Candidate Ron DeSantis: Anatomy of a fall

The now-defunct campaign of the Florida governor — who once looked like the only Republican capable of defeating Trump — failed due to his lack of charisma and a strategy full of miscalculations

Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis stands with a supporter on January 20 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at one of his final campaign events.RANDALL HILL (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

In the new political journalism classic What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer follows the performances of six candidates in the 1988 U.S. primary election, asking the question: “What kind of faith would cause, say, a dozen of these habitual winners to bend their lives and the lives of those dear to them to one hugely public roll of the dice in which all but one would fail?”

One might ask that question of Ron DeSantis. On Sunday, he conceded defeat and decided to drop out of the race for the Republican nomination after last week’s fiasco in the Iowa caucuses and a strategy riddled with miscalculations. He was dealt a good hand: he had won a resounding victory in his re-election as governor of Florida, in the same contest in which Donald Trump took a good beating. At last, the Republicans seemed ready to lift the state of exception imposed by Trump on the party since 2016, and DeSantis, a serial winner, seemed the ideal candidate to give the former president one last push out the door.

The media repeated it so often and insistently and the Republican establishment wanted it so badly that DeSantis thought it was a done deal. A little more than a year later, he has joined the long list of those who underestimated Trump, whose candidacy he endorsed on Sunday in a video announcing the end of his campaign; released two days before the second Republican primary in New Hampshire. DeSantis was giving Trump his endorsement, he said, because he believes the ex-president is “superior to current incumbent Joe Biden,” and that the United States cannot “go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear.” DeSantis failed to add that he has made this decision despite the fact that Trump has been insulting and ridiculing him since he launched his bid for the White House.

The Florida governor presented himself to voters as a version of Trump without the drama and surprises the ex-president seems so comfortable with. But he did not count on the fact that the latter’s troubles with justice — including pending dates for four criminal cases for a total of 91 crimes — were going to make him even more popular among the conservative electorate. DeSantis can’t be blamed for that: Trump is an exceptional case in the history of American politics for many reasons, but above all because, in his eight years on the scene, he has gone through situations (the attack on the Capitol, two impeachments and countless accusations in the courts) that would have ended anyone else’s career, but only seem to make him stronger.

In the postmortem of DeSantis’s failed candidacy, some say that DeSantis took too long to jump into the race for the Republican nomination. Instead of doing so after the November 2022 elections (after which Trump, getting a head start — an art he has mastered like no one else — immediately announced his intention to return to the White House), DeSantis spent half a year dithering, instead of jumping into the ring when his main opponent was lying on the mat.

When he finally did, a disastrous launch on Twitter served as an ominous preamble to a poorly managed campaign. DeSantis waited too long to fight with the former president and was weighed down by his robotic lack of charisma and his inability to engage in the art of “retail politics”: contact with voters, kissing babies, shaking hands with people, all of those things that require a talent that DeSantis clearly lacks.

The governor thought that he wouldn’t need it. He had his impressive resume (Navy veteran and graduate of Harvard and Yale universities); his reputation as an impeccable family man, without a hint of the kind of scandals that have plagued Trump since before he decided to run in 2015; and his long list of his accomplishments in Florida, which he never tired of presenting as “the land of the free” where “woke” (progressivism) goes to die.

But in the latter, instead of coming up short, DeSantis went too far: he pushed through all the tough measures he had promised in his re-election campaign, but he did so when the whole country was already looking at Tallahassee, the state capital, trying to figure out what it would be like to have DeSantis in the White House. What they saw was a tough-on-abortion politician, who wanted to set a six-week limit on pregnancy terminations, when most women don’t even know they are pregnant. In addition, they saw a far-right zealot on education, and someone obsessed with restricting LGBTQ rights and attacking immigrants. These measures do not travel well to more moderate parts of the country, as evidenced by Republican defeats where women’s reproductive freedom has been put to a popular vote.

Having chased away the sympathy of moderate voters, DeSantis ran a megalomaniacal campaign based on the enormous fundraising he got at the beginning, which then slowed down, so much so that he was forced to fire half of his staff in the summer. Nor did he know how to win over the establishment of his party. In that respect, he was being consistent: as a congressman in Washington, between 2013 and 2018, he did not leave much of a mark, but it was clear that he wanted nothing to do with the old guard. Thus, he participated in founding the most hardline wing of the Republican Party, the so-called Freedom Caucus, which brings together parliamentarians, extremists and eccentrics.

His failure to offer an alternative that would bring together those who yearn for a future of American conservatism without Trump was key to the rise of the rival who ended up finishing him off, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the U.N. during Trump’s time in the White House.

In a conservative state like Iowa, where DeSantis spent tens of millions of dollars, Haley came close to beating him; even worse, the Florida governor failed to win any of the 99 counties that he visited in search of every last vote. In New Hampshire, a much more hostile place for a conservative like DeSantis, Haley’s strong support was a given. “The strategy, sometimes known as ‘Trumpism without Trump,’ supposed that Republican voters were ready to move on from Mr. Trump personally, even though they supported his views on the issues,” writes polling guru Nate Cohn in his newsletter for The New York Times. “Needless to say, that proved to be wrong. At the same time, his consistently conservative views on the issues alienated moderates and culminated in the rise of Nikki Haley.”

One of the doubts DeSantis had when it came time to run was whether it would be better to wait for the 2028 election. In politics, timing is key. And this year’s elections are a real anomaly; all signs point to another Biden-Trump showdown — the first time an incumbent has faced off against a former president. DeSantis supporters are confident that he will have better luck the next time around.

Ultimately, Ben Cramer’s book shows that anything is possible. Of the six candidates he followed in that election, which George Bush Sr. won, were Bob Dole, who was the Republican challenger who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, as well as a senator from Delaware named Joe Biden, who took 32 more years to have “what it takes” to be president of the United States.

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