The Rise, Fall And Potential Resurrection Of Ron DeSantis
After signaling a campaign for months — even years — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis formally announced on Wednesday that he’s running for president. As a result, the two leading Republican candidates in the primary polls, former President Donald Trump and DeSantis, are now both officially in the race.
In the leadup to his announcement, DeSantis’s pre-campaign experience demonstrated how quickly political winds can shift. Coming off of a resounding reelection victory in November 2022, DeSantis seemingly had the Republican world at his fingertips. Conservative media fêted his potential 2024 presidential candidacy, and polls of the nascent primary found him not far behind — and sometimes even ahead of — Trump.
Fast forward six months, however, and Trump has a larger lead over DeSantis in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average than at any point since March 1. DeSantis has struggled in the face of media scrutiny and Trump’s early efforts to define him, prompting questions about the Florida governor’s personal appeal and raising concerns among prospective donors that DeSantis might not be up to the task of taking on Trump.
But before anyone mistakes this piece for a campaign obituary, DeSantis remains better positioned to win the 2024 Republican nomination than any other declared or prospective candidate besides Trump. His conservative track record in Florida, firmly “anti-woke” agenda and fundraising prowess could turn around his flagging campaign. Still, to win he must coalesce support from pro-Trump voters while also pulling in Trump-skeptical forces, a challenging needle to thread. With all this in mind, let’s take a look at DeSantis’s ascent, slide and what he needs to do to enjoy a balloon drop at the 2024 Republican National Convention.
The chosen one
Before 2023, DeSantis solidified his position as the leading non-Trump candidate in Republican circles, thanks to his conservative leadership in Florida and positive coverage from right-leaning media outlets.
After winning the governorship in a squeaker in 2018, DeSantis made a host of headline-making moves on mostly culture-war issues. In 2020, he moved to reopen the state quickly after the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while embracing conservative skepticism toward pandemic restrictions and, eventually, vaccines. In 2022, DeSantis provoked controversy by putting migrants on a plane to Massachusetts, part of a wider Republican effort to highlight opposition to the Biden administration’s immigration policies. He also faced a test of his crisis leadership skills when Hurricane Ian, the third-costliest natural disaster in the U.S. since 1980, struck Florida that September.
In 2022, DeSantis leaned even further into making Florida, in his words, “the place where woke goes to die.” Perhaps best illustrating this ambition was the episode surrounding DeSantis’s signing of the oft-labeled “Don’t Say Gay” law, which banned discussions of sexuality and gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Pushback to the law followed, including from Disney,1 a major Florida employer. DeSantis subsequently sought to revoke Disney’s special tax status around Walt Disney World, a conflict that has continued over the past year as one battle in the right’s larger war against what it views as “woke” corporations.
Throughout this period, conservative media outlets helped DeSantis as he rose to national prominence. He gained a solid foothold in the “Fox News primary”: The cable news giant routinely featured DeSantis on its programs and worked with the governor’s team to portray him in a positive light. DeSantis’s stature only grew after he easily won reelection in November 2022, contrasting with Trump, who some Republicans accused of harming the party’s fortunes by endorsing mediocre GOP candidates who went on to lose key Senate and House races. Fox News and other parts of Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire, such as the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, trumpeted DeSantis as a future leader in the GOP.
As 2023 approached, these forces — DeSantis’s conservative governance, positive media coverage and strong 2022 performance vis-à-vis Trump — helped precipitate a notable swing toward DeSantis in early polling of the 2024 Republican primary.
Although DeSantis rarely led in surveys that measured the large field of potential GOP candidates, he did move ahead of Trump in many head-to-head polls. As a whole, the polls suggested that Trump could benefit from a crowded field — much as he did in the 2016 primary — but that DeSantis might gain the upper hand if the 2024 race quickly became a two-man contest.
Too good to last
But like many would-be White House contenders before him, DeSantis’s burgeoning profile prompted both his opponents and the media to take a closer look at his record, background and personal style. DeSantis has lost ground in the polls as he’s faced attacks from Trump and the former president’s allies, as well as less-glowing stories about DeSantis’s personality and campaign prospects.
