Becoming the Republican Nominee Will Not Be Easy for Ron DeSantis

Lincoln Mitchell
MIAMI, FLORIDA / UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 25, 2019: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaks at Florida International University about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Since the midterm elections, something just short of a consensus has formed that Ron DeSantis will be the Republican nominee for president in 2024. It is also assumed that along the way he will defeat Donald Trump and prevent the former president from winning a third straight Republican presidential nomination.

This consensus is in part due to both smart Republican strategists, and there are still some, as well as center and center-left pundits, observers, and journalists, wanting to believe it, albeit for totally different reasons. Smarter Republicans understand that Trump would be a terrible general election candidate in 2024 and that DeSantis would give the GOP a much better chance of winning back the presidency. The center and center-left have long despised Trump, but more importantly deeply want to believe wrongly that Trump represents a unique threat to democracy, one that is not posed by other Republicans. 

This consensus is bolstered because DeSantis has some political strengths that cannot be overlooked. He is a reasonably popular governor of a state that has, in the past, been something of a swing state. From his position as Florida’s governor, DeSantis has gained national prominence for being a leading voice against Covid restrictions and as an outspoken culture warrior whose battle against “wokeism” has galvanized MAGA fans around the country. Additionally, DeSantis has the kind of military and educational credentials that are always helpful in presidential campaigns.

DeSantis may be a formidable candidate, but assuming he will be the nominee is a mistake for several reasons. First, despite the rough few months he had at the end of 2022, Trump should not be counted out yet. The former president is still leading or a very close second in most polls. Trump is finally beginning to campaign in earnest and has begun to pick up endorsements, including from four Republican senators. Trump also has almost universal name recognition and a very loyal base is an experienced campaigner and is still underestimated by many who let their views of the man influence their analysis of his chances.

Trump’s experience campaigning can be contrasted with DeSantis who has never run nationally before. Many candidates have won on their first bid for the presidency or their party’s nomination, so that alone is not a significant barrier for DeSantis. However, not all candidates are able to make the transition to the national stage. There have been several candidates including Al Gore in 1988 and Fred Thompson in 2008 who the pundits thought were the exact right candidate for the moment, but who proved wooden, uninspiring, and simply not very compelling when they got in front of voters outside of their state. Given DeSantis’s humorless and uncharismatic speaking style, it is not difficult to imagine him meeting a similar fate. 

Another critical reason why DeSantis will not have an easy path to the nomination is that numerous other Republican politicians are also interested in being their party’s standard bearer in 2024. Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott and many others are looking at the race. A multi-candidate race will be a big advantage for Trump, the only Republican who has a sizeable and unmovable base within the party. That base, even if it is only 30%, would not be enough in a one-on-one race against DeSantis, but would be an enormously valuable asset in a race against three or more opponents.

These other candidates are very unlikely to get out of the race to make things easier for DeSantis even as they probably recognize that is the best way to stop Trump from winning the nomination and to give the Republicans the best chance of winning in 2024. One reason is that for many of these candidates’ individual political aspirations, a Trump nomination is better than DeSantis becoming the candidate. If Trump is nominated and defeated, other Republican politicians can run in 2028.

By then DeSantis is unlikely to be the strong frontrunner he is now, while Trump will most likely be out of the political picture. However, if DeSantis runs and wins, there will not be another open Republican primary until 2032 because DeSantis would run for reelection in 2028. That is a very long time to wait while remaining a plausible national candidate. Therefore, for people like Pompeo, Cruz, or Pence running in 2024, even if they have little chance of winning, is better for their longer-term aspirations and a possible 2028 campaign than leaving a clear field for DeSantis to run against Trump.

Although only Trump has officially announced his candidacy for 2024, the campaign itself is already well underway. This is indeed the nature of the never-ending campaign cycle in the US. Naturally, a lot can and will happen before the first primary votes are cast about a year from now, but assuming this will be an easy process for DeSantis or that Trump is no longer a strong candidate would be a big mistake, particularly at this point in the campaign.

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Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Francisco. He has written extensively about American politics and US foreign policy. He teaches political science at Columbia University.