Why Ron DeSantis can lead a modern ‘Reagan coalition’ in 2024
Last Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) won reelection, defeating Democrat Charlie Crist by 19.4 percentage points. His victory was the political equivalent of tectonic plates shifting the Earth’s crust — a theory explaining the creation of continents and mountain ranges.
The magnitude of DeSantis’s triumph also triggered a plate shift at the Republican National Committee. Powerful energy was emerging to move mountains, creating new landscapes for someone not named Trump to be the 2024 presidential nominee.
Speaking of creation, Gov. DeSantis’s final campaign ad featured a Genesis-inspired narration about God creating “a fighter on the eighth day.” DeSantis’s sacrilegious self-branding was universally criticized.
But criticism of former President Trump was more injurious after the election fallout opened a political sinkhole under Mar-a-Lago. The first national post-midterm poll, followed by a flood of Republican surveys from Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia, Florida and Texas, showed the former president trailing DeSantis by double digits. Then, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and possibly ward off potential indictments, Trump’s Tuesday night reelection announcement was mocked as “low energy” and sank into weak sand.
Contrast Trump’s campaign launch with DeSantis’s Nov. 8 victory speech. The jubilant governor acknowledged tectonic shifts, bragging, “We have rewritten the political map.” Although referring to Florida, that statement, and the entire speech, was a national dog whistle for his (assumed) 2024 run. DeSantis concluded:
“Now, while our country flounders due to failed leadership in Washington, Florida is on the right track. I believe the survival of the American experiment requires a revival of true American principles. Florida has proved that it can be done. We offer a ray of hope that better days still lie ahead.”
Sounding Reagan-esque and steeped in conservative governing principles, could Ron DeSantis – the new Ron Reagan – forge a 21st century version of the Reagan coalition that brought millions of disgruntled “Reagan Democrats” to the GOP? That successful coalition resulted in three consecutive Reagan landslides — 1980, 1984 and 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush indirectly won Reagan’s “third term.”
Inspired by Reagan, DeSantis announced Feb. 6 as “Ronald Reagan Day” in Florida, proclaiming, “Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest presidents our nation has ever had and left an iconic legacy that continues to inspire.”
Channeling Reagan in the third most populous state (having “rewritten the political map”), DeSantis is combat-ready to lead a national political and cultural realignment. Most likely, his presidential announcement will occur after the Florida Legislature’s session closes in early June.
Meanwhile, DeSantis benefits from a touchy topic. On Nov. 20, President Biden turns 80, and his opponent might be the 44-year-old governor. Recent presidential campaign history shows that age gaps of more than 20 years favor the younger candidate.
For example, in 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton (D-Ark.), age 46, defeated 68-year-old President George H. W. Bush. And again in 1996, Clinton, age 50, trounced Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), age 73. Then in 2008, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), age 47, prevailed over 72-year-old Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Now that Trump, age 76, is an official presidential candidate, the history of elder defeat raises an inevitable question: Will the Grand Old Party be the first to nominate a presidential candidate from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979)?
Look to DeSantis’s Florida victory for the answer after he garnered broad support from the nation’s two largest racial groups — whites and Hispanics. That fact will bolster DeSantis’s strategic argument that he is the strongest general election candidate to “fight” President Biden, who teased his forthcoming reelection announcement.
Moreover, Florida represents a racially mixed America. Census bureau data show whites are 53 percent of the population. Hispanics at 27 percent, African Americans 17 percent and Asians at 3.
Let’s compare Florida exit poll data from DeSantis in 2022 and Trump in 2020. Naturally, more Floridians voted in the presidential election, casting 10.96 million ballots, while 7.7 million voted in the midterms.
The Florida and national exit poll data shown below is from NBC News, but the data is consistent across all major news organizations:
2022: White vote, 64 percent of the electorate — DeSantis 65 percent/Crist 34.
2020: White vote, 62 percent of the electorate — Trump 62 percent/Biden 37.
2020 National: White vote, 67 percent of the electorate — Trump 58 percent/Biden 41.
2022: Fla. Hispanic vote, 21 percent of electorate — DeSantis 58 percent/Crist 40.
2020: FL Hispanic vote, 19 percent of electorate — Trump 53 percent/Biden 46.
2020 National: Hispanic vote, 13 percent of electorate — Trump 32 percent/Biden 65.
DeSantis could lead a new Reagan-like coalition resulting in a national realignment of Hispanic voters — flipping states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada back into the red column.
Although DeSantis reveres President Reagan as his political role model, the governor is known to lack Reagan’s charming persona. Worse, it has been widely reported that DeSantis is devoid of personality. He is known to burn through staff, has a huge ego, is thin-skinned and always on the attack. In a balanced but revealing Vanity Fair profile of DeSantis, Gabriel Sherman wrote, “The biggest complaint you hear about DeSantis is that he never says thank you.”
But personality traits behind closed doors matter less if DeSantis can crush Trump with shifting tectonic plates. A promising DeSantis coalition built on his conservative policy leadership as an anti-woke culture warrior known for “getting things done” must first win over GOP primary voters in a cage fight with the former president.
For years Republicans bemoaningly asked, “Who will be the next Reagan?” Then, in 2015, Trump descended the escalator and remade the party in his image. Now, DeSantis, supremely talented but humanly flawed with rough edges, is well positioned as a unique “Generation X” mix of Ronald and Donald.
And if Trump fails to win the nomination, don’t be surprised when he swipes “the torch passed to a new generation” and burns the GOP with a third-party run.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.