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Requiem for a Heavyweight
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Requiem for a Heavyweight

What’s the realistic best outcome for Ron DeSantis now?

Ron DeSantis looks on after speaking at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023.(Photo by SERGIO FLORES/AFP via Getty Images)

“Enjoy the Final Two Weeks of the DeSantis Campaign,” Jonathan Last advised his readers in a column published on Wednesday. “You won’t have Ol’ Puddin’ Fingers to kick around much longer.”

Is that right? I tend to think we’ll be kicking around Ol’ Puddin’ Fingers for months to come.

Last wasn’t predicting that the governor will be out of the race in two weeks, though. He was predicting that DeSantis’ time as a serious candidate is winding down, with the coup de grace likely to be delivered at the first Republican primary debate on August 23. 

That’s plausible. Here’s Chris Christie speaking to Fox News on Wednesday night:

“Our momentum is going the right way, Governor DeSantis is going in the wrong direction, and so first job is to get past Governor DeSantis here in New Hampshire. We’ve now caught him, now we need to pass him, and then we’re gonna take on Donald Trump one-on-one.”

He hasn’t quite caught DeSantis yet in New Hampshire, but what he says about momentum is true. In March the Florida governor led him by nearly 30 points there; in the latest poll of the state, he led by 3. Christie is now gunning for him, explicitly. And DeSantis is likely to be his prime target at a (probably) Trumpless debate.

Televised political events reward charisma and fearlessness. Between Ron DeSantis on the one hand and Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy on the other, whom do you expect to fare better in that format?

Who do you expect will be better received by the viewing audience, the glowering governor of Florida or Mr. Likable, Tim Scott?

Christie will attack him as a coward who’s afraid to tell the truth about Trump’s unfitness. Ramaswamy will attack him as being insufficiently anti-woke somehow. It’s much easier to imagine DeSantis emerging from the debate diminished among both wings of his prospective coalition than enhanced by the process.

If that happens, asks Last, how much longer can he last in the race? As a strategic matter, if his goal is to be president someday, how much longer should he try to last?

We can rephrase that question this way: Does Ron DeSantis want to be Scott Walker, Kamala Harris, or Ted Cruz?

He should start thinking about it if he hasn’t already. Because according to one national poll published on Thursday, he’s already slipped behind Ramaswamy and into third place.

The Scott Walker approach to a floundering presidential campaign is to read the writing on the wall, cut your losses early, and live to fight another day. Walker reached second place in the national polling average in early August 2015 but a month later his support had dropped by half and was trending downward. In late September he pulled the plug. He was burning through money and worried, presciently, that an electorate divided among many conservative candidates would be easy for Trump to conquer. But he also calculated, I suspect, that his chances of making a political comeback would be better if he didn’t let himself be humiliated in the polls for months on end. He quit on his own terms. Sort of.

Made sense on paper. But Walker lost his next run for governor in Wisconsin and hasn’t been a serious player in Republican politics in years.

The Kamala Harris approach to a floundering campaign is to hang around, look for an opening to rebuild the momentum you briefly enjoyed earlier in the race, and hope for the best. Like Walker, Harris had a moment in the sun when she crept up to second place in national primary polling in the summer of 2019. Like Walker, she promptly shed half of her support and began circling the drain. Unlike Walker, though, she didn’t quit: After landing in fifth place with 5 percent of the Democratic vote in late September, she kept on plugging for two more months ore. She finally fell on her sword in early December, having recently been reduced to squabbling with Tulsi Gabbard at Democratic debates. The final RealClearPolitics average put her at 3.5 percent, behind Mike Bloomberg.

Things worked out okay in the end for Vice President Kamala Harris but only because she happened to check precisely the demographic boxes that Joe Biden needed a running mate to check. Her political stature never really recovered from her dismal campaign.

The Ted Cruz approach to a floundering campaign is to be patient, stick to your strategy, and fight on until the voters come to you. On the day Walker left the race in 2015, Cruz stood at 6.5 percent in national polls, barely ahead of Carly Fiorina. By early December he had doubled his share of the vote. A month later he reached 20 percent and went on to win Iowa. He reached 30 percent in the polls in late March 2016 and for a brief moment looked poised to consolidate the Trump-skeptical Republican majority. It wasn’t to be, but by the time of the GOP convention Cruz believed he enjoyed enough stature within the party that he could get away with declining to endorse Trump. He seemed to imagine himself as the leader of the principled-conservative wing in a Trump-led party, a figure of influence who would need to be accommodated.

