Ron vs. Don: Why DeSantis may be able to defeat the Trump juggernaut

The technical issues that plagued the launch of Ron DeSantis’s 2024 Republican presidential bid on Twitter were certainly a poor start to kick off his national campaign, but there are far more pressing challenges facing the Florida governor.

Most significantly, while polls suggest DeSantis is the second most popular pick among Republicans, he has officially entered the race down more than 30 points from the front-runner in the RealClearPolitics national average polls: former president Donald Trump.

After his big re-election months ago, DeSantis has sputtered along, his poll numbers cratering as he faces off against a challenger who has a hard-core base of support that no other candidate can match.

With Trump mounting such a significant lead, does DeSantis even stand a chance of catching up?

“Primaries are volatile things. Candidates rise and fall because voters don’t pay that much attention early in the process,” said Danny Hayes, a political science professor at George Washington University. “If anybody is writing off DeSantis right now, they’re probably not looking clearly at the situation.”

“Beating Trump, of course, will be difficult. But there’s a lot that can happen between now and the Iowa caucuses.”

Name recognition

Despite the poll gap with Trump, it’s certainly not all bad news for the Florida governor. Trump’s ongoing legal woes could be a potential boon for the DeSantis campaign.  This month, Trump was found liable of sexual abuse and defamation of magazine writer E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s.

This week, a court date for his criminal trial in Manhattan relating to hush money payments to women who alleged extramarital affairs was set for March 2024, right in the heart of primary season.

As well, Trump may also face charges over his handling of classified documents and his actions regarding the 2020 election.

And DeSantis does have some political advantages that could give him a legitimate shot at winning, political experts say, advantages which include name recognition.

“The hardest thing to do when you’re running for president is to get famous,” said Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former political editor of Fox News Channel. “To reach the persuadable voter, you need for them first to know who you are.”

Someone like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who just entered the race with over $20 million but still polls in single digits, will have to spend that money on boosting his name recognition, Stirewalt said.

“Ron DeSantis does not have to do that,” he said.”And that has extraordinary benefits, as Donald Trump proved when he leveraged television celebrity into the Republican nomination and the presidency.”

A record of winning

DeSantis has become a national figure in the U.S., in part because of his large margin of victory in the 2022 midterms.

But he also attracted attention for his anti-COVID mandates, along with other controversial policies. Those have included the legislation nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” that prohibited teaching gender identity to young children in school, his fights against what he calls “wokeism” and his ongoing battle with Walt Disney Co.

Although some of those policies have drawn criticism from liberals, many have been welcomed by Republicans, boosting his popularity among the party faithful. 

His re-election in Florida also has been in contrast to Trump, who lost the general election in 2020, and Trump-backed candidates, many who went down to defeat in the midterms.

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Ron vs. Don: Why DeSantis may be able to defeat the Trump juggernaut

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has officially entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination. DeSantis is considered one of the front-runners along with former U.S. president Donald Trump.

“He has a record of winning races, particularly his re-election race, which is the kind of thing that will speak well to Republican primary voters who are hungry for victory,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres.

Another big advantage for DeSantis is that he’s been able to raise a lot of money, said Republican strategist Michael DuHaime.

“As the incumbent governor of Florida, he has raised a fortune,” DuHaime said in an email.

Also, “he is a fresh face, three decades younger than Trump.”

On the other hand

Still, some political observers say DeSantis suffers from an image problem, that he’s prickly, and unlike Trump, is not comfortable with crowds, which could be a more significant liability in a nationwide campaign trying to reach a broader audience.

His support also seemed to crater among some Republicans when he said Russia’s war against Ukraine was a “territorial dispute,” and imposed tougher restrictions on abortion in his state. Meanwhile, his ongoing fight with Disney may have alienated some in the party who see his measures as anti-business.

President Joe Biden, in aviators with a big smile, has his hand around a woman and is talking to a man. Ron DeSantis walks in the foreground, looking down.
Observers have noted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t seem at ease with crowds. Here, he walks by as President Joe Biden talks with people impacted by Hurricane Ian on Oct. 5, 2022. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Ayres said he believes DeSantis has been too focussed on trying to win over support from about a third of the Republican party, the “always Trump” voters.

“They’re not going to vote for anybody else,” Ayres said.

Instead, he suggested DeSantis should be targeting the “Maybe Trump” voter, those who have voted for him in the past, but perhaps are looking to leave all Trump’s political baggage behind and find another candidate.

“They’re skeptical that [Trump] could win. And so DeSantis has to present a winner’s persona, look like the kind of guy who could be a successful presidential candidate and win an election.”

Stirewalt said DeSantis has succeeded to this point by being a blunt instrument, a political bulldozer.

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Ron vs. Don: Why DeSantis may be able to defeat the Trump juggernaut

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“Unfortunate for him, those are not the skills that are required once you are in the game,” he said.

“What DeSantis has to do is pivot … use the backboard of people’s expectations of him as a blunt, culture warrior and then do some things that surprise and make interested voters who at this point are either down on him or have become skeptical.”

DuHaime said DeSantis will need to be more aggressive to beat Trump. 

“To this point, DeSantis only makes oblique passive aggressive criticisms at Trump because he doesn’t want to offend Trump’s voters,” he said. “That won’t cut it.

“DeSantis has a chance. Trump is the favourite, but everyone already knows him.  All eyes will now be on DeSantis to see how he performs. That’s both a great opportunity and could lead to either a jump in the polls or to disappointment.”

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