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The Primary That Wasn’t
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The Primary That Wasn’t

Did DeSantis miscalculate?

Republican candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz/Washington Post/Getty Images)

Last night a colleague at The Dispatch emailed me about yesterday’s newsletter. Nice column, this person said, except for one passage that didn’t land. It’s this one, where I summarized the latest iteration of Ron DeSantis’ pitch to Republicans:

Insofar as mail ballots tilted the outcome in 2020, Trump is to blame. If Republicans end up blowing an otherwise winnable election in 2024 by harping on 2020, Trump is to blame. Not coincidentally, those two points reflect the two grand themes of DeSantis’ campaign—competence and electability vis-a-vis the frontrunner.

Isn’t that, er, wrong?

Competence and electability should have been the themes of DeSantis’ campaign, my colleague argued. The actual theme of the campaign is, well …

Seven times in 26 seconds. DeSantis 2024: A noun, a verb, and “woke.”

News broke on Tuesday that the governor’s campaign manager, Generra Peck, has finally been demoted. (The number of “resets” DeSantis has ordered in the past six weeks is approaching the number of “wokes” in his stump speech.) That came a day after a poll found him sliding to single digits in New Hampshire, tied for second with Chris Christie at 9 percent. The moment seems ripe for a premortem: Would a campaign that had emphasized competence and electability from the jump be doing better than one prone to chumming the online waters with “woke” pandering and dank memes featuring white-supremacist iconography?

I mean, yes? How could it have fared worse?

I will cop to having been myopic in yesterday’s newsletter. Competence and electability loom overly large in my mind as themes of the DeSantis campaign because, to my Never Trump sensibility, they’re more appealing than the governor’s attempts to “out-Trump Trump” on culture war. They’re the most persuasive reasons for an undecided Republican to prefer him as nominee, I think. (That, plus the fact that he seems mentally stable.) But what I think ain’t what the average GOP primary voter thinks, lord knows.

On the other hand, themes of competence and electability have featured more prominently in DeSantis’ campaign messaging than my mystery colleague’s email implied. For the benefit of that person and others who are understandably second-guessing the governor’s strategy as he circles the drain, let’s walk through what DeSantis has and hasn’t said on those subjects, and why.

In hindsight, DeSantis shouldn’t have bitten his lip this past winter when Trump began attacking him. Modern Republicans relish displays of dominance and for too long the governor seemed reluctant to throw a punch.

But once he finally started jabbing, he did so by drawing a contrast on competence. His first major interview of the primary was with Piers Morgan in March, two months before he formally entered the race. A key quote:

DeSantis also slammed Trump’s chaotic, self-obsessed, divisive management style: “I also think just in terms of my approach to leadership, I get personnel in the government who have the agenda of the people and share our agenda. You bring your own agenda in, you’re gone. We’re just not gonna have that. So, the way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important.”

“It’s not important for me to be fighting with people on social media. It’s not accomplishing anything for the people I represent. So, we really just focus on knocking out victories, day after day, and if I got involved in all the undertow, I would not be able to be an effective governor. So, I don’t think it’s something that makes sense for me.”

When asked what distinguishes him from his opponent, he again mentioned managerial acumen. “I would have fired somebody like Fauci,” he replied.

Fauci has been a recurring theme in DeSantis’ criticism of Trump. “Leaders take the bull by the horns and make the decisions for themselves. They don’t subcontract out their leadership to health bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci,” DeSantis told the Utah GOP convention in April. A month later, during an interview with Glenn Beck, he accused Trump of nothing less than having “destroyed millions of people’s lives” when he “turned the country over to Dr. Fauci.”

By early June his campaign was posting AI images of the two men hugging. All of this was designed to remind grassroots Republicans of the governor’s laissez-faire defiance of COVID restrictions, of course, but it was also a critique of Trump’s competence. Bad leaders are easily led astray by corrupt advisers, DeSantis meant to say. Given the dozens upon dozens of former Trump aides who have turned against their former boss and on whom he blames all of his failures, that criticism seemed like it might have legs with Republican voters.

But it wasn’t just Fauci and COVID. DeSantis has questioned Trump’s competence as president across the policy spectrum. Speaking to Ben Shapiro’s enormous audience in May, he said this: “This is a different [Trump] than 2015, 2016. He attacked me for opposing an amnesty bill in the Congress. He did support this amnesty … two million illegal aliens he wanted to amnesty. I opposed it, because that’s what America First principles dictate, that you’re opposed to amnesty.”

