Ron DeSantis’s Reality – The New York Times

The political fortunes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have reversed over the past six months. After his re-election as Florida’s governor, DeSantis looked like a strong potential presidential candidate while Trump grappled with legal and personal challenges. Now, Trump leads in opinion polling, DeSantis has struggled to solidify his star status and, in some corners, there’s a growing sense that Trump’s nomination for president is inevitable.

I would caution against that feeling, no matter how it looks for Trump at the moment. After months of reporting on the early stages of the 2024 presidential race, I’ve seen how narratives can miss important factors shaping the race. And that is how conventional wisdom starts to take shape in a way that’s divorced from evidence or data. (See: expectations of a Republican wave in last year’s midterm elections.)

DeSantis is expected to formally enter the race as soon as tomorrow. Here are two narratives about his candidacy that could use revising.

Narrative 1: DeSantis is toast.

Reality: There is an opening for a Trump alternative, whether it’s DeSantis or someone else.

Trump’s hold on the Republican electorate has always been tenuous. He has never won the majority of voters in a contested Republican primary. At the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in California this year, one delegate told me that party insiders estimated that about 30 to 35 percent of Republican voters were unshakably with Trump, while another, smaller group was comfortable with him as the nominee while considering other options.

For other candidates, those numbers make up a road map to victory: Consolidate the majority of Republicans who would prefer a different nominee. This group includes factions like the Tea Party conservatives who backed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2016 primary and the business-focused moderates who backed candidates like Gov. John Kasich of Ohio in 2016.

Appealing to them is a difficult task. These groups have historically opposed Trump for different reasons and no candidate has successfully brought them together, but the conditions for an anti-Trump coalition are there.

One route for a candidate like DeSantis or Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who joined the Republican field yesterday, is to win the nomination without crossing Trump. As my colleague Nate Cohn wrote, one strategy for defeating Trump could be to embody his political message without taking him on directly. For some Republicans, this is a welcome direction. My reporting made clear that given the criminal investigations Trump faces, some rivals have banked on him to implode on his own.

However, that strategy is passive, which could play into Trump’s hands. Outside the Manhattan courthouse on the day that Trump was arraigned on fraud charges related to his 2016 campaign, the conservative media provocateur Jack Posobiec said that people close to Trump’s campaign predicted that more indictments would embolden his candidacy, not imperil it. He said they believed Trump would have the opportunity to galvanize voters by painting law enforcement as politically motivated and out to stifle his candidacy.

Posobiec pointed to the news media attention, increased fund-raising and the bump in polling that Trump secured after his indictment.

Narrative 2: DeSantis’s biggest problem is Donald Trump.

Reality: Yes, but he has another problem to confront first.

DeSantis no longer scares away candidates who were once deferential to his status as the front-runner in the Trump-alternative sweepstakes. Last week, several Republican governors made notable moves: Doug Burgum of North Dakota — a former Microsoft executive — made overtures toward joining the 2024 field, and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia released an advertisement linking himself to Ronald Reagan. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire also said he was thinking about joining the race, days after a report that former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey might join as well.

Those actions show a party unintimidated by DeSantis’s candidacy and are further evidence that his campaign’s first task is not to overtake Trump, but to persuade primary voters and opponents that he is the strongest rival to Trump. At the R.N.C. meeting, a Trump adviser told me that his campaign would love for the field to get to 10 candidates. “More is better for us,” the adviser said, invoking the logic that several candidates polling in single digits would hurt DeSantis’s ability to put together a coalition.

DeSantis’s delicate task was on display two months ago, when he announced an isolationist view on the war in Ukraine, a clear play for Trump’s supporters. DeSantis’s statement drew backlash from commentators and Republican donors, and two other presidential hopefuls — former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and former Vice President Mike Pence — used it to attack him.

Such is the danger of DeSantis’s unique electoral position: As he enters the race as the established Trump alternative, he incurs the ire of other rivals seeking to elevate themselves.

When DeSantis announces his candidacy this week, he will be an underdog, but he is not a long shot. No one who has raised more than $110 million is.

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