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The Verdict of the Persuadables
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The Verdict of the Persuadables

DeSantis, Trump, and Biden rack up big debts with general election voters.

President Joe Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 28, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It would be kind to say that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has had a rough week. When the better of the two main storylines with which your presidential campaign is contending is the one about the silver linings of slavery, it’s not salad days.

And indeed, there are obvious truths we see confirmed in both that story and the one about his excruciatingly protracted campaign reboot and the failures of his super PAC. As we’ve talked about before, high expectations, too much early money, and stale strategy were always likely to be hard for DeSantis to overcome. Not to say that he can’t turn things around, only that right-sizing his campaign, getting over Cruz-ism, and learning to be humble and hungry again is going to be very hard to do.

Of the many current agonies of the DeSantis campaign, though, the one about the legacy of slavery and Florida’s U.S. history curriculum is very instructive about how primary politics really work.

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds is a prized surrogate for former President Donald Trump. Donalds is quick and savvy, and he’s a favorite of the Freedom Caucus set. He’s also a black man who is on Team Trump in opposition to his own state’s governor. Donalds went after DeSantis for defending a standard that “includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” 

The congressman’s attack offered a little relief for the embattled governor: It gave him the chance, with the help of some media allies, to put the Trump campaign on the same side as Vice President Kamala Harris.

It’s relief, but it’s costly relief. 

DeSantis got himself into the jam with his lame answer about a predictable controversy:

“Well, you should talk to them about it. I mean, I didn’t do it. I wasn’t involved in it,” he said. “But I think what they’re doing is, I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is, all of that is rooted in whatever is factual.”

Woof.

It’s not that he was defending the standards, it was the half-hearted way in which he did so—it was a sloppy, rookie move. One doesn’t discuss the mitigations of the horrors of slavery in an offhanded, don’t-look-at-me-guys way. But, fortunately for DeSantis, Harris arrived to bail him out. 

The vice president, probably the most disliked public official among Republicans, went hard after DeSantis for her own reasons, reasons that certainly include a powerful need for Democrats to rehabilitate her reputation and, they hope, turn her into an effective attack dog to do some of the work for President Biden. This, however, is a boon for DeSantis, who was able to cast himself as yet again the victim of the “woke mob,” “left-wing media,” etc., etc. 

But if that victim status does indeed help bail out DeSantis in a difficult moment, he’s only borrowing the help, and the interest on the loan will be steep. 

As he looks to consolidate support among the non-Trump part of the GOP electorate, DeSantis has added another descriptor to his public identity: slavery defender. For a Tim Scott or Mike Pence fan, that’s probably bad news, even if he or she would side with DeSantis over Harris on the controversy. And if he somehow makes it to the general election, “slavery defender” will be front and center as Democrats try to paint DeSantis as being even worse than Trump. 

DeSantis blew it on what could have been easy money. To get back to where he started, he’s had to lean way too far in on a dangerous issue. Like his endless battle with Disney or long slide from COVID shutdown skeptic to RFK Jr. on vaccines, DeSantis has trouble declaring victory and moving on. Sometimes digging in is the only option, but it tends to turn short-term assets into long-term liabilities. 

It’s easy to forget in these early days of a presidential nominating contest what the eventual goal really is. When early voting begins in the 2024 general election in just a little more than a year, the number of persuadable voters will be very small. Maybe as little as 5 percent, but certainly no more than 15 percent of likely voters will really be up for grabs. 

The main advantage of incumbency is not having to stake out primary positions and ensure gaffes like DeSantis’ that alienate that little sliver of voters who get to decide the contest. Many times, candidates have paid too high of a price for a nomination that couldn’t be redeemed for the presidency. And it’s not just going too far to the left or the right, it’s just about being too much in general. 

But that does not mean Biden is immune to the same problems. 

There were two big stories this week at the intersection of the criminal justice system and presidential politics. One is the new, seemingly even more potent, charges against Trump in the prosecution of his alleged mishandling of state secrets and obstruction of the subsequent investigation. In what sounds like dialogue lifted from Donnie Brasco, Trump’s aides are said to have conspired to destroy evidence at the behest of “the boss.” 

Subtle, guys. 

You may have already heard it said of this latest imbroglio that “it only helps Trump with voters” and other such sentiments. The polls go up with every indictment! Nothing matters! 

Now think back to the dynamic we discussed about DeSantis, alleged slavery defender, and concept of the high-interest loan to buy your way out of primary election problems. Think of that persuadable 5 to 15 percent of the general electorate, yes, but also think about how Republican primary voters may feel about Trump, melodramatic martyr of the deep state, as they get closer to actually choosing someone to nominate. 

