Ron DeSantis launched his presidential campaign Wednesday, signaling the prospect of at least a somewhat competitive primary in 2024.
The Florida governor, who polls suggest is the only potentially serious impediment to former president Donald Trump in the GOP nominating contest right now, made his announcement alongside Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces, in an event marred by technical difficulties.
He joins declared candidates that include Trump, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and others, and he could soon be joined by former vice president Mike Pence and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.
Below are takeaways from the launch.
One prelaunch comment from DeSantis’s top strategist stood out. Jeff Roe told the New York Times, “I don’t believe people fundamentally understand that you can be a leader of a movement and not be the leader of your party. Ron DeSantis has the ability to be both. Trump does not.”
In other words: You can have Trump — even a better version of him — without actual Trump and all the baggage and chaos that comes with him. It’s the “Trumpism without Trump” argument we’ve suspected might surface, paired with a ding on Trump’s ability to lead.
This is the conceit that makes the most sense for DeSantis’s campaign. We know that Trump has reinvented the Republican Party in his image. We know that it’s hugely difficult to actually attack Trump on the substance. (That’s a recipe for excommunication from the party.) Better to argue you’d be a better version of what people have signaled they already want.
Effectuating that argument is another matter, as is its sustainability.
DeSantis’s political operation already stumbled in making the case after Trump’s most high-profile recent event, the CNN town hall. Trump’s team is pressing the idea that there are real differences, including on tax policy and Social Security, despite Trump having once taken similar positions. (Trump’s super PAC launched an ad featuring DeSantis saying in 2018, “I voted contrary to him in the Congress.”) There will be pressure on DeSantis to draw his own actual contrasts. Haley devoted much of Wednesday to pushing him on precisely that, even dinging him for supposedly copying Trump’s mannerisms.
“If he’s just going to be an echo of Trump, people will just vote for Trump,” Haley said.
For now, DeSantis is still largely avoiding the elephant in the room. His launch video Wednesday featured only generalities. To the extent it could be seen as offering a different course, it twice mentioned the importance of “truth” and then “facts” — something DeSantis has wielded as an apparent argument against Trump and his 30,000 false and misleading claims as president. But the T-word came up only once during DeSantis’s Twitter Spaces event, and it was used as a verb.
“Merit must trump identity politics,” DeSantis said.
Launching his campaign alongside Musk was surely a choice. Perhaps no non-politician right now more embodies the own-the-libs, anti-woke ethos that has taken over the GOP. And if that means DeSantis sitting next to the guy regularly spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories on the social media platform he bought, all the better, apparently.
Following the early glitches, DeSantis cut to the chase. He said “woke” five times shortly after announcing he was running, including three times in five seconds. He spoke of the “woke mind virus,” referred twice each to the “woke mob” and “woke ideology.”
DeSantis has devoted his political brand to this approach, and there’s really no turning back. It’s his battle with Disney. It’s the bill banning discussion of sexual orientation in schools. It’s being among the most coronavirus-vaccine-skeptical GOP governors. It’s wielding the heavy hand of government against leftism.
But the approach also dovetails with his argument against Trump, which is that DeSantis is the guy actually leading the way for the party and getting things done. If he can do this in Florida, just think what he can do as president of the United States.
“I really believe had Florida not just kind of stood in the way, I think this country would have had rolling lockdowns for probably a two-year period,” DeSantis claimed during a discussion of covid policies in the Twitter Spaces event. “And so their impulses were authoritarian.”
DeSantis’s GOP opponents have at times blanched at how far he’s taken things, particularly regarding Disney, arguing that it’s not really conservative to retaliate against a private corporation. And it’s not difficult to see how some of this stuff could be a problem in the general election.
But this is how DeSantis has built his national brand, and now it’s time to see how Republicans respond when they truly consider his candidacy.
“What made you want to kind of take the chance of doing it this way, as opposed to just doing it on cable or the usual way?” one of the hosts asked DeSantis early in the Twitter Spaces event.
It was a good question — particularly after the first 20 minutes were marred by glitches and muffled audio and probably made DeSantis regret the unusual forum. The event was due to begin at 6 p.m. Eastern time, but after a series of problems, DeSantis didn’t chime in to announce his campaign launch until 6:25. When he did, his voice sounded faint and muffled.
The problems then persisted, with hosts, including Musk, assuring listeners that this was just because there was so much interest and they were breaking ground. Ultimately, Musk relinquished his initial role, explaining, “I had to switch over to David hosting it because my account was actually … breaking the system.”
On top of that, there were no images of DeSantis speaking and looking presidential. It was basically like listening to talk radio, except the hosts weren’t experienced broadcasters who could keep the conversation moving and focused, and they spent an inordinate amount of time playing up how historic the format was, shifting attention from the candidate himself.
DeSantis’s opening statement was stilted, and it borrowed heavily from the rhetoric in his launch video, but the event eased up when DeSantis began talking about policy issues, which he’s more comfortable with. Then his rapid response operation used the former in a decidedly weird web video featuring b-roll of him and, to a bizarre extent, Musk.
We probably shouldn’t read too much into this, but these events are extensively stage-managed for a reason. The stakes are huge. This was a Twitter event, but it didn’t reflect well on the DeSantis campaign’s ability to make sure things run seamlessly. The roughness takes away from the narrative you’re trying to put forward. Instead of, “Wow, this was an unusual and novel idea,” it was, “Wow, this unusual and novel idea didn’t really work.”
DeSantis, notably, is the second Republican this week to suffer technical difficulties during his launch, with Scott’s microphone having malfunctioned.
It might tempt someone more superstitious to suggest that perhaps a real challenge to Trump isn’t meant to be. But mostly, it probably means others will just go back to doing things the “usual way.”
This doesn’t seem to be a particularly opportune time for DeSantis to launch — or rather, he seems to have let better opportunities slip by.
He had clear momentum coming out of the 2022 election, given his overwhelming 19-point reelection victory in a former swing state coupled with Trump’s bad midterms day. And it looked as if the GOP was flirting with an electability-focused break from Trump.
But since March, Trump has reclaimed his status as the strong favorite. His lead has grown at a remarkably steady rate, doubling from an average of 15 points in early March to more than 30 points today. Perhaps most troubling for DeSantis, his electability argument appears to be neutralized; in a YouGov poll Wednesday, respondents said by a 2-to-1 margin that Trump had a better chance to win the general election.
But just as the polls showing DeSantis gaining were early in the election cycle, so are these. It’s more than seven months until the Iowa caucuses, and it stands to reason that few people have truly tuned in.
There are also reasons for hope for DeSantis.
One is that Trump’s true-believer base isn’t as big as it once was. Even with Trump rising, only about half of Republicans have a “strongly” favorable view of him, and nearly half of Republicans have said he shouldn’t run. Getting half the vote in a GOP primary would be plenty — especially if the field is as crowded is it appears it will be — but it suggests there is a sizable contingent that could rally around an alternative to Trump under the right circumstances.
There’s also the fact that the limited early-state polling we have suggests DeSantis does better in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. We don’t really know if that’s still the case, but DeSantis appears as though he’ll lean heavily on Iowa.
Another reason for hope is that there are still plenty of X-factors looming over Trump. His indictment in Manhattan seems only to have helped him, and a recent civil verdict finding him liable for sexual abuse doesn’t appear to have moved the needle on the right. But what if he’s indicted for something more serious, like withholding classified documents? And what if these things begin to bring the actual electability gap between him and DeSantis into more stark relief?
In some ways, DeSantis seems to be getting into the race as the just-in-case candidate. And that’s not a terrible place to be.