want to return to him, and how Trump’s skeptics always seem incapable of uniting effectively. We haven’t seen enough potency from DeSantis-the-candidate to expect him to make those patterns break. But sitting at 20% for a long time and then riding an early primary victory to consolidation is an imaginable scenario, at least, and one that tracks with recent examples of campaigns that first disappointed and ultimately surged. Whereas all the other scenarios for beating Trump, whether involving current contenders or some late-entering white knight, seem like wishcasting from Republicans who don’t want to settle for DeSantis.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times

And it runs straight through Iowa

“One [asset is] a heavy investment in the sort of grassroots infrastructure that could pay off on Caucus Night … Another is his not-so-secret backing from popular Iowa GOP governor Kim Reynolds. … Still another is his apparent success in appealing to the leadership of Iowa’s pivotal conservative evangelical community. It’s no accident that Trump has recently disrespected Reynolds as well as veteran Christian Right figure and alleged Iowa ‘kingmaker’ Bob Vander Plaats, who seems inordinately fond of DeSantis. And it’s no surprise that DeSantis has gone after Trump from the right on cultural issues like abortion and gender identity that concern conservative evangelicals in particular.” — Ed Kilgore, New York magazine

Either way, nothing is going to change until DeSantis can confront Trump directly

“DeSantis is going to fight Trump for the nomination at some point. [But he will have to wait] until the two of them are on a stage together. Why? Because DeSantis is smart. … The trick is that this fight has to happen inside the Republican tent. If DeSantis does what Chris Christie does — goes on Sunday-morning talk shows and bashes Trump — he’ll look like he’s amplifying liberal criticisms of Trump, which most partisans don’t distinguish from criticisms of themselves. … Nothing is going to matter until DeSantis can speak directly to Trump’s face and own the consequences of it. Until then, enjoy your summer.” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review