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We're missing the point on campaign styles and nominations
Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign has taken something of a hit over the past month. He was trailing Donald Trump by just single digits in March, but that gap has grown to over twenty-five points. Yes, the most proximate reason for this shift is the Manhattan indictments against Trump, but DeSantis was losing ground to Trump prior to that.
To explain this, a lot of political observers have faulted DeSantis’ personality and campaign style. “His body language betrays him,” says Matt Lewis. “He doesn’t look comfortable in his skin.” Or maybe he’s too pugnacious, says Michael Bender: “DeSantis has leaned into his reputation as a political brawler, lacking the kind of warmth and charisma that helped lift Bill Clinton, John McCain and other politicians.” Or maybe he’s too intellectual, says Jonathan Chait: “He has simply brain-poisoned himself into an abstract worldview that his constituents don’t recognize.” Or maybe he’s gone too far to the right, says Joan Walsh, alienating even many Republicans with harsh abortion laws and a fight with Disney.
Here’s the thing: Pretty much all these criticisms of DeSantis were seen as strengths just a few months ago. An extensively researched piece on DeSantis last fall in The New York Times Magazine found:
He has for years merrily shunned the perspectives of moderating influences and gentle dissenters and found himself validated at every turn, his recent history a whir of nominally risky choices — expert-snubbing Covid policies, an uppercut at one of his state’s largest private employers, a long-shot bid for the office he holds — transmogrified to pure political upside as he seeks to position himself as his party’s rightful heir.
DeSantis was praised then for being pugnacious, for recognizing that the most important thing that Trump taught Republicans was the need to be in a fight at all times. “If you want to make a point, you make a point by punching the biggest guy in the room,” said one DeSantis ally in that piece. “People say it’s that Ron DeSantis hates the right people,” added conservative writer Sarah Longwell. “It’s the opposite: The right people hate Ron DeSantis.”
This seems a tad inconsistent. Let’s remember that DeSantis had a plenty well-developed reputation as a brawler with ideologically extreme positions who was not comfortable in front of crowds last fall… right before he won reelection in Florida by 19 points. (He won by less than one point in 2018.) All these things were seen as the keys to his early polling leads over Trump a few months ago; now they’re blamed for his decline. Just maybe DeSantis’ campaigning style isn’t the prime mover here.
Here’s another example, from Puck reporter Tina Nguyen’s interview on The Bulwark podcast:
One of the things that I keep hearing from people who are MAGA and some of them are Ron DeSantis fans, some of them are Trump fans, but they think [DeSantis is] too terminally online. And when I say that, I don’t mean that he’s tweeting online angry stuff like Trump is. It’s that they’re picking up their cues for what the policies should be based on what memes are circulating on Twitter that day.
My take: You cannot possibly be losing a contest to Donald Trump, the most terminally online candidate in American history, by being too terminally online.
Now, of course, Trump makes the conversation about campaign styles very difficult. He regularly does things that no campaign consultant would tell their clients to do, and they don’t seem to hurt him. That doesn’t mean the rules are all wrong, but it might just mean that they don’t have much of an effect for a candidate who has been a household name for close to half a century and whom many voters feel they know due to his status as a TV celebrity and then as president. It’s also worth noting that 16 different Republican presidential candidates came at Donald Trump with 16 different campaign styles in 2016 and all of them lost.
But even if Trump is a huge anomaly, the general focus on campaign tactics and personality strikes me as massively overstated.
The basic dynamic of this presidential nomination contest is that a substantial proportion of the Republican Party is familiar and comfortable with Donald Trump and believes he would advocate for what they want while in office. We can see this in polls, elite interviews, endorsement patterns, and more. The one area where Trump is vulnerable is in the impression that he’s been costing Republicans elections. Media coverage reflecting this narrative was dominant in the months following the 2022 midterm elections, and this was a source of strength for DeSantis, but as memories of that election fade, so does the basis for opposition to Trump.
What we can expect to see over the next year is a pattern somewhat similar to that of the 2012 Republican presidential contest that produced Mitt Romney. That is, there is a clear party favorite, but other candidates may be subject to the “discovery, scrutiny, decline” pattern described by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. Candidates have a brief moment of good news from a debate appearance or interview, this translates into a rise in the polls and perhaps even a polling lead, which leads to greater media scrutiny, which leads to their ultimate decline. In 2012, nearly every Republican candidate led in the polls for some time period, but the contest went to the guy with the money and endorsements.
It’s certainly possible this cycle will be different, especially since the front-runner is currently facing numerous serious criminal charges and civil lawsuits that will stretch into next year. And arguably most of the other candidates are biding their time waiting to see if such cases will take Trump out of contention. But if we do end up with a nominee other than Trump, it likely won’t be because of that candidate’s personality or how visibly comfortable he or she is.
Note: For a related but somewhat different take, see Julia Azari’s piece on how Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign is similar to Kamala Harris' and Scott Walker's -- gifted politicians who rose quickly in their states and seemed unstoppable until they were stopped.