On Sunday, in advance of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Republican primaries, scheduled for January 23rd, Florida governor Ron DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign, narrowing the field to former president Donald Trump and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. In this Q&A, Thomas Gift analyzes DeSantis’s decision, why his candidacy failed to gain traction as many expected, and what his political future may hold.
Why did Ron DeSantis never gain the kind of support many anticipated?
DeSantis’s campaign was premised on the idea that Republican voters wanted “Trumpism without Trump.” That hypothesis was clearly wrong. The reality: they want Trumpism with Trump. Or more specifically, they just want Trump. Nothing DeSantis could’ve done would have changed that. DeSantis didn’t run a perfect campaign. Far from it. But for him to have won, all the political stars would have had to align, and he would’ve needed to have run a flawless campaign. Instead, Trump’s 91 criminal indictments, plus the effort to kick him off the ballot in Maine and Colorado, gave the former president all the momentum he needed. Trump’s appeal among the right is very strong right now. And more than eight years after Trump came down the golden escalator, the left still fails to fundamentally understand his appeal. The fact that so many Republicans feel Trump is owed a second term because they believe his stolen election claims only accelerates demand for a Trump sequel. In the end, Trump’s success says more about the right’s appetite for him than it does about the failings of his competitors, including DeSantis.
Were you surprised DeSantis didn’t at least last long enough to see his campaign through New Hampshire?
Not at all. DeSantis was polling at only six percent in New Hampshire, and he was clearly right that there was no obvious path to victory. DeSantis is thinking about his own political career. Jumping on the bandwagon now and sparing himself an embarrassing third-place finish in New Hampshire, is the best way to ensure continued relevance. Right now, there’s only one bandwagon to jump on in the GOP: Trump’s. Already, we’re starting to see the healing of wounds. Trump said that he would “officially retire” his nickname “Ron DeSanctimonious” and called his former opponent a “really terrific person.” DeSantis himself gave Trump his full-throated endorsement, calling him “superior to the current incumbent” and throwing his competitor, Nikki Haley, under the bus. DeSantis is almost certainly eyeing a seat in a Trump administration. And he hopes that if he plays his cards right, his stumble in this year’s primaries doesn’t need to be a political face-plant. If Trump does win the election, DeSantis could be a likely pick for attorney general or another high-level cabinet post.
Do you think DeSantis has any regrets he didn’t attack Trump harder?
DeSantis decided early that he was going to treat Trump with velvet gloves. All his Republican rivals, save former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, made the same decision. It’s easy to Monday Morning quarterback and say DeSantis should have taken the gloves off. But it’s not obvious to me that the result would’ve been any different. In fact, it might have been worse. For one thing, Christie’s campaign wasn’t exactly a roaring success. And if DeSantis has his sights set on rising within the GOP, now isn’t the time to be on the wrong side of Trump. Is it lacking courage? Probably. Is it self-serving? Absolutely. But it’s also Republican politics in 2024. DeSantis recently said that if you don’t “kiss the ring” of Trump, he’ll “trash you.” Now, DeSantis is the one kissing that ring. There’s been so much criticism of DeSantis’s campaign. I understand that. But there needs to be a political appreciation for the spot that he was in. The conventional wisdom — that if you attack Trump, it alienates the Republican base — is conventional wisdom for a reason: it’s correct.
What’s next for DeSantis, do you think?
For now, DeSantis is headed back to Florida. But as they say, you can never go home again. A year ago, DeSantis was riding high. He’d won a nearly 20 percentage point rout in his re-election bid for governor, and pundits saw him as the natural heir to Trump. Donors were showering him with money. He was the darling of Fox News. Today, he’s invariably lost some of that “golden boy” luster, which he won’t get back. In retrospect, it’s clear that DeSantis got the timing wrong. And in politics, timing is everything. The craving for Donald Trump among the GOP electorate this year was too much to beat. Still, four years can be a lifetime in politics. DeSantis is still only 45 years old, and there’s no reason why he can’t run for president again. But he will need to take stock of what didn’t work. The problem, though, is that some of DeSantis’ underwhelming performance came down to his personality. Republican voters liked his policies and his agenda, and his culture warrior pose, and he’s clearly a brawler. The charisma just wasn’t there, especially compared to Trump. That’s hard to change.
- These remarks are based in part on an interview by Thomas Gift for CNBC Europe on January 22, 2024.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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