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Two Can Play at That Game

Will DeSantis voters turn out for Trump in 2024?

Supporters wait in line to hear Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at the Cheyenne Saloon on November 7, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and America’s sorest sore loser petulantly refusing to endorse whoever beats him in the coming Republican primary.

No matter how many allies might beg him to unite the party for the good of the country, Donald Trump will regard pledging allegiance to his conqueror as an act of supreme weakness. To bend the knee would betray utterly the politics of dominance he’s practiced since 2015. He’s already reserved the right not to endorse the eventual nominee, in fact.

Even so, I find the prospect of embittered MAGA voters boycotting the general election en masse at his behest far-fetched.

Read any analysis of the primary and you’ll be confronted with a what-if scenario in which a defeated Trump pronounces the new Republican nominee a cheater, his devotees swallow the lie whole, and the GOP is trounced by Democrats when millions of populist voters withhold their support on Election Day. If you believe the polling, more than a quarter of Republicans prefer Trump as an independent candidate to any nominee whom the GOP might offer. Getting crushed by the left after Trump splits the party and plays spoiler would be poetic justice for a party that’s spent years rationalizing his sins for the sake of power.

But it won’t happen. Sore-loser laws and the logistics of ballot access will keep Trump from running as an independent, assuming he doesn’t jump ship from the GOP before the primaries begin. And if he did, strategic considerations would erode his support. The highest calling in right-wing politics, even above Trump worship, is owning the libs. If unity behind the Republican nominee is the only way to achieve that ownage at the polls, and it is, most Trump fans will grudgingly set aside their suspicions and support the party. Ask Brian Kemp, he knows.

There’s no escape from the gravitational pull of the super-massive political black hole known as negative partisanship. Virtually all Republican voters disappointed by the outcome of the primary will get sucked back onto Team Red before November 2024.

I think.

Two things give me pause. One is that the battle for the base between Trump and Ron DeSantis is already shaping up to be exceptionally nasty, more so than any primary in living memory. The more savage it gets, the longer hard feelings will linger. The other is Nate Cohn’s new piece in the New York Times explaining how unusual it is for a first-term presidential candidate like DeSantis to poll north of 30 percent early. Only four politicians in the past 50 years have posted more impressive numbers: Three were dynasts (Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Ted Kennedy) and the fourth was Rudy Giuliani, who shot to political stardom after 9/11.

It’s unheard of in modern times for a candidate to gain a national following without help from his surname or a crisis with geopolitical implications. That DeSantis has managed to do it while still months away from formally entering the race suggests that the right’s “Ready for Ron” bloc is bigger—and possibly deeper—than anyone suspects.

That being so, if Trump manages to destroy their guy in the primary through a combination of personal and political demagoguery, how confident are we that embittered DeSantis stans will suck it up and turn out for him anyway against Joe Biden?

Trumpers aren’t the only group capable of boycotting a general election to punish a nominee they dislike, y’know.

Cohn’s piece is titled “Ron DeSantis Is Not Scott Walker.” That’s a common comparison, typically made by those who think the governor’s chances of beating Trump are overhyped. After all, like DeSantis, Walker was a not very charismatic swing-state governor who gained a national following on the right when he confronted and defeated the left in a policy showdown. He was touted as a top-tier candidate when he ran for president in 2016 … and washed out of the race ignominiously before the end of September 2015. Will that be DeSantis’ fate too?

Cohn finds the analogy between the two facile for statistical reasons. Walker never polled higher than 7 percent early, he notes, a world away from the 32 percent DeSantis is pulling. I also find the analogy between the two facile. For one thing, Walker’s great victory over progressives on collective bargaining by public employee unions came four years before the 2016 primary campaign began, ancient history in politics. DeSantis, however, is still putting points on the board for the right every day as we roll into primary season.

Walker never had an electoral accomplishment as impressive as DeSantis’ victory in November either. He was elected twice in Wisconsin, each time by around 6 points, and staved off a recall effort led by union activists who were desperate for revenge. But DeSantis turned a perennial swing state into a 20-point Republican victory on a night when the party underperformed virtually everywhere else. He currently enjoys an unrivaled electability “mystique” as a leader in a party whose anxiety about electability has risen for three straight cycles.

Most importantly, Walker was a creature of the pre-Trump GOP whose priorities skewed accordingly. Beating Democrats on collective bargaining made fiscal conservatives at the time swoon; unfortunately for Walker, the Tea Party’s commitment to fiscal reform was an inch deep. By 2016, populist voters could mainline pure culture war against the left with Donald Trump without needing to cut it with Walker’s Hayekian economic principles. DeSantis learned that lesson and has remade himself as a culture warrior first and foremost, in line with the voters who’ll decide the nomination next year.

