Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign doesn’t exist, but it’s already in trouble. He trails Donald Trump by more than 20 points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average and has seen his support dip as Republicans—including DeSantis himself—have rallied behind the former president in the wake of his arrest in New York. In response, the Florida governor and his allies “are sharpening their message nationally and in early GOP primary states,” The Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Rebooting your presidential campaign is never a good thing, but it’s especially dire if it happens before you’ve even declared your candidacy, with nine whole months to go before voters begin casting ballots. For DeSantis, it’s also a sign that his significant advantages—he has more than $100 million on hand and gets consistent attention from the national media—may not matter now that voters are beginning to take a serious look at him. Or rather, now that Trump is taking him seriously: The former president has attacked DeSantis for his past support for cutting Medicare and Social Security, and a pro-Trump PAC is running ads mocking DeSantis for reportedly eating pudding with his fingers.
DeSantis, wary of alienating Trump’s base, has responded tepidly. But he’s hardly alone. Everyone is struggling to compete with Donald Trump right now. Mike Pence and Nikki Haley can barely scrounge 10 points between them in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, announced on Friday evening that he wouldn’t be running at all. Other Republicans, looking at Trump’s dominance, seem to be wary of entering the race. The GOP primary hasn’t even begun, yet it looks like it’s already over.
For those seeking an alternative to Trump in 2024—and particularly for DeSantis’s boosters—the situation is bleak. For the last two years, many of the party’s most important donors and thought leaders have promoted DeSantis as the “next Reagan.” But DeSantis himself has carefully calibrated himself as a successor to Trump—picking fights with the “woke left,” banning books about homosexuality and racial injustice, and bolstering his anti-vaccine, anti-mask credentials.
On policy, DeSantis is more or less identical to Trump. Their main point of disagreement is the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine that was developed during Trump’s presidency. DeSantis has begun to occasionally talk like him and has adopted some of his mannerisms. He is notably less erratic and isn’t prone to late night all-caps social media binges. These qualities have led some to dub him “Trump with a brain,” which is more or less DeSantis’s selling point: You get nearly all of what you got from Trump, but with a lot less crazy.
It hasn’t made much of a difference. DeSantis has led Trump in some head-to-head polls but has consistently trailed him in recent surveys of Republican voters. Trump’s numbers have only gone up since his arrest on charges that he concealed hush-money payments to an adult film star in the waning days of the 2016 election: The entire Republican Party, with one or two minor exceptions, has backed him completely, adopting his preferred description of the case against him as a politically motivated witch hunt.
DeSantis’s backers are hoping they can just slap a new coat of paint on the campaign and it will suddenly look fresh and new. Per the Journal, a pro-DeSantis group will launch a seven-figure ad campaign that “portrays the governor as a leader of a movement surrounding his rejection of Covid-19 lockdowns, support for parental rights in education and fights over the ‘woke left.’” But other backers are getting cold feet: The Financial Times reported over the weekend that Thomas Peterffy, a major GOP donor, has put his plans to fund DeSantis’s campaign “on hold” because of the governor’s “stance on abortion and book banning.” Peterffy noted that DeSantis “seems to have lost some momentum.”
This illustrates the predicament DeSantis and other Republican contenders are in. Many powerful people in the party want a Trump alternative who is less extreme, but defeating Trump may demand taking a series of extreme opinions. In any case, running to Trump’s right on abortion and entitlements is probably a recipe for disaster, but running to his left on either would also cause serious problems.
Hoping to halt his slide, DeSantis has started to attack Trump—sort of. “What I see around the country with Republicans is they’ve started to develop a culture of losing,” DeSantis said in Michigan last week. “In Florida, we have a culture of winning. We have a culture of execution, and we have a culture of delivering results.” It’s useful to compare this to what Trump has said about DeSantis. Earlier this year, as the Florida governor emerged as his main rival, Trump threw the kitchen sink at him, alleging that he would force through deep entitlement cuts, that he locked down Florida during the pandemic, even that he’s a pedophile. And yet DeSantis still can’t bring himself to attack Trump by name.
This gets to the heart of the problem with the Republican primary so far. Only one candidate is acting like they’re in an election, and it’s Trump. He’s the only person drawing contrasts with his opponents. He’s the only one making news on a daily basis. His rivals are still riding his coattails. Afraid to attack him, they look weak whenever he takes aim at them. DeSantis’s allies have begun to complain that the governor doesn’t get enough media coverage, but they only have themselves to blame. The only way to generate attention in this primary is to attack Trump, but no one is willing to do that.
There is one possible bright spot for Republicans. The fewer candidates in the race, the better their chances of defeating Trump. Although his poll numbers have crept closer to 50 percent in the wake of his arrest, Trump rarely commanded a majority of Republican voters in 2016 and benefited from a fragmented field. If fewer candidates enter the race this time around, it’s possible that one will emerge as a viable alternative and support will coalesce behind them. But at this early stage in the race, that looks unlikely. Instead, we’ve already seen our first—and certainly not the last—campaign reboot.