In hindsight, DeSantis’s decision to wait until the end of Florida’s legislative session to declare his candidacy may have handed Trump an opportunity to set the tone for the 2024 GOP primary. Trump announced his candidacy only a week after the 2022 midterms, pretty early by historical standards. In the ensuing six months, Trump and his allies have hit DeSantis on multiple fronts. Trump has used DeSantis’s record in Congress — DeSantis co-founded the House Freedom Caucus — against him by criticizing DeSantis’s support for legislation that would’ve cut entitlement spending, which DeSantis has since distanced himself from. Yet Trump has also portrayed DeSantis as a creature of the GOP establishment.
Now, DeSantis had reason to wait on a campaign announcement. Doing so made certain he didn’t have to resign the governorship to run for president under Florida law, which the legislature abrogated with a new law passed this spring. And he gave himself the chance to sign his agenda into law to further bolster his conservative credentials.
But even as an unofficial candidate, DeSantis found himself losing ground in the polls and bested by Trump on the early endorsement front.2 Trump’s polling edge over DeSantis began to rebound in January, and his indictment in New York on charges of falsifying business records in early April boosted his fundraising — and his support. In addition to garnering endorsements from 61 GOP senators and representatives ahead of DeSantis’s announcement, Trump persuaded half of Florida’s congressional Republicans to back him over the Florida governor, raising questions about DeSantis’s relationships with fellow GOP officeholders.
The media’s closer examination of DeSantis’s past and personality also caused him problems. Stories surfaced about DeSantis’s aloofness toward officeholders, donors and at campaign events, a concern amplified by Trump’s growing endorsement advantage. Even developments that could help DeSantis in the primary, like him signing a six-week abortion ban in Florida that could appeal to conservatives, generated negative stories: Republican megadonors worried DeSantis had moved too far to the right, especially since the electorate’s concerns about abortion rights had arguably diminished GOP gains in the 2022 midterms.
DeSantis’s pre-campaign trajectory fits roughly into the “discovery, scrutiny and decline” model of media influence on electoral politics proposed by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck in their autopsy of the 2012 Republican primary. Media attention plays a pivotal role in primaries, as coverage informs voters about lesser-known contenders and/or influences undecideds to move toward a candidate. When a shiny new object comes around, they argue, the often-positive media coverage helps voters “discover” more about the candidate, which leads to support in the polls. DeSantis experienced something of a discovery period last fall: According to the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned DeSantis much more frequently in the last months of 2022 than they had previously, even during his first election or during the COVID-19 pandemic. Awash in glowing reelection coverage, DeSantis hit his strongest run of polling during and right after this period.
However, DeSantis then had to weather the ensuing “scrutiny” phase, as his rise prompted journalists to more closely vet DeSantis while his opponents — mainly Trump — pushed negative narratives about DeSantis that also received media attention. Additionally, amid this period of more intense examination, DeSantis made a “gaffe” — a favorite word of political reporters — about Ukraine that attracted ample coverage and raised red flags for some in his party: In March, DeSantis called the conflict between Ukraine and Russia “a territorial dispute,” but he quickly walked that back after receiving criticism from more hawkish elements in the GOP, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Now, the GOP’s base has become less supportive of giving military support to Ukraine — moving in Trump’s direction — but DeSantis’s uncertain footing played into larger concerns among more pro-Ukraine party elites about the governor’s foreign policy views.
Why DeSantis still has a real shot
Despite the scrutiny and declining poll numbers, DeSantis may be the only Republican who can defeat Trump in the 2024 GOP primary. The Florida governor is still held in high regard by Republicans, and his conservative accomplishments and fundraising ability could provide the means to a recovery — or even victory. Still, he will have to knit together somewhat disparate factions by attracting Trump supporters while retaining support from Trump-skeptical Republicans. Moreover, DeSantis must contend with Trump’s highly unusual candidacy: Trump is the first former president of the modern era to seek the presidency again after leaving office, which has given him the stature of a quasi-incumbent.