Which makes his current polling that much more impressive, I think. In earlier primaries where challengers did surprisingly well—Kennedy vs. Carter in 1980, Reagan vs. Ford in 1976—there were sharp ideological differences between the candidates. Kennedy and Reagan each occupied empty policy “lanes” catering to purist factions within their respective parties who were disenchanted by the policies of their milquetoast leaders. To some extent, the upstarts’ support came prefab.

DeSantis didn’t get to 32 percent by running in an unoccupied lane. He did it, amazingly, by running in Trump’s lane, the populist culture-warrior lane. I can think of only one other example in recent times in which a party primary was contested by two high-polling candidates who were, more or less, indistinguishable on policy.

That was the Democratic primary of 2008. There were some important differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, of course, but the ideological gap between them was considerably narrower than between Clinton and Bernie Sanders eight years later. (Believe it or not, children, John Edwards was the choice of many staunch progressives in the early going in 2008.) Both supported a version of what would eventually become the Affordable Care Act, for instance; the only difference had to do with the individual mandate, which Clinton supported and, ironically, Obama opposed.

The 2008 primary did get nasty at times but what qualified as “nasty” in the pre-Trump era can seem quaint. Obama got in trouble once for being a bit too smug in declaring Clinton “likable enough.” Bill Clinton got in trouble for dismissing Obama’s campaign as a “fairy tale,” which some took to be a racial slight suggesting that a black candidate couldn’t win the presidency. 

Compare that to the coming Republican primary, which has barely begun yet has already seen a former president accuse his most formidable undeclared challenger of being some sort of pedophile.

Liberals and their allies in the media spent the 2008 primary wringing their hands about how a protracted, bitter campaign might divide Democrats and hand the general election to Republicans. That was a silly fear. If Obama prevailed, as he ultimately did, it was unthinkable that the Clintons wouldn’t unite behind the first black major-party nominee for president. If Clinton prevailed, it was unthinkable that a young, ambitious senator like Obama wouldn’t rally behind her in hopes of building goodwill within the party in anticipation of another run someday.

And in case any misgivings lingered on either side about ultimately joining forces, the left’s total exasperation with George W. Bush’s presidency would have brought them together in the end. The party’s anti-war voters felt they had no choice but to unite in order to prevent four more years of Republican adventurism and misrule. In the end, the rapprochement between the Clinton and Obama blocs succeeded so well that she ended up in his Cabinet.

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis will not be serving in each other’s Cabinets, needless to say.

It’s almost as certain that DeSantis would endorse a victorious Trump next year as it is that Trump wouldn’t endorse a victorious DeSantis. Trump is in his final run for office and would gain nothing by endorsing his rival except the gratitude of his party, about which he cares not a whit. The governor, however, is in a position similar to Obama’s in 2008: If he falls short, he’s plenty young and well-positioned enough to run again someday provided he doesn’t make too many needless enemies in the GOP.

Would DeSantis’ voters heed his endorsement, though, as Clinton’s voters heeded her endorsement of Obama?

I think more might hold a grudge than we expect.

Consider for starters that Joe Biden isn’t George W. Bush. Lip service will be paid next year by conservative media to the idea that Biden is an existential threat to America (all elections are “Flight 93 elections” now) but Sleepy Joe doesn’t inspire the kind of feel-it-in-your-teeth hatred in his opponents that the last four presidents before him did. A Clinton Democrat disenchanted by Obama’s nomination in 2008 could talk themselves into turning out for him by stewing in their utter contempt for Bush, believing that nothing short of a Democratic landslide could repudiate the war in Iraq. Will a DeSantis Republican feel the same way about Biden, especially if the alternative is a guy who spent the primary calling their man a child molester?

The thought of Democratic victory in 2024 just won’t be as viscerally scary to populists as it was between 1992 and 2020, no matter how hard righties strain to pretend otherwise. (Unless fate intervenes and elevates Kamala Harris to the presidency before then, that is.) Biden’s unconstitutional free lunch for student debtors is obnoxious but I don’t know that it’ll get a Republican voter off the couch on Election Day who’s nursing a bitter grudge against Trump for his vicious attacks on Ron DeSantis.

And those attacks will be vicious.

