In early 2016, as Jeb Bush floundered, the Republican establishment began to throw its support behind a different politician from Florida who seemed as if he could defeat the upstart Donald Trump. Senator Marco Rubio was 44 and handsome, and had put together a somewhat impressive legislative record during his five years in office. National Review called Rubio a “Republican dream” and hedge fund managers were donating millions to his campaign. Trump led comfortably in the polls, but it was still early, as G.O.P. insiders reminded us, and they still hadn’t put their thumbs fully on the scale. We all know how the story ends: Rubio wasn’t able to mount any sort of credible challenge to Trump and withdrew after just a few months.
Today, we are hearing about yet another Florida politician in his early 40s — Gov. Ron DeSantis — who, according to many of those same establishment figures, will collect a vast majority of support from donors. And he is already the subject of plenty of positive media coverage. The headlines about DeSantis are eerily similar to those about Rubio in 2016: “The Rise of Ron DeSantis,” “Why Never-Trumpers Should Bet on DeSantis Now” and “Looks Like Ron DeSantis Could Turn Into Trump’s Personal Nightmare.” If DeSantis runs for president, his job won’t be so much to win the presidency on his own merits, but rather to stop Donald Trump.
How seriously should we take DeSantis’s chances?
Trump holds sizable margins in pretty much every poll you can find, but some of the numbers are tightening. Last week, the polling firm Echelon Insights published a raft of data on the Florida governor. It found that Trump’s lead over DeSantis among G.O.P. voters, which, according to its own poll, was 62 percent to 22 percent of respondents in October, had shrunk to 57 percent to 32 percent as of late January. Perhaps the most compelling bit of information Echelon found was that while 54 percent of Republicans thought “Trump was a great president and should remain the leader of the Republican Party,” 22 percent said Trump “was a great president but it is time for the Republican Party to find a new leader” and 18 percent said Trump “was not a great president and the Republican Party would be better off without his influence.” Which means that 40 percent of G.O.P. voters are at least open to the possibility of someone new.
So things, perhaps, aren’t quite as locked up as they might appear, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a co-founder of Echelon Insights, told me. When asked whether Trump should run again, many of the respondents to her poll showed “a shocking level of ambivalence” to that question, she said. These people were not never-Trumpers or center-of-right Republicans; they were people who had thought Trump had done a good job but also now believed that it might be time for a fresh voice.
These polls, of course, measure sentiment at a fixed moment in time. Given that, it’s difficult to know exactly what to make of a seeming growing hesitancy among Republican voters about Trump, or, for that matter, what it says about DeSantis’s shot.
What’s clearer is that Trump has some built-in advantages that are unlikely to change.
When the election machine truly kicks in, Trump will no doubt garner a vast majority of the media attention once again. He obviously enjoys unrivaled name recognition. And Trump’s absence from office this term could give him an edge because he has not had to take the blame for what now feels like an endless pandemic. That burden has mostly been shouldered by Joe Biden and can explain, in large part, the president’s tanking approval numbers.
Plus, a December University of Massachusetts Amherst poll found that only 21 percent of Republicans thought that Joe Biden won a legitimate victory in 2020, a number that hasn’t budged much over time. There’s also some evidence that shows that G.O.P. voters who think the election was illegitimate appear more likely to vote.
When all these things are considered, DeSantis, then, should be seen more as a primary challenger to a popular incumbent. Nobody since the advent of the modern-day presidential primary has successfully unseated an incumbent for the nomination.
There’s also a question of timing at play here. DeSantis’s recent rise to national prominence has come from his handling of the pandemic — he has become the loudest anti-lockdown voice in the national conversation and can point to his repeated refusal to shut down his state. This might be a popular stance in 2022, but it’s hard to imagine how it will play in two years. If Covid is shutting down schools and businesses in two years, we will most likely be looking at a vastly different country. If we have returned to some semblance of normalcy, it’s quite possible that nobody will really care how DeSantis handled the pandemic.
Anderson believes that DeSantis’s success comes in large part from his willingness to fight, a trait that Trump, of course, also possesses. While she thinks that DeSantis has a chance, she also pointed to the former Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker as a cautionary tale. “Walker is an interesting example of someone who captured the conservative imagination because he was fighting with the teachers unions, and he was standing strong against those Democratic legislators,” Anderson said. “And yet, when push came to shove, that effort fizzled out. And so if you’re DeSantis, you want to avoid that path of being someone who gets a lot of attention and a lot of interest because, hey, you were fighting the right fights at the right time against the right people.” This approach works to a certain extent, Anderson said, but there are also times when things just don’t translate onto the national stage.
DeSantis’s stances on Covid have garnered him a reasonable amount of national name recognition. Last month, a Reuters poll found that 80 percent of Republican voters had at least heard of him. If this were a normal Republican election run-up, DeSantis would probably be leading right now: An Echelon Insights poll from December that did not include Trump found that DeSantis comfortably led all other potential G.O.P. nominees. But Trump’s path to power is littered with the campaigns of other upstart Republican candidates who checked off all the right boxes and got along well with the establishment. Is it really reasonable to think DeSantis’s fate will be any different?
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”