Almost instantly, no doubt to his horror, Cruz discovered that there is no principled-conservative wing. He scrambled to atone for his mistake by belatedly endorsing Trump and phone-banking for him with a famous, highly meme-able grimace on his face. By 2020 he was scheming to overturn the presidential election on Trump’s behalf. That’s a lot of contrition. Yet, according to one early survey conducted last year, in the 2024 race for the Republican nomination he was polling below … Liz Cheney.

None of these models is ideal for Ron DeSantis, I trust you’ll agree.

If the nomination is now out of reach for him, as I think it is, then Last is correct that DeSantis’ strategy going forward should be aimed at maximizing his chances of winning the Republican nomination in 2028. (Assuming you-know-who doesn’t get it by acclamation.) But which approach gets him closest to that goal? Getting out early, hanging on for a while and hoping, or fighting to the end and waiting for voters to come around?

Last thinks the Scott Walker approach is the best of a bad lot. I do not.

There are good arguments for his position. Getting out soon when he’s still in second place (in most polls) would spare DeSantis the ignominy of sliding to third, fourth, or fifth place a la Walker and Harris. It’s one thing to try to beat Donald Trump in a primary and fail, it’s quite another to try to beat Vivek Ramaswamy and fail. If the governor bails out on a Walker-ish timetable, he can argue that he would have been the party’s nominee in a Trump-less primary but that it became clear once Trump was indicted that Republican voters would insist on renominating him to spite the Justice Department. That being so, it was pointless for the governor’s candidacy to continue.

He could even turn his withdrawal into an act of solidarity: “The only way to stop the corrupt DOJ from prosecuting Joe Biden’s political opponents is to show them that we won’t let them choose our nominee for us. I’m ending my campaign and endorsing Donald Trump because the rule of law should matter in this country.”

He’s a skilled enough politician that he might even be able to say that last line with a straight face.

My problem with the Scott Walker approach is that at this point no one will believe DeSantis’ excuses for quitting.

His decline in the polls is glaring and well known. The event at which he officially announced his candidacy was a comic disaster. (Or “DeSaster,” if you prefer.) He burned through so much of his war chest so quickly that he was forced to start laying off staffers within two months of entering the race. He’s “reset” his campaign something like 18 times already this summer. The splashiest content his operation has managed to produce was a bizarre bit of fascist-adjacent propaganda that featured a symbol of white supremacy.

No matter how doggedly he tries to retcon an early exit as something he did for altruistic reasons, it’ll be precisely as convincing as Pee Wee Herman tumbling off his bicycle and declaring, “I meant to do that.”

Which is to say, it’ll make him look more pathetic than he already does, particularly given the immense hype his candidacy generated initially. As formidable as Walker, Harris, and Cruz seemed when they ran for president, none of them approached how imposing DeSantis looked when he blew the roof off in Florida last November and soared into contention against Trump in early primary polling. If he quits, there’s no spin that’ll avert the perception that he underperformed to an embarrassing degree, an historic example of a politician who proved to be not ready for primetime.

There’s also nothing he’ll be able to say to Trump and his fans to regain their respect after doing so. Populists crave dominance and pugnacity; DeSantis exiting the race early to prevent an even more brutal beating would be tantamount to a boxer quitting on the stool after a rough first round. MAGA fans would mock him ruthlessly for having ever believed he could beat the champ, not relenting until he bends the knee and re-pledges his fealty at the convention.

By 2028, when he’ll have already been out of office as governor of Florida for two years, I expect many MAGA voters will view him roughly the way they now view Cruz—as an ally, sure, but a lackluster one who’s too much of a beta male to represent them and too treacherous to be trusted after opposing Trump once before. There’ll be a hot new thing in Republican politics by then too, possibly Sen. J.D. Vance or soon-to-be(?) Sen. Kari Lake, possibly newly minted politician Tucker Carlson. The party will almost certainly have moved on from DeSantis to even less likable, more sinister populist goblins.

“You have a moment,” Casey DeSantis reportedly told her husband in trying to persuade him to run for president this cycle. 2024 was Ron DeSantis’ moment. There’s no elegant exit from his current predicament that’ll turn 2028 into his moment instead. Jacksonville columnist Nate Monroe writes:

What DeSantis has lost he can never regain: a sense that he is an alpha, the Top Gov, God’s ordained fighter. DeSantis is small and appearing smaller with every reset, every faux pas, every cringey guffaw. The ham-handed effort his campaign made to conjure some sort of Camelot aura around he and his wife looks even more ham-handed and desperate. And worse, the world is discovering what a bore the man is, the critical weakness his superior, the criminally inclined Donald Trump, diagnosed immediately. DeSantis is a one-note wonder: beady-eyed grievance, whiney, dour.

