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Is Ron DeSantis slipping?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
AP-Wilfredo Lee
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks as he announces a proposal for Digital Bill of Rights, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), whose meteoric rise to fame in The Republican Party earned him the informal title of GOP heir-apparent, is seeing his momentum slow just as the presidential primary season begins in earnest. 

Every public poll tracking the Republican primary horserace over the last two months points to the same trend: DeSantis is losing ground, while Trump is gaining. 

Analyst Nate Cohn chalks up DeSantis’s decline to a combination of three factors. First, the midterms — i.e., DeSantis’s landslide win and the underperformance of Trump-backed candidates — have moved further in the rearview. Second, Trump is going on the offense, attacking DeSantis’s record and deploying opposition research. And lastly, DeSantis is standing on the sidelines, not mounting a defense or firing back against Trump. 

While these factors do lend an explanation to DeSantis’s deterioration, I would argue that Ron DeSantis actually has a much larger problem with his own positioning that has come to light recently, which threatens to derail his presidential ambitions. 

That is, DeSantis is trying to straddle the two opposing worldviews that exist within The Republican Party. On one hand, he is courting the establishment figures who would welcome a return to pre-Trump party politics. On the other, he is working to appeal to the party’s far-right populist wing, many of whom are Trump loyalists and will likely be further emboldened to rally around the former president if, as reports suggest, Trump is indicted this week. 

The latest public criticisms DeSantis has faced underscore how difficult of a balancing act this is. Last week, as Trump was railing against DeSantis for being part of the old GOP establishment à la Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), prominent mainstream Republicans were criticizing the Florida governor for his Trump-esque isolationist positions on the war in Ukraine, which DeSantis had labeled a “territorial dispute,” rather than a vital U.S. interest. 

To be sure, DeSantis has yet to formally declare his candidacy, and elections are still one year away. But at this point, it is difficult to envision any candidate, including DeSantis, being able to cut into a significant share of Trump’s support among the far-right populist wing, while also maintaining the favor of the party establishment. 

Moreover, the core distinction DeSantis has implicitly drawn between himself and Trump — i.e., that he can win the general election against Biden, while Trump can’t — doesn’t appear to be resonating with GOP voters, hence Trump’s strength. Most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they will support the candidate who agrees with their views on major issues (59 percent), rather than the candidate who has the strongest chance of beating Joe Biden (41 percent), per the latest CNN/SSRS poll

In an effort to win over the far-right, DeSantis has allowed — if not facilitated — his campaign to move further out of the mainstream during Florida’s current legislative session. The legislature has advanced a 6-week abortion ban, which is far more restrictive than the state’s current 15-week rule, and DeSantis recently endorsed the open carry of handguns without a permit. 

DeSantis is clearly reasoning that this will allow him to consolidate support on the far-right — yet, it is just as likely that he will dissuade the more moderate Republicans he is courting, who could defect to one of the other mainstream candidates. 

Despite these challenges, the attention Trump has paid to DeSantis suggests that he views the Florida governor as a formidable threat. This is still a valid assessment, considering DeSantis’s popularity in his home state, his rising star within the party and his success courting big-money donors, including many who once backed Trump

There are also signs that Trump could be struggling in the all-important first primary state of Iowa. A recent poll there finds that, while both candidates are viewed very favorably by Republicans, Trump’s unfavorable numbers rose 11-points over the past two years, and the percentage of Iowa Republicans who said they would “definitely” vote for Trump has dropped 20 percent during the same time. 

In a transparent effort to overshadow his ex-protégé, Trump visited Iowa just three days after DeSantis made his debut there. The candidates’ dueling visits, which offered voters the first side-by-side comparison of the two men, revealed a sharp stylistic divide. 

Though DeSantis was met with a warm reception in Davenport, his event was tightly scripted and heavy on policy, and he did little retail politicking on the trip, giving what essentially amounted to a stump speech. Speaking to a smaller crowd, he stuck to his now-customary anti-woke talking points and touted his winning record in Florida, never mentioning Trump or the criticisms he has leveled. 

Drawing an implicit contrast to DeSantis’ buttoned-up event, Trump’s trip was quintessential, well, Trump. His energy was combative and high-spirited, reminiscent in many ways of his infamous 2016 campaign when his charisma on the campaign trail propelled him to win the nomination. 

Trump stopped to greet patrons at a local restaurant before his speech to over 3,000 people, which he bookended by taking live questions from attendees. In classic Trump fashion, he ad-libbed his speech, bragged about his record, played to the audience, and went heavy on the personal insults of DeSantis. 

While some of Trump’s attacks — i.e., dubbing DeSantis Ron “De-Sanctimonious” and mocking his smaller crowd sizes — likely won’t dissuade potential DeSantis supporters, others could be particularly harmful if they continue to go uncontested. Trump disparaged DeSantis for being disloyal to the MAGA movement, knocked his support for cutting ethanol production (a key agriculture issue in Iowa), and repeatedly decried him for wanting to “decimate” Social Security and Medicare. 

It is important to note that DeSantis would not necessarily benefit — and in fact, could suffer, as many Republicans did during the 2016 campaign — from leveling personal attacks against Trump. That being said, there is a clear risk to DeSantis not engaging at all, as Cohn noted, especially when he is being attacked for favoring cutting entitlements that the broad majority of Republican voters (59 percent)support

DeSantis ultimately has two interrelated problems; a positioning problem and a Trump problem. The Florida governor is caught in the crossfire between the two competing factions of the Republican Party, and at the same time, is struggling to distinguish himself from Trump and deflect his relentless attacks.  

There is always a chance that DeSantis will be able to overcome these challenges and carve out a coalition as the campaign progresses. But in all likelihood, he will create room for other non-Trump candidates to ascend, which in the end will translate into a victory for Donald Trump.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to 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.”  

Tags 2024 gop primary 2024 presidential election Donald Trump Iowa politics Joe Biden Mitt Romney Politics of the United States Republican voters Ron DeSantis

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