Less than a year ago, Ron DeSantis was a winner and Donald Trump was a loser. This was one of two marquee takeaways from the midterm elections—the other was that the pundits were wrong, but that’s true in every election. The ensuing narrative ran hot and heavy: DeSantis was both Donald Trump’s anointed successor and the Republican Party’s savior-in-waiting. The evidence was so glaring as to be practically incontrovertible: DeSantis had romped to reelection in a purplish state, winning a second term as Florida’s governor by nearly 20 points; Trump, meanwhile, was revealed as an albatross for the GOP and the architect of the party’s disappointing performance.
One wonders what might have happened if DeSantis had jumped into the presidential race a few weeks later. That is, and will be, one of the great hypothetical questions of this election cycle. Regardless, DeSantis’s victory looks different now. It’s never been entirely clear just how much his landslide reelection was due to his political acumen and how much of it was down to the simultaneous collapse of Florida’s Democratic Party and the transformation of Florida into a reliably Republican state. But since those heady days, DeSantis has proven to possess several glaring deficiencies as a presidential candidate.
Where to begin? He is an abysmal campaigner with an off-putting personal touch; videos—often many—circulate of him coldly greeting voters or awkwardly impersonating an easygoing, natural person after nearly every campaign stop. The centerpiece of his campaign—his war on “woke”—does not seem to be animating voters, and yet he hasn’t been able to pivot. He increasingly seems to be on an island: too Trumpy for Never Trumpers but not MAGA enough for the die-hards. It’s only August, but he’s already having to do a painful and protracted “reset.” DeSantis is the loser now, and he has been for weeks. Trump, meanwhile, has a lead so vast he’s considering skipping the primary debates. (He probably should.)
So far, no one in the GOP field has been able to lay a glove on Donald Trump—though it’s also the case that no one has really tried. Chris Christie has made the most aggressive push against the former president, but he is barely registering in the polls and has basically no shot of being the party’s nominee. Still, the best argument against Trump is the one that many were making last fall: that Donald Trump is a loser who bears responsibility for three consecutive electoral defeats between 2018 and 2022—and that nominating him once again would only spell disaster for the party. Whether it’s too late to effectively make this case and knock Trump down from his heights atop the polls is an experiment that DeSantis is showing signs of belatedly adopting.
Asked by NBC reporter Dasha Burns if he agreed with Trump’s persistent lies that he was the real winner of the 2020 election, DeSantis at first tried to dodge. “Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 every four years is the winner,” the Florida governor said before issuing a series of familiar complaints: the use of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, the “suppression” of news about Hunter Biden’s laptop, donations from Mark Zuckerberg to election administrators. But after a follow-up from Burns, DeSantis was more direct. “No, of course he lost,” he said. “Joe Biden’s the president.”
This is new. Republicans have heretofore been caught in a trap with regard to Trump’s election lies. These claims are obviously bogus, and Trump’s constant complaining on the matter is a big reason he’s been a drag on his party’s dismal electoral performance. And yet Republicans do largely believe that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Which probably explains why what DeSantis did next was try to to square the circle. “Here’s the issue that I think is important for Republican voters to think about: Why did we have all those mail votes? Because Trump turned the government over to [Dr. Anthony] Fauci,” DeSantis said. “They embraced lockdowns. They did the Cares Act, which funded mail-in ballots across the country.”
This is too clever by half. As New York’s Ed Kilgore persuasively argued, while DeSantis has amended his rhetoric, he is still trying to have it both ways, claiming that Trump lost the election while at the same time blaming him—as opposed to a shadowy cabal of Democrats and elites—for his election loss. “The suggestion that Biden didn’t legitimately win but that Trump helped rig the election for him sure does make the former president look like a loser, all right, without for a moment legitimizing President Biden, who just watched the White House fall into his lap,” Kilgore writes, hitting the nail on the head.
Still, this is a way of attacking Trump’s inevitability that is potentially fruitful. Going toe-to-toe with Trump on insults never ends well for anyone—just ask Marco Rubio. And yet Trump’s lack of electoral success—and the fact that he, you know, lost the last election against the guy Republicans will be facing again in 2024—is arguably his biggest weakness with GOP voters. These voters like the fact that Trump is erratic. They like the fact that he’s bombastic and uncontrollable. But at the core of his political identity is the argument that this is what it takes to win; that the only way to take down a corrupt, liberal establishment is by embracing chaos and fighting dirty. No other Republican candidate can take on that mantle.
But they can make the case that Trump’s approach has failed and that backing him again would be catastrophic: that they may not like Ron DeSantis as much as they like Donald Trump—and they certainly don’t—but that it’s clear that Trump’s approach is ineffective. DeSantis has thus far tried to make the case that he’s a more market-corrected version of Trump, where you get all of the culture-war stuff and authoritarianism but with a more substantial helping of effectiveness—with little success. But part of that failure is because Republican voters believe that Trump is a winner, and the rest of the GOP field has done nothing to dissuade them of that notion. It’s well worth DeSantis giving it a shot. He might have done better to argue this point, however, before the race got to the point where Trump was pasting him.