Right now, Republicans are not thinking about Trump’s legal woes nearly as much as the other big political/legal story of the week: The bungled plea deal of Hunter Biden and the growing likelihood of more criminal charges are in the offing for the president’s son. 

In the minds of Democrats to this point, the Hunter Biden story has been a sideshow orchestrated by Republicans, desperate to deflect attention from the myriad of Trump’s scandals. It is becoming increasingly clear to Democrats that the younger Biden is a real liability, and equally clear that the president is unable to get the situation under control, e.g. inviting the notorious Hunter to a state dinner. 

Having watched Trump slip into the White House by defining deviancy down through obsessive reference to the many scandals of the Clinton family, Democrats now are becoming increasingly aware that they face a similar risk this time. If those persuadable voters conclude that both candidates are corrupt, Trump’s obvious corruption and abuses of power will seem less disqualifying. “They’re both crooks, but one of them will bring down gas prices,” isn’t exactly campaigning in poetry, but it’s something. 

The incumbent party’s patience with the president’s son is presumably at a breaking point. Democrats and their allies in the press have been taking a tougher line, and one imagines that will continue. We started at a narrative about hope and healing in recovery. We moved then to efforts to ignore and minimize. The next step will likely be shunning, pity for the president, and an air of high-minded regret about the whole sordid affair that includes calls for swift justice.  

It’s not a direct threat to Biden’s renomination, but it will amount to pressure on the president and the campaign to take a much tougher line with his problem child. 

Up until now, the Trump prosecutions and the Hunter Biden ick have existed in alternate universes. Each side ignored its own problems, and focused almost exclusively on the scandals of the other team. 

The closer we get to the verdict of the persuadable voters, the more unaffordable the self-deceptions of partisans become. 


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.4%
Average disapproval: 51.8%
Net score: -9.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.2 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 1.4 points

[Average includes: Quinnipiac: 40% approve-53% disapprove; Yahoo: 40% approve-54% disapprove; Monmouth:  44% approve-52% disapprove; Emerson: 41% approve-51% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 47% approve-49% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: ‘STRIKE UP A ROMANCE’

New York Times: “Around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, a large crowd mostly made up of Writers Guild of America members gathered for a singles event at Roadside Taco, a Studio City taco spot a short walk from the Universal picket line. At the restaurant, the line to order was spilling out the door, making it hard to move around. There were at least 200 people at the event — cheekily titled Strike Up a Romance — about an hour into the night. … Hours before the mixer, protesters packed the sidewalks outside the Universal Studios gates, marching in circles, chanting and waving signs. At a table set up across the street from the picket line, organizers were handing out strips of yarn in different colors: blue indicated that you were interested in men; pink, in women; purple, you’re fluid. Many stopped by the table to grab a piece to tie around their wrists, delighted by the news of an open bar. One person could be overheard sharing a hopeful thought: ‘Maybe I’ll meet somebody.’ ‘Manifest that,’ someone replied.”


RON HITS RESET, SLIMS PAYROLL AS POLLS SPELL TROUBLE

Politico: “Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign is expanding the number of staff it’s cutting to include more than a third of his payroll as the Florida governor looks to get his primary bid back on track. The cuts, which were confirmed by advisers, will amount to a total of 38 jobs shed across an array of departments. … The expanded cuts are the latest sign that the Florida governor’s team is pivoting to a slim-down operation amid concerns over their finances. The campaign announced it had raised $20 million during the second quarter of this year. But it had spent a good chunk of that money. Much of the sum it raised, moreover, came from donors who had given the maximum amount and could not give again. … Advisers also outlined plans for DeSantis — who has been criticized for overseeing a bloated operation — to reposition himself as an insurgent underdog.”

Trump, Reynolds escalate feud as state fair nears: New York Times: “When Gov. Kim Reynolds interviews nearly the entire Republican presidential field at the Iowa State Fair next month in a series of one-on-one chats, there will be an especially notable absence: former President Donald J. Trump, the race’s clear front-runner. Ms. Reynolds’s office on Tuesday released a list of participants for the interview series that did not include Mr. Trump. The former president, who has expressed his anger at Ms. Reynolds for not endorsing him, declined an invitation to participate. … Mr. Trump appears intent on prolonging his public feud with the popular Ms. Reynolds, which has angered and puzzled conservatives in the state. … A spokesman for Mr. Trump said the former president planned to attend the state fair — just not the interview with Ms. Reynolds.”

