Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2024 campaign strategy could be summed up as “Trump, but competent.” Initially, it was a potentially promising lane: DeSantis, theoretically, could’ve renewed the MAGA agenda with new energy and picked up relative Republican moderates rankled by former President Donald Trump’s character and legal troubles.
But Trump remains king of the GOP, and Republican moderates haven’t flocked to DeSantis. Instead, the governor seems to have struck upon the worst of both worlds: “Not Trump, and yet, too extreme.”
DeSantis’ struggle highlights how hard it is to be Trumpian without being Trump.
The latest alarming sign for DeSantis’ future comes from Iowa. A new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll shows that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is now tied with DeSantis in the GOP’s first nominating contest. Both have the support of 16% of likely Republican caucusgoers. That’s a striking win for Haley: In the same poll in August, DeSantis had 19% to Haley’s 6%. What has happened in the meantime is that Haley has emerged as the GOP’s most popular “moderate” politician because of her savvy debate performances and even-tempered messaging that masks many of her extreme beliefs.
Neither Haley nor DeSantis is anywhere close to Trump — who held the support of over 40% of voters in August and October — but the poll underscores how deep a hole DeSantis is in. DeSantis has invested tremendous resources in Iowa through his allocation of campaign staff, his field operation, and working to secure local endorsements. It’s a bid to find a high-profile early contest win that could conceivably give him a chance to spark voter attention, be seen as viable and build rapid momentum. But those efforts aren’t paying off, and his candidacy appears to be devolving from far-fetched to lost cause. In September his campaign tried to manage declining expectations by comically claiming a “strong second-place showing” in Iowa would be respectable. What’s the campaign going to do now — invite further ridicule by claiming a third-place win would be acceptable? In addition to Haley’s catching up with DeSantis in Iowa, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today survey earlier in October showed her outstripping DeSantis in New Hampshire 19% to 10%.
DeSantis’ positioning in early primary states serves as an allegory for his campaign’s failing to deliver on its value proposition. DeSantis hasn’t been able to make a substantial dent in Trump’s base, and as long as Trump remains in the race, it’s almost unfathomable to see that changing. Meanwhile, Haley appears to be seizing an increasing proportion of the small but nontrivial share of the GOP electorate who skews Trump-skeptical or Trump-averse and are interested in voting for a more old-school Republican. While at the beginning of the campaign season DeSantis held the support of about a third of Republican voters and trailed Trump by around 10 points, he’s now averaging around 14% support and lags behind Trump by more than 40 points.
A new Washington Post report based on interviews with dozens of early-state voters tracks with the hypothesis that DeSantis is being squeezed from both sides. Trump voters express fealty to Trump, and Trump skeptics have seen DeSantis as extreme in a way that turns them off. “I don’t like the fact that we’re going to start murdering people,” one New Hampshire voter looking for alternatives to Trump said of DeSantis’ proposals to use lethal force to enforce the U.S.-Mexican border. DeSantis loves to repeat the phrase “stone cold dead” when describing what would happen to those who violate his presidential border policy, but the audience for that violent and extremist rhetoric is already with Trump.
DeSantis’ struggle highlights how hard it is to be Trumpian without being Trump. Trump does have a discernible ideology — his views on issues from immigration to trade to crime to white supremacist organizations to foreign policy align with the tenets of right-wing nationalism. But when DeSantis has mimicked these policy ideals and promised to execute them with professionalism and zeal, it hasn’t been enough to displace Trump as the GOP front-runner. And Trump’s legal troubles have only coincided with — or partially led to — the consolidation of the base around him. It is more evident over time that Trump’s appeal lies in a combination of his ideological worldview and his persona — transgressive, entertaining, shameless. And if there’s one thing DeSantis can’t do in the months before the primaries hit, it’s invent a winning personality.