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Is DeSantis positioned as more than the anti-Trump?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/30/2023 Philip Bump
(Cheryl Senter/The Washington Post) © Cheryl Senter/For The Washington Post (Cheryl Senter/The Washington Post)

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

The first was that he ran in opposition to “the elites,” however he decided they were manifesting on any given day. They were the Republican National Committee or Hillary Clinton or the media or former Florida governor Jeb Bush or people who had endorsed his opponents. The consistency was only that they could be positioned as being opposed in some way to real Americans, Trump’s base.

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

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This was a remarkable approach for someone seeking the presidential nomination of a major party: Cast the party’s leaders as the enemy and say the things about them that were said by their fringiest critics. It wasn’t clear that it would work; Trump secured the nomination largely because the majority of Republicans who didn’t want him as the nominee failed to agree on whom they did want. But then he won the presidency.

In doing so, his strategy diffused. Other candidates used the same anti-elite, play-to-the-fringe approach, often including standing behind Trump and cheering him on. At the very least, this tactic by other Republicans helped ensure that Trump’s base wouldn’t go sideways during party primaries, even if it didn’t necessarily ensure victory in the general. In fact, at times it seemed to impede victory, as became apparent in 2022.

This past weekend, Trump traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina for (very) early rallies focused on his bid for the 2024 nomination. It’s clear that Trump’s plan is to do what he did in 2016, casting his candidacy as the last stand against America’s oppressors, including those within the Republican Party itself.

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

Once elected (and particularly once Trump lost the bully pulpit of the presidency), DeSantis kept on that track, focusing on issues of race and sexuality to position himself as a noble warrior against perceived liberal overreach. His twin slogans since 2021 have been that Florida is where “woke goes to die” and that he led the “free state of Florida” — a reference to his rapid recognition that people were frustrated by efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. A lot of Floridians died as DeSantis grew increasingly hostile to vaccines, particularly Republicans, but his political career thrived.

Now DeSantis sits in an enviable position for 2024. He generally trails Trump in polling for the nomination, but as the clear second-place contender, not simply as a member of the trailing pack. In other words, he’s what there wasn’t in 2016: someone who could serve as the locus of anti-Trump support. That’s in part because the Republican establishment sees him 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 him as acceptable. Earlier this month, YouGov conducted a noteworthy poll for the Economist in which respondents were asked how they viewed both Trump and DeSantis. Among those who said they’d voted for Trump in 2020, 51 percent said they had a very favorable opinion of the former president. Among that same group, 64 percent said they had a very favorable view of DeSantis. Only 57 percent of this group said they wanted Trump to run again in 2024.

Importantly, Trump still leads DeSantis with the group, by 13 points. The point isn’t that this is how the election will shake out; polling a year before the start of presidential primaries doesn’t have the most robust track record of accuracy. What it shows, instead, is that DeSantis has made good inroads with Trump voters — and that Trump is still their first choice for the nomination.

That we’re so far from the nominating contest itself is a reminder that the fight hasn’t really started. Trump’s approach to politics is centered on tearing down every obstacle in his way, and he’s begun to work on DeSantis. On Truth Social, functionally a megaphone from Trump to his base, he’s shared repeated disparagements of DeSantis for having taken steps early in 2020 to combat the spread of the coronavirus or for being disloyal to Trump personally (which is probably less resonant for voters).

“Ron DeSanctimonious, who I made Governor in BOTH the Primary & the General,” Trump wrote early Monday morning, “is also a Globalist, & so are his donors. Jeb ‘Low Energy’ Bush was next to him last week. Check PAST!”

Can DeSantis weather Trump’s direct, relentless disparagement? Has he successfully neutralized Trump’s anti-elite head start in appealing to Republican voters? Or is he positioned largely in the way that a number of past Republican candidates have been, as an opponent to the front-runner? We’ve seen this role regularly in the past two decades, with Republican front-runners facing surges of opposition only to eventually emerge victorious: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee against John McCain in 2008, for example, or about 300 people challenging Romney in 2012. Is DeSantis just playing that role?

In those cases, of course, the establishment desperately wanted the front-runner to win. This time, they very clearly don’t. For the Atlantic, McKay Coppins wrote about the persistent, quiet hope that something would get in Trump’s way, a hope that was present in 2016 as well but did not pan out. One consultant suggested that the party sought a “deus ex machina” to suddenly appear and upend Trump’s candidacy.

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


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