Pence, Hutchinson hopeful, but on the outside looking in: Politico: “Trump and six of his rivals have already met the qualifications to make the stage. How many more will join them — and whether so many candidates will qualify that the Republican National Committee will need to hold two debates to accommodate them all is still up in the air. … The candidates who’ve already cleared the polling and fundraising thresholds to make it, according to POLITICO’s tracking: Trump, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie and Doug Burgum. … Behind those seven are Mike Pence and Asa Hutchinson — who have already met the polling bar but need more donors to their campaigns. … Pence has the clearest shot to the debate stage out of all the candidates who haven’t yet scored an invite to Milwaukee in August. … Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas have a glimmer of hope when it comes to earning an invitation.”

Debate rules dampen appeal of retail politics: Des Moines Register: “Some in Iowa are [questioning] whether the RNC’s new debate qualifiers are blunting the kinds of retail campaign tactics that historically have allowed candidates with few resources to find a platform and gain momentum in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. … This year, presidential candidates are on the Iowa caucus campaign trail less, and they’re relying more heavily on TV ads to get their message across. According to a Des Moines Register analysis of Iowa campaign appearances, candidates this year are holding a fraction of the publicly announced stops they made the two previous caucus cycles. … At the same time, data from the advertising analytics firm AdImpact shows that the volume of television ads in Iowa far exceeds what it was at this point in the past two caucus cycles.”

TRUMP FALLS IN LINE ON SENATE CANDIDATE PICKS

CNN: “Donald Trump recently delivered the news to Rep. Matt Rosendale: He wouldn’t win the former president’s coveted endorsement if he runs in the GOP primary for the US Senate seat in Montana, according to a Trump ally, a decision with major implications in the high-stakes battle for control of the Senate. In West Virginia, Trump privately suggested to Rep. Alex Mooney that he is unlikely to back him in the Senate GOP primary over Gov. Jim Justice, the candidate backed by Republican leaders. … The twin developments will be welcome news for GOP leaders, who have been carefully maneuvering for months to try to keep Trump from undermining their efforts to prop up their preferred candidates in the nation’s most pivotal Senate races.”

Club for Growth, too, won’t back Rosendale: The Hill: “The Club for Growth on Monday indicated that it is walking back from its plan to support Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) in the Montana Senate race and said that it has not decided whether to back him amid interest in the candidacy of former Navy Seal officer Tim Sheehy, who they consider an ‘impressive candidate.’ David McIntosh, the head of Club for Growth, told reporters at a background briefing on Monday evening that it has not fully thrown its weight behind a Rosendale bid for the upper chamber and said that the conservative group has become impressed with Sheehy, the preferred candidate of GOP groups. … The Club has been widely expected to back Rosendale, who they supported in the 2018 race.”

Navy vet Cao challenges Kaine in Virginia: AP: “Retired Navy combat veteran Hung Cao, who ran an energetic but unsuccessful campaign last year for a blue-leaning northern Virginia U.S. House seat, has set his sights on the U.S. Senate, announcing Tuesday that he’s seeking the 2024 Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Tim Kaine. … Cao will join an increasingly crowded field of Republican contenders — at least eight other candidates have filed paperwork — aiming to run next year against Kaine, who so far faces no primary opponent. … [Kaine] will be seen as having an edge in the must-win race for Democrats facing a tough Senate map in 2024. … Kaine’s campaign announced last week raising over $2 million in the year’s second quarter and ending the period with $6.3 million cash on hand — about $5.7 million more than the whole GOP field combined…”

BRIEFLY

Former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte launches bid to succeed New Hampshire Gov. Sununu—Concord Monitor

Dems draw top recruit to challenge Valadao in California battleground—San Joaquin Valley Sun

Spanberger to leave battleground seat in favor of 2025 gubernatorial bid—Politico

SCOTUS election ruling offers Dems deep south pickups—Politico

Abortion amendment qualifies for 2023 ballot in Ohio—Cleveland Plain Dealer

Experiments cast doubt on claims of social media effects on politics—The Atlantic

WITHIN EARSHOT: FRIENDZONE

“It’s a big dilemma for us. … It’s almost like you invite your friend to your house, and then arrest them.”—South Africa’s Deputy President Paul Mashatile comments on a potential BRICS summit visit by Vladimir Putin that would require local authorities to arrest him for war crimes. 


