A Tale of Two Presidential Aspirants
Polis and DeSantis are doing the same thing in completely different ways
Jared Polis and Ron DeSantis are like two peas in a pod. Both are relatively popular second-term governors in their mid-40s. Both somehow won reelection last November by 19 points in states that, less than a decade ago, were considered swing states. And both (probably) have their eyes on the White House.
Given similar circumstances and similar political goals, we’d expect them to behave, well, similarly, right? Except for one thing: Polis is a Democrat and DeSantis is a Republican. And this makes all the difference.
Winning an ostensibly competitive state by nearly 20 points conveys a good deal of what we often call political capital. How is DeSantis spending his?
He’s leaning hard on conservative culture war positions, seeking block an AP Black History class, pushing a law that could end up prosecuting teachers who bring books into class, bashing criminals, and more. DeSantis is acting as though these hard right stances are important to winning a Republican nomination contest against former President Donald Trump. It’s a reasonable assumption.
What is Jared Polis doing with the same capital? Judging from his recent statements, he’s eyeing the center — focusing on a housing shortage, cutting taxes, bashing criminals, and more. The agenda he laid out in his state of the state address is, by many accounts, a more modest and moderate one than he championed in 2019, and places him somewhat to the right of much of the Democratic caucus in the statehouse. Notably, while statehouse Democrats are planning to push for an assault weapons ban, Polis does not appear to be on board with that.
Assuming Polis is interested in a presidential bid, he seems to be acting as though a relatively moderate center-left agenda is the right way to position himself for a Democratic nomination contest.
Now, there are some other important differences here between DeSantis and Polis. DeSantis is functionally running for president now (although he hasn’t made it official) for next year’s election, while Polis’ opportunity most likely wouldn’t come until 2028. (He’s conveniently termed out in January 2027.) And DeSantis faces the rather unique challenge of taking on Trump, while the Democratic opponents Polis would face in five years are unclear.
But importantly, we see two very different approaches to winning a presidential nomination. Republicans have made it clear that they want the red meat. Republican elites used to coordinate to protect more moderate candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney in presidential contests, but in 2016 that coordination was nowhere to be seen. The lesson since then seems to be that there is no position too conservative or too bombastic for Republican activists and voters. DeSantis may well be a stronger general election candidate than Trump, but he knows he needs to position himself well to the right to have any shot at the nomination.
For Polis, though, the path is far different. The 2020 Democratic presidential field was a large one covering a great deal of ideological range. Democrats could have nominated a progressive, a woman, a person of color, etc., and instead went with a pretty moderate, well known, non-controversial Joe Biden, precisely because they thought he could win. Electability is the coin of the realm in Democratic circles right now, and Polis wants to be seen as such a candidate.
It is plausible that each of these men is reading their respective party exactly right. As I wrote in this LA Times piece, party activists look back on the last half century of elections extremely differently. Democrats think they win when they moderate; Republicans think they win when they stand up for what they believe. Neither side is wholly wrong here, but those beliefs lead to very different candidate behaviors, as Govs. DeSantis and Polis are demonstrating today.