DeSantis can’t quit the race on that note and survive politically long-term. I think he has little choice but to fight on and do what he can to make a better impression before capitulating.

There are three things he should hope to accomplish in this race to improve his stature within the party ahead of the next cycle. He should aim to finish a solid second, he should do what he can to rebuild his dignity, and he should be prepared to say “I told you so” if/when Trump loses the general election next year.

The first of those is easier said than done, of course, but salvaging a second-place finish ahead of the likes of Ramaswamy might reestablish DeSantis as Trump’s heir apparent in the minds of some populist Republicans. He needs the party to believe that he would have won this race but for Trump’s participation in it. I don’t believe that right now, frankly; in a primary without Trump, we might very well be en route to a death match in Iowa between Ramaswamy and Scott.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that the governor will have a strong debate two weeks from now and continue to do well at future debates into the fall. Chances are good that he and Trump will end up on stage together at some point; if DeSantis seizes the opportunity and scores some points, he could bounce back as the clear second-place option. It’s not like Vivek Ramaswamy has no political liabilities to exploit, after all. As Matt Labash put it, if the man “were any oilier, they could pack cans of tuna with him.”

Regaining some dignity will also be easier said than done, but I think it can be done.

One of DeSantis’ great problems is that he’s become an object of ridicule, and not just to one faction. Trumpers disdain him because they see him as a pale imitation of their hero, half as boorish and with one one-100th of the charisma. No one respects a poseur. Anti-Trumpers disdain him because he’s a post-liberal bully, and it’s always satisfying to see bullies humiliated. It’d be better for the country to have DeSantis as president than Trump, but if that’s not in the cards then there’s at least some visceral pleasure to be taken in his recurring embarrassment.

Every forced awkward laugh, every odd facial expression, every half-packed event, every campaign “reset” feeds the desire on both sides of the right to see Ol’ Puddin’ Fingers made ridiculous. It’s impossible to win a popularity contest that way. DeSantis needs to do something to earn some respect.

What he could and should do with his remaining time as a candidate, before the donor money runs out, is to take the advice of my unnamed colleague at The Dispatch and focus on competence and electability going forward. Drop the 24/7 anti-woke messaging, stop tap-dancing around whether the 2020 election was rigged or not, and be candid about Trump’s weaknesses as a potential general election candidate and future president. He doesn’t know what he’s doing on policy, which is why he was constantly “betrayed” by his aides as president, and he’s going to scare away voters who would otherwise prefer a Republican in the White House to another term of Joe Biden. That’s DeSantis’ message going forward.

He lacks the retail chops to deliver that message with the bravado of a Chris Christie, but he can deliver it. If he does, he’ll earn some respect—grudging in some quarters, more enthusiastic in others—for having at last, and very belatedly, played to win.

That would be a real campaign “reset.”

Then, when he doesn’t win because the party insisted on ignoring his warnings and renominating Trump anyway, he’ll get to remind Republicans in November 2024 (hopefully!) that he predicted the latest Trump defeat and tried to avert it. Maybe that’s worth something to him in 2028.

And so the realistic dream scenario for his candidacy at this point, I think, is as follows.

He stays in the race and acquits himself reasonably well at the debates. He goes all-in on Iowa, attacking Scott and Ramaswamy there and holding down their numbers. By fall, with Trump still 40 points ahead of the nearest contender, millions of Republican voters who are leery of renominating him begin to panic and decide that they need to rally behind a consensus alternative. With no candidate having emerged as a clear-cut second-place option, DeSantis becomes the default. He was touted from the start as the most credible challenger to Trump and he’ll hopefully have made an impression by that point with his recent “competence and electability” message. He’s an obvious choice.

He climbs in the polls as the first primaries approach and undecided voters begin making up their minds. Maybe he wins Iowa like Cruz did in 2016 or maybe he finishes a strong second to Trump after successfully making the contest a two-man race. Either way, he stands apart from the also-rans, preserving some stature within the party. 

Everything after that is gravy. If he wins Iowa and catches a bounce in New Hampshire, hey. If he doesn’t, at least he didn’t quit at his nadir before the first votes were cast like Scott Walker and Kamala Harris did. And of course, by staying in and continuing to compete, DeSantis prolongs his chances of winning the nomination in case divine providence or the long arm of the law intervenes to end Trump’s political career prematurely.

In the end, there’s practically no chance at this point that the primary ends without the governor of Florida phone-banking for Trump with a grimace on his face. But there is a chance that when that moment comes, he’ll have salvaged more of his prestige than he would have if he quit the race next month. That could leave him as formidable in 2028 as, uh, Ted Cruz is in 2024. Hang in there, Puddin’ Fingers.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.