MAILBAG

“I wanted to get your opinion on a topic sure to draw the interest of all political wonks: the Sunday news TV shows. Kristen Welker was recently named as the replacement for Chuck Todd on Meet The Press. With that, ALL of the ‘Big Five’ will have a female host or co-host. Margaret Brennan (Face The Nation); Martha Raddatz (co-host, This Week); Shannon Bream (Fox News Sunday); and Dana Bash (co-host, State of the Union). In addition, Welker, Brennan, Bream and Bash are all Generation Xers (as is Jake Tapper), which means they will presumably be around for several political cycles. Do you think this will have a noticeable impact when dealing with the geriatric Trump and Biden? Will it create any other ripple effects?”Michael A. Frank, Wapakoneta, Ohio

The ripple, Mr.Frank, depends on the size of the stone. The big three Sunday shows, Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and This Week draw 2.5 million viewers each in a good week. That’s down about 16 percent from five years ago. Compared to 20 years ago, that’s a decline of almost 50 percent. The most formidable host in the medium’s history, Tim Russert, had episodes that drew as many as 9 million viewers. Thought of another way, one episode of the network Sunday shows draws about the same as an episode on a normal night of Fox News’ primetime lineup. Certainly there is a different audience, one that presumably skews toward decision-makers, high earners, and elites, but in real terms, the Sunday shows are just relatively big fish in a bigger pond of television news chat shows. The Sunday shows, which date back to the 1950s, were an accident of regulatory pressures and public relations. Networks needed a place to put obligatory “public affairs” broadcasts, and dumped them in the least desirable time of the week: Sunday morning when the main audience was either asleep or at church. But as political fascination increased, the shows became appealing and influential because they were about the only place in the world where you could hear interviews with politicians and analysis from pundits on a regular basis. Now these things are inescapable. As for the age of the anchors, I’d say the biggest questions are about the age of the audience, which is a lot closer to that of Biden and Trump than the Xers at the anchor desks.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the resourceful Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: IN THE MATTER OF SMELT v. DELT 

Ted Cruz responds to a question as Donald Trump listens during the Republican presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. (Photo credit should read Geoff Robinson/AFP/Getty Images)
Ted Cruz responds to a question as Donald Trump listens during the Republican presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. (Photo credit should read Geoff Robinson/AFP/Getty Images)

What a way to close out the July contest, folks! The photo from the March 3, 2016, Republican debate in Detroit drew a number of truly funny responses, but many fell into two broad categories: Gags about Donald Trump trying to copy off of dean’s list student Ted Cruz and gags relating to certain bodily functions. I wish I could tell you that my sense of humor was elevated enough that I could resist a joke of the latter category, but I think we all know the answer … 

“Yes, Donald, I smell it too.”David Landry, Lynnfield, Massachusetts

Winner, ‘Psst, Teddy’  Division:

“What’d you get on question 3? Zodiac, huh?”Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri 

Winner, Say My Name Division: 

“‘I’ve had two heroes in my life: my father and Ronald Reagan.’ 

‘Your father was the Zodiac Killer.’

‘I’ve only had one hero in my life: Ronald Reagan.’

‘Reagan was terrible.’ 

‘I’ve never had a hero in my life.’”Nathan Wurtzel, South Riding, Virginia

Winner, Stuck on You Division:

“I can accept our policy differences, but the Super Glue on the greenroom doorknob speaks volumes about the guy.”Bill Ward, St Augustine Beach, Florida 

Winner, Pork Barrel Division:

“Trump: ‘I smell bacon … does anyone else smell bacon?’”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia 

Winner, Pickles, Lettuce on a Sesame Seed Bun Division:

“If you’re not gonna eat that Big Mac, can I have it?”Lucinda Kroner, Batavia, Ohio

Winner, Should Have Been Wapner Division

Judge Judy is really scraping the bottom of the barrel this week …”Scott Simonini, Norton, Massachusetts

Now, on to our July contest winner, which still made me laugh out loud when I looked at it again. Contestant Kevin Cook, of Fort Worth, Texas, nailed it with his caption for a picture of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott firing up the crowd at an event: “Hey, hey mama said the way you move. Gonna make you sweat gonna make you groove.” Please email us so you can collect your prize, a souvenir pint glass from Led Zeppelin’s 1977 U.S. tour.

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


STATE-SPONSORED TRIP   

Yahoo: “US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reportedly ate an order of potentially hallucinogenic mushrooms at a restaurant during a visit [two weeks ago] to Beijing. During her visit, the secretary and her team stopped at a location of Yi Zuo Yi Wang, a restaurant chain specializing in dishes from the Yunnan province. … The selection included grilled fish, greens, and jian shou qing mushrooms. ‘Our staff said she loved mushrooms very much,’ the restaurant wrote on social media. ‘She ordered four portions of jian shou qing (a Yunnan wild mushroom species). It was an extremely magical day.’ An aide to the secretary confirmed to CNN she dined at the restaurant and ordered the mushrooms. … ‘Lanmaoa mushrooms are considered poisonous as they can be hallucinogenic,’ [botanist Peter Mortimer] said. ‘However, scientists have not, as of yet, identified the compounds responsible for causing the hallucinations. … I have a friend who mistakenly ate them and hallucinated for three days.’ … The restaurant where the secretary ate was quickly flooded with reservations.” 

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore and Jae Grace contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.