In the same interview he called the criminal justice bill Trump signed into law a “jailbreak bill,” then laid blame for “deep state” interference in the 2020 election at Trump’s feet. “I also look at how the federal government colluded with some of the tech companies to censor information like the Hunter Biden story—that’s election interference. It’s totally unfair,” he told Shapiro, “But I would also point out that it was Donald Trump’s FBI and Donald Trump’s DHS that was doing that—he didn’t have control over his own agencies. If somebody in my government were doing that, they would’ve been fired the next day.”

In a separate interview conducted around the same time, he blamed Trump for signing several omnibus spending packages that then-Rep. DeSantis had opposed on budgetary grounds. “He added almost $8 trillion to the debt in a four-year period of time,” the governor reminded listeners, not incorrectly.

There are lots of nouns and verbs in all of the foregoing, but no “woke.” DeSantis has made a straightforward argument that Trump either didn’t know what he was doing as president or was so weak-willed as chief executive that establishment villains had no difficulty coopting him. Incompetent, either way.

He’s been more circumspect about criticizing Trump’s unelectability, for reasons you can guess. But he hasn’t been silent on that point either.

In May, two weeks before he announced his campaign, he traveled to Iowa to make some pointed observations about no one in particular. “Governing is not about entertaining. Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signaling. It’s ultimately about winning and producing results,” he told a crowd in Sioux Center in remarks that were widely covered by the media. “We must reject the culture of losing that has impacted our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over.” Hmmm.

A few days later, in a conference call with donors that he must have known would be leaked to the press, he identified himself, Joe Biden, and Trump as the only three credible candidates in the race. “And I think of those three,” DeSantis continued, “two have a chance to get elected president—Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.” The paper of record dutifully carried that message to the wider world.

It’s simply untrue, in short, that DeSantis hasn’t attacked Trump’s competence and electability. He has—quite a bit, in splashy forums, and he’s gotten braver about it lately as his electoral predicament has grown more desperate. The question is whether he should have focused more heavily on those themes from the start and less so on ending wokeness as we know it.

Given his theory of the primary, I’m not sure.

Wait, I take that back. Yes, I’m pretty sure the DeSantis campaign would have profited from a lighter touch on a Very Online obsession like anti-wokery. Behold this data point from the recent New York Times “doom poll.”

Team Ron was pumping a mostly dry well on its favorite subject but seems not to have realized it. “I don’t like the term ‘woke,’” Donald Trump told an audience in Iowa in early June, “because I hear the term ‘woke woke woke’—it’s just a term they use, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.” As usual, he had a better read on his base than most of the pros did. Knowing then what we know now, none of us would have advised the DeSantis campaign six months ago to put the pedal to the metal on woke-bashing.

But if we didn’t know then what we know now, would any of us have said in early 2023 that culture war was a weak line of attack for Ron DeSantis and that he should spend his time yammering about electability instead?

I wouldn’t have.

Electability is a fraught subject in Republican politics. To argue that Trump can’t beat Biden is to argue that Trump didn’t beat Biden the last time they faced each other, a claim many Republican voters regard as approaching treason. If Trump’s defeat was a fraud perpetrated on the people by an establishment liberal cabal, defending the legitimacy of that outcome necessarily makes you a co-conspirator or a dupe. Those aren’t great things for a prospective Republican nominee to be. DeSantis understandably wanted to keep a healthy distance from the subject apart from brief moments of strategically skirting around it.

And he could afford to do so, I thought. The results of the 2022 midterms had conspired to make the electability case against Trump more powerfully than any attack ad could. On a night when Trump-backed kooks were fumbling away one winnable statewide race after another, DeSantis won reelection by an unthinkable 19 points in Florida. The governor didn’t need to touch the third rail of the 2020 election to argue that Trump would be a weak candidate in 2024; the 2022 scoreboard, and the media’s breathless coverage of it, would do it for him.

As the coup de grace, I expected that once pollsters began conducting surveys pitting Biden against the two top Republicans in the field head-to-head, the numbers would show DeSantis outperforming Trump considerably. Centrist Republicans who tilted toward Biden when Trump was the alternative would tilt back toward the GOP when offered a less objectionable nominee at the top of their party’s ticket. Here again, the “scoreboard” would make the electability case against Trump on DeSantis’ behalf. The governor could keep quiet and let primary voters draw the correct lesson from the polling data about who the party was better off nominating.

