As he flails to reverse a polling decline that is beginning to resemble a rockslide, Gov. Ron DeSantis must be feeling a little clueless about why his political fortunes are crumbling so quickly. Attacking wokeness and bullying transgender people seemed to work so well in Florida, so why aren’t national Republicans in awe of the divisions he’s deepened? Making repeated appearances with racial provocateurs never stopped him from getting elected as governor, so why did he have to fire a young aide who inserted Nazi imagery into his own video promoting Mr. DeSantis’s presidential campaign?
But the political bubble inhabited by Mr. DeSantis is so thick — symbolized by the hugely expensive private-plane flights that are draining his campaign of cash, since he and his wife, Casey, won’t sit with regular people in a commercial cabin — that he has been unable or unwilling to understand the brushoff he has received from donors and potential voters and make the changes he needs to become competitive with Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.
For years, Mr. DeSantis has created an entire political persona out of a singular crusade against wokeness, frightening teachers and professors away from classroom discussions of race, defending a school curriculum that said there were benefits to slavery, claiming (falsely) that his anti-vaccine crusade worked and engaging in a pointless battle with his state’s best-known private employer over school discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. He had the support of the Florida Legislature and state Republican officials in most of his efforts and presumably believed that an image of a more effective and engaged Trump would help him beat the real thing.
But it’s not working. A Monmouth University poll published on Tuesday showed Mr. Trump with a 20-point lead over Mr. DeSantis in a head-to-head match, and the advantage grew to more than 30 points when all the other candidates were thrown in. Major donors have started to sour on him, and The Times reported on Thursday that they are disappointed with his performance and the management of his campaign, which he says he will somehow reboot.
“DeSantis has not made any headway,” wrote the poll’s director, Patrick Murray. “The arguments that he’d be a stronger candidate and a more effective president than Trump have both fallen flat.”
The most obvious fault in his strategy is that you can’t beat Donald Trump if you don’t even criticize him, and Mr. DeSantis has said little about the multiple indictments piling up against the former president or about his character. Granted, there are downsides to a full-frontal attack on Mr. Trump at this point, as other Republicans have become aware, and Mr. DeSantis still needs to establish some kind of identity first. But he can’t become an alt-Trump without drawing a sharp contrast and holding Mr. Trump to account for at least a few of his many flaws. There are graveyards in Iowa and New Hampshire full of candidates who tried to ignore the leader through sheer force of personality, and even if he had one of those, Mr. DeSantis hasn’t demonstrated the skills to use it. Both men will speak Friday night at the Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, and if Mr. DeSantis leaves his rival unscathed, it’s hard to imagine how he goes the distance.
The deeper problem, though, is that Mr. DeSantis is peddling the wrong message. Only 1 percent of voters think that wokeness and transgender issues are the country’s top problem, according to an April Fox News poll — essentially a repudiation of the governor’s entire brand. Race issues and vaccines are also low on the list.
Lakshya Jain, who helps lead the website Split Ticket, which is doing some really interesting political analysis and modeling, said Mr. DeSantis misinterpreted what Florida voters were saying when they re-elected him by a 19-point margin in 2022.
“The economy was doing well in Florida, and Democrats didn’t put up a good candidate in Charlie Crist,” Mr. Jain told me. “I’m not sure the majority of Florida voters really cared what he was saying on wokeness. It’s not really an issue people vote on.”
The economy, naturally, is what people care most about, but Mr. DeSantis hasn’t said much about his plans to fight inflation (which is already coming down) or create more jobs (which is happening every month without his help). Clearly aware of the problem, he announced on Thursday that he would unfurl a Declaration of Economic Independence in a major speech in New Hampshire on Monday (a phrase as trite and tone-deaf as the name of his Never Back Down super PAC).
That appears to be the first fruit of his campaign reboot, but there are good reasons he doesn’t like to stray from his rigid agenda, as demonstrated by his occasionally disastrous footsteps into foreign policy. Bashing Bidenomics means he’ll immediately have to come up with an excuse for why inflation is so much higher in Florida than the nation as a whole. Though the national inflation rate in May was 4 percent compared with a year earlier, it was 9 percent in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area for the same period and 7.3 percent in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area.
The primary reason for that is the state’s housing shortage, an issue that Mr. DeSantis largely ignored during his first term and has only belatedly taken a few small steps to address. When the issue inevitably comes up on the campaign trail, you can bet that Mr. DeSantis will find some way of blaming it on President Biden. That way he can quickly pivot to his preferred agenda of rewriting Black history, questioning science and encouraging gun ownership.
He really can’t help himself; just this week he said he might hire the noted anti-vaccine nut Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to work at the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then he got into an online fight with Representative Byron Donalds, Florida’s only Black Republican member of Congress, over the state’s astonishingly wrong curriculum on slavery, and a DeSantis spokesman called Mr. Donalds a “supposed conservative.”
Great way to expand your base. Remind me: When does the reboot start?
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David Firestone, a former reporter and editor for the Washington bureau and the Metropolitan and National desks of The Times, is a member of the editorial board.
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