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Is Ron DeSantis Savvy Or Not?
He has been savvy in Florida, but he's not yet translating that to a national general election.
Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won re-election by a margin of 19 points. He did this despite facing a serious opponent — last time Charlie Crist ran for governor, he lost by only 1 point, and in a bad national year for Democrats. Florida has trended red in recent years, but it’s not that red — Trump won the state by only 3.5 points in 2020. So I think that’s an important starting point for evaluating DeSantis’ presidential chances: He has shown an ability to run up a wide electoral margin in a swing state. He clearly knows something about appealing to an electorate beyond the Fox News base.
I think progressives err to the extent they think of DeSantis as an idiot, or as an off-putting boor whom no swing voter could like. It’s a mistake to think of Florida as a hellscape that people want to flee. You don’t have to like him or the state, but you should understand the ways in which they have both been successful. Go ahead and laugh about the three-finger pudding thing, but do so while remembering this is a guy who just won a landslide in a swing state.
That said, there is something odd about the manner in which DeSantis is setting himself up to run a national election. I think David Frum overstates matters when he proposes that DeSantis might be “flaming out already.” But he’s right that the governor displays obsessions with issues that seem fairly marginal in our national politics, while having little to say about some central issues:
What is DeSantis’s view on health care? He doesn’t seem to have one. President Joe Biden has delivered cheap insulin to U.S. users. Good idea or not? Silence from DeSantis. There’s no DeSantis jobs policy; he hardly speaks about inflation. Homelessness? The environment? Nothing. Even on crime, DeSantis must avoid specifics, because specifics might remind his audience that Florida’s homicide numbers are worse than New York’s or California’s.
DeSantis just doesn’t seem to care much about what most voters care about. And voters in turn do not care much about what DeSantis cares most about.
Last fall, DeSantis tried a stunt to influence the midterm elections: At considerable taxpayer expense, he flew asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard. The ploy enraged liberals on Twitter. It delighted the Fox audience. Nobody else, however, seemed especially interested.
It’s a strange contrast to the manner in which DeSantis has governed Florida. MSNBC viewers seem mostly interested in which books his supporters want removed from elementary school libraries, how he’s treating The Walt Disney Company, and which Miami venues might lose their liquor licenses from having drag performances in spaces open to children.1 And certainly, DeSantis has put a lot of energy into stirring up those and other culture wars. But he’s also raised teacher pay, cut tolls on highways, and spent money on Everglades restoration. He has demonstrated a broad awareness that voters care about the basic operations of government and how those affect their daily lives, and he’s focused on getting them to feel satisfied with the way he’s overseeing the actual government.
This also shows up in his signature issue: A resistance to coronavirus-related restrictions, and an insistence that Florida is “open for business.” In 2020, I’d even say he broadly got this issue right — before widespread vaccine availability, Florida operated with far less restriction than California and yet the two states achieved similar COVID death rates.2 In the vaccine era, I think his soft vaccine skepticism has been a significant substantive mistake. Still, as a political matter, it’s not clear to me he paid a price for this — a lot of people tend to understand the deaths of the unvaccinated as a matter of individual choice, not government responsibility.
In any case, the principle DeSantis has stood for on COVID — that the government should keep things running as normal, offer you the services you expect (including in-person school), and not do a lot of telling people what to do — is both coherent and relevant to people’s daily lives. He’s been rewarded for it.
But the 2024 election won’t be about COVID. I also don’t think it will be about Ukraine, hamfisted though DeSantis’ efforts to position himself on the conflict have been. My expectation is the 2024 election will largely feature the same hot issues as 2022 — inflation, abortion, crime, energy, and the border. There will also be the perennial issue of health care, and a stark contrast between Republican plans to sharply cut the federal budget (including popular entitlement programs) and Democratic plans not to cut so much.
Because DeSantis is not an idiot, and because he has previously demonstrated an ability to strategize well for a general election, I assume he knows this too, and that his plan for the general election will be to trot out the standard (and effective) Republican attacks on inflation, crime, gasoline prices, and immigration.
The president has been smartly preparing himself to face a Republican opponent on these issues by breaking from his party in popular ways — blocking reforms to weaken criminal prosecution in Washington DC, making it more difficult to cross the southern border and seek asylum, and approving more domestic oil drilling. The other thing Biden will need to do is to move to define DeSantis on his weak issues before DeSantis has a chance to. I wrote last month about how Biden is doing this with DeSantis’ congressional record of voting for Social Security and Medicare cuts. If and when DeSantis signs strict abortion restrictions into law in Florida, I expect Biden to take similar advantage on that issue.
This is where DeSantis’ current status as what Frum calls “a machine engineered to win the Republican presidential nomination” can hurt him most. DeSantis will eventually update his software for the general election — he will “shake the etch-a-sketch,” if you will — but he won’t be well positioned to fight attacks on his abortion record from his left when his electoral fortunes still depend on using it to appeal to the right. The key is to define him as extreme and out of touch early, when he can’t yet disagree with you.
The main temptation Democrats will have to resist is the urge to follow DeSantis into his obsessions with side issues. The 2024 election won't be about which books are in elementary school libraries. It won’t be about Drag Queen Story Hour. And it won’t be about the ethics of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Ed Kilgore had a somewhat odd column last week calling it “risky” for Democrats to try to sidestep these culture-war issues. But what Biden is doing is simply keeping his eye on the ball — focusing on the things that DeSantis would do differently (and harmfully) in the actual operation of the federal government that would affect most Americans’ daily lives.
It’s a favorable contrast for Biden, if he can keep the focus there.
P.S. I’ll answer your questions in another Mayonnaise Clinic newsletter this weekend. Send your questions or any other requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is interesting to me as a podcast host with a First Amendment expert as co-host — Ken and I will talk about this soon on Serious Trouble — but it seems unlikely to be a central issue in the election.