Now that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has officially withdrawn from the Republican presidential race, it must be asked: How could things go so wrong for a politician who, just one year ago, was the darling of the GOP establishment?
Following his historic gubernatorial win in November 2022, DeSantis was the odds-on favorite to finally dethrone former President Donald Trump as the leader of the GOP, a belief made all the more credible as Trump’s handpicked candidates cost Republicans easily winnable races, and along with them, the highly anticipated “red-wave” election victory.
Then, within the span of 14 months, the wheels came off.
DeSantis’s star flamed out rather rapidly, with the one-time frontrunner not even making it to New Hampshire, as his attempt to walk the fine line between appealing to both Trump voters and moderate Republicans ultimately crumbled under the long shadow of Donald Trump, an unpopular hard-right shift and general political mismanagement.
Immediately after the November 2022 midterms, it seemed as if Republicans themselves had finally realized that if the party wanted to win general elections, they needed to break free from Donald Trump and that DeSantis would be the perfect candidate: young, popular, conservative and carrying none of Trump’s baggage.
Indeed, DeSantis’s early momentum — and the hopes of many Republicans desperate for an alternative to Trump — helped the Florida governor amass a considerable campaign war chest with more than $100 million, and notable endorsements from donors and other politicians that were supposed to help him pick up an early win in Iowa, and ultimately convince voters he was the only Republican who could beat both Trump and President Biden.
In hindsight, DeSantis’s downfall stands out for both how unlikely it seemed just 14 months ago, and yet how entirely predictable it became as he decided on a strategy of trying to out-Trump Donald Trump, and abandoned his more popular moderate positions in favor of a hard-right shift on hot-button issues such as abortion and guns.
That strategy not only wasn’t going to win over the majority of Trump voters who are intensely loyal to the former president, but it was going to alienate moderate Republicans and those who may have liked Trump’s policies but wanted a more electable alternative.
Further, by choosing to delay a formal campaign launch until the end of Florida’s legislative session, DeSantis squandered much of the momentum that he had after his election win. And while largely out of his control, the delay coincided with the beginning of a series of criminal and civil indictments against Trump, turning the former president into a political martyr and consolidating his support among the GOP electorate.
For those reasons, in December 2022 and again in July, I warned in this publication of the perils of peaking early in a presidential campaign, noting that modern political history is full of early frontrunners who enter the race with all of the momentum just to fizzle out when the actual primaries begin.
In December, I described a Republican presidential candidate who as “governor of a swing state, built a strong reputation as a firebrand conservative culture warrior,” and how he became the frontrunner when the party needed “new direction and fresh leadership.”
I said, “The clear establishment favorite, this candidate leads in early polling and has become a top-tier fundraiser.” Not long after, we would see his star quickly fade out.
While I was referring to former Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-Wisc.) ill-fated 2016 presidential bid, I hypothesized that the same warnings applied to Ron DeSantis, who, for a number of reasons, appeared vulnerable to falling into the same trap as Walker.
Whether it was his botched campaign rollout, perceptions that he was awkward and couldn’t connect with voters, a fight with Disney that one megadonor called “pointless,” a dysfunctional Super PAC that had multiple staffing turnovers, or the ever-present thorn in all Republican’s side: the inability to — or fear of — pushing back at Donald Trump, which in this case, allowed Trump to define DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious,” doubts increased as to whether or not DeSantis was tough enough to take on the former president.
Even when DeSantis abandoned his initial tactic of avoiding criticizing Trump in hopes of winning favor with his voters, the damage had been done with moderates, who watched DeSantis sign a strict six-week abortion ban, call for shooting cartel members “stone cold dead” and his never-ending campaign against the “woke mind virus” at a time when voters are more concerned about the economy and inflation.
And yet, more than any of the above factors, DeSantis’s fate was effectively sealed when he decided that he would try to woo both wings of the Republican base — those who love Trump, and those seeking a more electable alternative.
Put another way, by trying to out-flank Trump from the right and go after the same voters as Trump, instead of presenting himself as a more electable conservative who could win a general election, DeSantis alienated moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in pursuit of voters who were never going to abandon Trump en masse.
Ultimately, we will never know whether or not DeSantis really had a chance to defeat Trump, whose grip over his party appears stronger than ever.
What we do know, however, is that DeSantis’s campaign will long be a case study in political mismanagement and that by trying to appeal to everyone, DeSantis eventually appealed to very few.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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