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How seriously should we be taking Ron DeSantis as a 2024 presidential candidate?

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Since I am trying to show some epistemological modesty about the minds-such-as-they-are of typical Republican primary voters, I will first present a case that DeSantis is a strong candidate and possibly the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination:

I’ve been telling people for most of the year that I consider Ron DeSantis to be the odds-on favorite — not a guarantee, not a prohibitive favorite, but the favorite — to win the Republican presidential nomination. Usually they nod and then add something like, “But not if Trump runs, right?” “Yes,” I reply, “even if Trump runs.” Then they look at me like I’m crazy.

Tuesday night, my view began to look a little less crazy. The Murdoch-owned media, very much including Fox News, unleashed an undisguised propaganda blitz to convince its audience that Trump is the source of the party’s struggles and DeSantis represents its future. Trump’s angry response is a measure of how seriously he takes the threat to steer the base away from him. Many journalists registered surprise at the bluntness of the chorus blaming Trump. Yet the prospects for a DeSantis nomination, and the changes beneath the surface that have made it relatively likely, have not been fully appreciated outside the Republican world.

For one thing, the Murdoch-owned media, and many other legacy conservative-media outlets, like National Review, have never fully supported Trump. They defended him against Democrats while wishing the party would nominate somebody else. This has meant, in other words, that they would criticize some of his excesses, even while insisting the Democrats were worse. During moments when Republicans had the opportunity to wrest leadership of the party from his hands, like during the 2016 primary campaign and in the days after January 6, they would even savage him. But when his leadership of the party went unchallenged, they would mute their criticism and fall dutifully in line.

This pattern has led to an easy assumption that whatever misgivings Republicans express now will come to nothing. “We have heard this tune many times before,” Dan Drezner says, sighing. “It’s nice to hope that this time it’ll take,” writes the Bulwark, “But we’ve all seen this movie before. Many, many, many times before.”

This ignores a crucial difference. In both 2016, and the aftermath of the insurrection, there was no unified Republican alternative. The non-Trump candidates in 2016 infamously failed to coordinate, and even devoted most of their energy to attacking each other in the belief that the last non-Trump standing would automatically prevail. “Jeb, Rubio, Christie, Kasich, Walker… every one of these guys was as hyped as DeSantis is now. Trump beat them all,” argues Adam Jentleson. But that is the point – beating them all was easier than beating a single opponent with unified conservative movement support.

After the insurrection, a brief window opened to move on, but the party lacked any obvious figure to rally around. (DeSantis had yet to make the key moves consolidating his support on the right.) And in between these events, Trump was president.

What this meant is that abandoning Trump required siding with the Democrats. In 2016, remaining anti-Trump meant supporting Hillary Clinton’s election, and in 2021, it meant accepting the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency. Now, however, it means standing with DeSantis. And while circa-2016 Trump’s opponents had appeal in the mainstream of their party, DeSantis draws support from its entirety, very much including the far right.

Is this right? Possibly! The likelihood that it would essentially be a two-person race from the get-go if Desantis ran is probably the strongest point in its favor. But I remain very skeptical:

  • Way too much is being made of DeSantis’s re-election margin. He ran less than two points ahead of Rubio — another media darling who Trump absolutely emasculated in the primaries — despite running against a probably weaker candidate. Florida is now a layup for Republicans, and given that it was already bucking the trend in 2018 that’s almost certainly much more about Trump than DeSantis.
  • [While we’re here, can I mention how much these “It was so Savvy for Governor Anti-Vaxx to get a lot of people in his state killed unnecessarily” things piss me off? I haven’t been so infuriated about an Atlantic piece since Liz Breunig barfed up “now that Roe has been overruled maybe anti-abortion groups will make the Republican Party give-up its lifelong opposition to opposing increased access to healthcare tee-hee.”]
  • I don’t think that the forces that stopped Republicans from getting rid of Trump when they had the chance in 2021 — although Mitch McConnell was apparently briefly open to it — have gone away at all. The election denialists Republican voters nominated in marginal elections may have fared horribly, but Republican primary voters chose them for a reason, and Republican primaries aren’t going to turn on Shapiro-Oz voters. There will still be a major potential price paid to cross Trump, and the track record of the vast majority of Republican elites in these circumstances has been all too consistent.
  • While it’s true that the party couldn’t unite around a single alternative figure ex ante in 2020, the field actually consolidated pretty quickly and was for all intents and purposes a two-person race after South Carolina, at a time when Republican elites were much more skeptical of Trump (because they thought he couldn’t win in the general.) It didn’t help. I’ll grant that DeSantis would have to be an improvement over Cruz because who wouldn’t be, but I dunno that he’s that much better.
  • Assessing a candidate is subjective, and who knows, maybe Ron DeSantis will evade the fate of previous media Superstar governors like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, the guy who won by a bigger margin in a deep blue state than DeSantis did in a red one, etc….

But, personally, I’m pretty dubious that the short, whiny-voiced, “Debate Me Bro” guy imitation of Trump can go the distance with voters conditioned to want the real thing. As with so many “star” Republicans of the past, outside his local context he seems like a guy with more appeal to Republican elites than the typical Republican primary voter to me.

In addition, I think it’s far from certain that DeSantis even runs. If he challenges Trump and loses, he’s permanently damaged goods. If he waits for 2028 where the competition is likely to involve Hawley, Cotton, and a bunch of other Debate Me Bro assholes with even less charisma than DeSantis, his chances seem a lot better. He may do it anyway, but if he has any competent advisors they’ll be laying this out.

I may be wrong, but last month I thought the Republican nomination was Trump’s if he wants it, and that’s still what I think.

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