That’s another difference between the coming primary and the Democratic contest in 2008, the sheer nastiness of what’s to come. Populists have a limitless tolerance for viciousness at the expense of their enemies, whether on the left or within the Republican establishment. But no one knows how well they’ll tolerate it when it’s aimed by one of their political heroes at another of their political heroes, a figure whose populist credentials in some respects exceed Trump’s.

Here’s a recent tweet that gave many Never Trumpers a laugh.

Not only is comparing DeSantis to a “groomer” not particularly vicious by Trump standards, it’s not even the first time he’s compared a rival Republican candidate to a child molester. This past weekend, meanwhile, it was reported that he’s begun calling DeSantis “Meatball Ron” privately, an interesting choice of nickname for an Italian-American—especially in light of Trump’s recent habit of referring to Elaine Chao as “Coco Chow.”

It’s possible that his viciousness will take more outré forms going forward now that he’s reached the “deranged hobo” stage of his mental degeneration, but if you’re shocked by what he said about DeSantis, it’s not because what he said was uncharacteristically nasty. It’s because, for once, he directed that nastiness at someone you admire and you felt stung vicariously. It reminds me of a famous quote that a disillusioned Trump voter gave to the Times in 2019. “I thought he was going to do good things,” she complained, but “he’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”

Hurting the people who need hurting is what modern Republican politics is all about. Many DeSantis admirers on the right who thought it was fine for Trump to tell U.S. citizen Ilhan Omar to go back to where she came from will regard the “groomer” swipes at “Meatball Ron” as an outrageous example of him hurting the wrong people, I suspect, with unpredictable consequences for the general election. It seems absurd to you and I that millions of American voters might have their eyes opened in 2023 to the fact that Donald Trump is a cruel and selfish man to anyone in his way, not just to the Bad People, but that may be where many DeSantis voters find themselves. How enthused will be they to vote for him in the general election following their shocking revelation about his character?

And if DeSantis takes my advice and refuses to attack Trump in personal terms, preaching party unity instead, they may feel special resentment at a Trump primary victory. It’s one thing if both candidates get in the mud and Trump wins a race to the bottom. But if DeSantis tries to take the high road by focusing his fire on Biden and the Democrats while Trump spends his time smearing DeSantis every which way, a Trump victory will taste that much more bitter to the governor’s supporters. The candidate who hurt someone he shouldn’t be hurting will have prevailed over a candidate who stuck to hurting someone who deserved it. Which seems unjust within the parameters of Republican politics.

Bearing in mind that DeSantis voters are with him in the first place because they have misgivings about Trump (however minor), do we expect those voters to shrug off that injustice and reward Trump for his perverse priorities by dutifully turning out for him in a low-stakes election against Joe Biden?

I’m thinking … yeah, probably.

DeSantis fans will answer the bell for Trump even if he roundly humiliates the governor. Most are anti-anti-Trumpers, after all. And zombie partisanship is the hallmark of the anti-antis, committed as they are to their belief that even the most personally reprehensible coup-plotting scumbag Republican is superior to a generic Democrat.

Nearly all will put on their red jersey in the end, I suspect. But there’s one more thing that might help nudge the traditional conservatives in DeSantis’ camp into at least boycotting the general election if Trump is the nominee. It has to do with what the “one-legged stool” I wrote about last week.

A Trump/DeSantis contest won’t be as ideologically polarized as Reagan/Ford or Kennedy/Carter, but Trump will do what he can to make it seem that way. In a prior political life, DeSantis was a small-government Tea Party conservative willing to tackle entitlement reform and eager to flex America’s muscles abroad. He’ll disown those positions in the coming primary since they’re incompatible with his newly MAGA-fied political persona. But Trump will rub his face in them regardless, betting that populist voters will prefer an authentic welfare-state isolationist culture warrior to a poseur version of the same.

If you’re Ready for Ron because you’re a defense hawk or fiscal conservative and believe DeSantis is more likely to share your policies as president than Trump is, watching Trump bury him in sleaze during the primary while running conspicuously to DeSantis’ left on most issues might be the last straw. Personal animus toward the nominee is hard to overcome, but Clinton Democrats did it in 2008. Personal and political animus toward the nominee risks triggering a “remind me why I’m a Republican again” moment for some of the governor’s voters.

We shouldn’t underestimate an anti-anti-Trumpers’ ability to invent pretexts to justify voting for Trump. They’ve been doing it for eight years; they’re quite good at it. But now that there’s a credible alternative in whom many have invested their political hopes—heavily, per Cohn—there may be no way for Trump to wage war on DeSantis without wounding a decisive number of Republicans whom he needs in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. The coming scorched-earth primary could burn the party to the ground. They deserve it.

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.