As things stand, though, only DeSantis is close to Trump in net favorability among the high-profile Republicans running or expected to run for president. His profile as a Trump-like figure — but one presenting himself as more electable — has made him almost as well-liked as Trump among Republicans, despite not being as well known. In an average of national polls since April 1, DeSantis had a favorable rating of 72 percent and an unfavorable rating of about 15 percent, putting his net favorability at +57 among Republicans. By comparison, Trump’s net favorability was at +60, but nearly all Republicans had an opinion about him, whereas 87 percent, on average, had an opinion of DeSantis. As such, DeSantis has an opportunity to win over some of the remaining Republicans who don’t know him well.
That high favorability rating could translate to future support for DeSantis, especially in combination with his election pitch, which is essentially “MAGA without the mess.” We can see this in Morning Consult’s Republican primary tracker: Although DeSantis has lost ground to Trump in first-choice support, about half of Trump voters listed DeSantis as their second choice in a poll conducted May 19-21, putting him miles ahead of former Vice President Mike Pence (14 percent). If Trump falters as the primary race plays out, DeSantis could be well-positioned to capitalize and gain ground in the polls.
For all the coverage of Trump’s early endorsement edge, DeSantis also has support from GOP officeholders that could signal important on-the-ground backing in key states. For instance, more than one-third of Iowa’s Republican state legislators have endorsed DeSantis, a positive sign in the traditional lead-off state in presidential nomination contests. In December, about a quarter of the GOP membership in Michigan’s state legislature signed a letter asking DeSantis to run; while not a formal endorsement, it showed potential support for DeSantis in a pivotal battleground state. And while Trump has garnered backing from many Floridians in Congress, DeSantis has the overwhelming support of members in the state legislature, indicating that DeSantis doesn’t lack home-base support.
To top it all off, DeSantis has a sterling fundraising record, and despite the concerns of some big donors, he could enjoy ample outside support, too. During his 2022 reelection campaign, DeSantis raised more than $200 million, which OpenSecrets found was the largest ever haul by a candidate in a gubernatorial contest (not adjusted for inflation). And more than $80 million left over from that campaign could aid his presidential bid, too, albeit by transferring it to Never Back Down, the main pro-DeSantis super PAC — a move that some watchdog groups say flouts campaign finance law.
Although these forces are working in DeSantis’s favor, he still faces the challenge of weaving together a coalition of Trump fans and skeptics. On the one hand, DeSantis needs to win over more moderate or at least somewhat conservative Republicans, who aren’t as pro-Trump as more conservative voters. In fact, while Trump won the 2016 nomination thanks especially to support among somewhat conservative and moderate primary voters, he is polling better among more conservative voters this time around, though he usually holds big leads among conservatives as a whole. But DeSantis has raced to the right on some issues, like abortion, in a way that could actually alienate some less conservative Republicans. Meanwhile, Trump’s positioning as the more moderate choice by attacking DeSantis on entitlements could coax less Trumpy voters to view DeSantis as too extreme.
At the same time however, DeSantis may have an opportunity to get to Trump’s right on abortion and win over very conservative voters. Trump criticized DeSantis’s decision to sign a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida, calling it too “harsh” while resisting committing to a 15-week national ban. However, a Fabrizio Lee/Impact Research survey for the Wall Street Journal last month showed that around two-thirds of Republican primary voters back a six-week ban, and national anti-abortion leaders have signaled they may end up opposing Trump if he won’t express support for a nationwide ban. DeSantis responded to Trump, saying he “was proud” to have signed Florida’s legislation and hitting Trump for not saying whether he would have.
However DeSantis navigates his coalition challenges, he has a résumé full of conservative accomplishments to sell to primary voters and will likely have the resources to stay in the race for a long time against Trump. And, despite DeSantis’s antipathy toward mainstream media outlets, he could also benefit from the media’s desire for a competitive primary. A “DeSantis resurrection” narrative will be an extremely tempting story to tell, so any positive signs for DeSantis — a few stronger polls after his announcement, a rush of endorsements — could tee up a series of sunny stories after months of stormy headlines. Who knows? Perhaps DeSantis will even get a chance to adopt the nickname former President Bill Clinton gave himself in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary: the “Comeback Kid.”