So I thought. Therefore, DeSantis’ time on the trail would be better spent on culture war, I would have told you this past winter, because that’s the only way he’ll make inroads with Trump’s MAGA base. Electability isn’t enough: Populist voters might reasonably prefer to stick with a less electable demagogue who “fights” than gamble on a young cipher from Florida whose post-liberal credentials are unfamiliar to them. The governor would need to convince them somehow that not only would he be just as aggressive in antagonizing their cultural enemies once elected president, he’d be more aggressive than their hero would. Nominate Ron DeSantis and you’ll get a Trumpier version of Trump.

How do you convince them of that? By reciting your anti-woke accomplishments in Florida ad nauseam, naturally.

That seemed like a rational play to me, just as DeSantis’ broader strategy of making a bid for Trump’s hardcore base seemed rational (if risky). You can’t win this primary by conceding 35 percent of the electorate to the incumbent; that puts Trump reasonably close to a majority from the jump, with plenty of “soft” Trumpers in the remaining 65 percent to push him over the top. The only way to beat him is to erode his support by cracking his base with a strong populist pitch and then waiting for the rest of the party to fall in line behind you on anti-Trump grounds. DeSantis seemed to recognize that.

Best of all, his anti-woke pitch could and would be folded neatly into a broader critique of Trump’s competence as president. “Here are all the laws I signed in Florida to prevent leftist indoctrination of schoolchildren on race, on gender, on ideology,” DeSantis would say. “What did Donald Trump do about that when he was the most powerful person in the country, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress?” His core message to MAGA voters is that Trump failed populism; highlighting his own populist successes as governor would drive home that point via a flattering comparison.

All perfectly rational. Hasn’t worked.

Perhaps, as my Dispatch colleague imagined, a DeSantis campaign that was less anti-woke and which had focused more overtly on competence and electability from day one would have done better. An old rule of public speaking holds that, for an audience to absorb your message, you need to first tell them what you’re about to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them. By that standard the “scoreboard” approach to electability is woefully underbaked. Voters aren’t going to draw lessons on their own from the midterm results or from the head-to-head polling with Biden (especially since that polling does not, in fact, show DeSantis outperforming Trump). You need to tell ‘em, then tell ‘em again, then tell ‘em once more for good measure.

Or maybe a frank, Chris-Christie-ish tone in making the arguments about competence and electability would have served DeSantis better. The oblique references to a “culture of losing” were cute and all, but declining to say Trump’s name radiates weakness, Tom Nichols notes. Apart from nothing-to-lose figures like Christie, Republican politicians are forever attempting to calibrate the harshness of their critiques of Trump just so in hopes of finding a sweet spot where the criticism hits home with MAGA voters but doesn’t hit so deeply as to offend them and cause a backlash. A bolder DeSantis who dispensed with such caution might have been a more successful DeSantis.

But I don’t think so.

Harsh attacks on Trump from the get-go, particularly with respect to electability, might have undermined the governor’s strategy of ingratiating himself to the former president’s base. After all, Chris Christie’s take-no-prisoners approach to their guy hasn’t led the MAGA faithful to rally around Christie, has it? Every Republican running for president is forced to cope with the fact that a large minority of this party now functions as a cult with Trump at its center, and to tailor its outreach to them accordingly. Deprogramming a cult en masse is probably impossible, but insofar as it isn’t, I’d guess that barreling into the middle of it and announcing that its leader is an incompetent loser isn’t the most effective strategy.

And if DeSantis ever did have a realistic chance of executing his strategy by luring Trump cultists away, indictment-palooza probably ended it. Look back at the data from the “doom poll” embedded above. The so-called “MAGA base” is all but unanimous in believing that it’s important to “stand behind Trump” during his legal tribulations while 80 percent of “persuadable” Republican voters agree. With that sort of siege mentality setting in on the frontrunner’s behalf, the populist base has turned to political granite; I doubt there was anything the governor of Florida could have said or done to crack them after the first indictment in Manhattan was handed down in late March, doubling Trump’s national polling lead essentially overnight.

We’ll look back at the end of this and conclude that, realistically, he never had a chance.

If that’s too grimly fatalistic for you, sorry. I write about Trump-era Republican politics for a living. What do you expect?

Here’s some good news, though. If DeSantis flames out of the race early and Tim Scott can’t pick up the pieces, that might be just the nudge Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin needs to jump in and assume the mantle of the Great Anti-Trump Hope. Unlike DeSantis, Youngkin probably will run on competence and electability from day one, overtly. Think it’ll work out for him? Me neither.

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.