Eight years ago right about now, discussions about the Republican presidential nominating contest centered on the perceived “lanes” in which candidates were operating. There was the evangelical lane, in which a candidate might benefit from robust Christian-conservative support. There was still a smoldering tea party lane and a moderate lane. Sussing out where the race was likely to go meant delicate, informal calculations of who was doing well where.
That was in May 2015. By early July, this balance was blown out of the water. Donald Trump had announced his candidacy and the number of lanes collapsed to two: Trump or not Trump. Trump, by far the strongest candidate in the Trump lane, won.
It seems clear that this scenario is still in place. Trump leads all comers in polling, with FiveThirtyEight’s average of presidential polling showing the former president sitting north of 50 percent nationally — more support than he ever got in RealClearPolitics’ (RCP) average in 2016. Even more than in 2015, everyone else who is running is vying for the not-Trump position.
At the moment, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a healthy lead in that lane. But since the entire point of the lane is to serve as an alternative to Trump, that Trump still sees double the support of DeSantis seems either like the not-Trump lane is pretty narrow — which is possible — or like DeSantis isn’t the best candidate to dominate that lane.
And that latter possibility makes his seemingly imminent campaign announcement particularly fraught.
We have all been around enough presidential campaigns by now to know what’s going to happen over the next week or two. DeSantis will announce. Some of the squishiness in the polls that accompanies not being a declared candidate will firm up and his position will probably improve (though perhaps not much). There will probably also be a spate of articles about how the DeSantis comeback had begun.
The central — perhaps existential — question will be whether a comeback really will be underway.
In the FiveThirtyEight and RCP averages for the 2024 nominating contest to date, the closest DeSantis has been to Trump has been in the double-digits. The RCP average extends back to that period in the wake of the midterms when DeSantis was glowing from his landslide reelection and Trump was stumbling for pushing candidates who proved unable to win winnable races. Even then, in mid-November, RCP had Trump up by about 20 points in its average (albeit without many polls in the mix).
By itself, this recurring gap undercuts DeSantis’s message. If the argument you’re making to voters is constrained to complaints about the second-order effects of a third Trump presidential candidacy (as opposed to, say, elevating legal and ethical questions about him), that means arguing things like “nominating Trump will mean we lose yet again.” It’s a tough punch to land if the guy you’re accusing of being a loser is doubling you up in the polls.
Let’s say that after his launch, DeSantis jumps from 21 percent in the polls (where he is now, according to FiveThirtyEight) to 30 percent before settling down a few points lower. Is that going to convince anti-Trump voters and donors — people worried about a crowded field giving Trump a clear shot — that he’s the guy to carry the torch? Or might they be open to seeing who else could surge into contention in that lane?
There are lots of signs that other candidates think the non-Trump lane is contestable. For one thing, plenty of other candidates are throwing their hats in the ring. Some of them are long shots, tossing their hats from the balcony like a kid chucking a dart at a balloon on a carnival midway. Others, like former vice president Mike Pence, seem to think maybe there’s a path to walk.
There are predators circling the Florida governor. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whom you’ve probably never heard of, is thinking about running — a move that might be about getting more people to have heard of Doug Burgum but also doesn’t suggest that he thinks it’s a Trump-DeSantis contest.
Then there’s Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in the news earlier this month for saying he wouldn’t be on the presidential campaign trail … this year at least. On Thursday, his political Twitter account posted this:
It’s time to usher in a new era of American values. It’s our turn to choose life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. pic.twitter.com/IH8enVaL5B
— Glenn Youngkin (@GlennYoungkin) May 18, 2023
That’s not the sort of video that a guy who isn’t thinking at all about running for president produces and publishes. That’s instead the sort of video a candidate makes when he’s thinking, well, who knows?
It has emerged that DeSantis, for all of his rhetoric that endeared him to his party’s right-most wing, is not that good at the requisite shadowboxing that should accompany it. DeSantis skips over the part where you make policy promises in favor of simply having a compliant legislature pass the policies themselves. But this also means that he expects those bills to do the talking on his behalf as he outsources social media scraps to flacks like Christina Pushaw.
At one time, I thought this was a smart strategy, separating the social media scrums that often led Republicans to criticize Trump to others while still pushing right-wing policies. But that overestimates how opposed Republicans were to those tweets and underestimates how much value they offered Trump in his incessant and auto-generated fights against the purported establishment.
Trump pushes the boundaries wherever he can in whatever format he can to get the conversation focused back on him. DeSantis then holds a rigid news conference about formalizing the new boundaries with state law.
Again, maybe this is enough. Maybe DeSantis will announce and he’ll get over his initial awkwardness and the existence of the campaign will free him up to do nonlegislative politicking and maybe it will work. But if it doesn’t show signs of working pretty quickly, a lot of desperate Trump skeptics, people whose hands are worn from eight years of incessant wringing, will be grasping at someone else, anyone else, to be the guy in that non-Trump lane.
As I’ve said before, only Trump can really play in the Trump lane, however much DeSantis might want to drift over into it. But a few hundred million Americans can be the non-Trump alternative.