Ron DeSantis got the Republican Party wrong

DeSantis in a dark suit against a background of lights, looks down and holds a microphone.
Ron DeSantis campaigning in Dubuque, Iowa, on January 14 — one day before the Iowa caucuses. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

DeSantis has ended a campaign that appealed to a particular kind of conservative elite — and not many others.

It’s official: Ron DeSantis has put a fork in his presidential campaign. On Sunday, the Florida Governor released a video announcing that he’s quitting the race and endorsing Donald Trump for president.

DeSantis had staked his entire run on the first-in-the-nation caucus: visiting all 99 Iowa counties and moving huge numbers of staff into the state. In the end, it was all for naught. He came in a distant second in a state he needed to win — or at least come extremely close — to have a chance at the nomination. Polls showed DeSantis as a non-factor in the upcoming New Hampshire primary, and his national numbers had been collapsing for months. After the dismal Iowa result, his campaign was finished in all but name; Sunday’s announcement just made things official.

There are many reasons DeSantis failed, ranging from the candidate’s awkward personality to his weirdly lavish spending on private flights. But there’s also a more fundamental explanation: Ron DeSantis and his backers completely misread what the GOP electorate wanted.

The DeSantis campaign was fundamentally a product of a certain class of the GOP’s elite: people who admired Trump’s willingness to break the traditional norms of American politics but saw him as basically déclassé or ineffectual. These are the sorts of conservatives who look admiringly at Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, seeing his use of legalistic arcana to crush liberal opposition as a model for how to fight a culture war and win.

Obviously, most Republican voters aren’t this hyper-ideological. But DeSantis and his allies theorized that the “Trump but competent” shtick would allow them to pull from all sides of the GOP electorate. By focusing on his “culture warrior” background — like his fights over Covid restrictions and Disney — DeSantis could win over a key portion of the Republican base. By seeming more competent and organized, he could scan as palatable to the traditional establishment.

Except it turned out that the kind of culture war politics DeSantis offered, an often-abstract assault on “wokeness,” paled in comparison to what Trump served up. The MAGA base wanted Trump and all his hard edges: the bigoted rhetoric and all-consuming post-2020 election anger. The rump establishment bloc preferred Nikki Haley, sticking DeSantis in no-man’s land. His campaign was appealing to a small niche of highly intellectual populist conservatives, but that proved to be just about it.

The MAGA faithful didn’t want a pseudo-Trump gussied up for the GOP’s elite. They wanted Trump and his “retribution.” DeSantis’s failure to recognize this doomed him from the start.

The DeSantis theory of the primary

In retrospect, DeSantis peaked in the months after the 2022 midterms.

Trump-backed candidates in competitive elections had miserably underperformed expectations around the country, costing the GOP a Senate majority. DeSantis, by contrast, had cruised to reelection in what was recently seen as a purple state — leading him to emerge as the unquestioned chief rival to Trump among pundits and elite Republicans.

Around that time, I argued that DeSantis did not represent (as some suggested) a return to the traditional GOP. Instead, DeSantis was an “evolution of Trumpism, a new way of channeling the illiberal populist forces unleashed by the former president’s rise to power in 2016.” The two men represented “two related but distinct versions of American right-wing populism: Trump its wild id, DeSantis its more calculating and intellectualized ego.”

DeSantis was betting that Trumpism could be separated from Trump: that enough of the GOP’s radical factions wanted the right-wing populism without the chaos of the man who brought it to dominance in the party. He and his brain trust gambled on DeSantis-style culture war against “woke capital” tapping into the same wells of grievance that Trump’s attacks on immigrants and Muslims had done in the past.

If this bet were correct, then DeSantis would emerge as the only viable opponent to Trump. In that scenario, the old-guard establishment figures who wanted to move on from Trump would have no choice but to line up behind the Florida governor rather than one of their own (say, Haley).

At his high-water mark about in January 2023, it looked like there might be something to this theory: DeSantis had shaved the deficit with Trump down to 13 points in the national RealClearPolitics average. But in the coming months, DeSantis would enter free fall and never recover.

The reasons for his collapse point to weaknesses in the fundamental DeSantis theory of the GOP electorate.

How the Trump indictments exposed DeSantis’s flawed assumptions

The most obvious explanation is the four criminal indictments against Trump. In the week after the first indictment on March 30, Trump’s lead over DeSantis increased by about 12 points — from 15 to 27 points — and only went up from there.

The indictments’ impact on the race is so obvious that DeSantis himself cited it as the biggest problem for his campaign in a December interview.

“If I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,” DeSantis told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody in a December interview. The indictments, he said, “sucked out a lot of oxygen” from the race.

But DeSantis is letting himself off too easy. The indictments were not some unpredictable force majeure: There had been ample signs for months prior that Trump was at serious legal risk. A competent campaign would have been able to exploit their chief rival being indicted four times to their benefit.

Yet the DeSantis team instead chose to defend Trump. After Trump’s first indictment, DeSantis denounced “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda” by “the Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney.” He even vowed to block an extradition request for Trump from Florida to New York if it came to that (which it never would). His response to the other, even more serious indictments was basically the same.

Viewed through the lens of DeSantis’s overarching theory of the case, this seemingly bizarre choice made sense.

DeSantis believed (correctly) that he couldn’t win without a significant number of Republican voters who liked Trump and his brand of politics. Aligning with Democratic prosecutors and the feds against Trump would be anathema to anyone who bought into Trump’s paranoia about stolen elections and the “deep state.” So DeSantis instead decided to attack Trump’s prosecutors, suggesting only rarely and obliquely that the prosecutions might drag down Trump in the general election.

That DeSantis felt boxed in like this reflects a fundamental flaw in his campaign’s premise. They assumed that Trump’s supporters believed that Trumpism, as a movement, could be separated from Trump the man. Focusing fire on the bugbears of conservative populist intellectuals — abstractions things like DEI, ESG, and, above all, “wokeness” — would allow them to get at the base’s populist sentiments and steal Trump’s base out from under him.

But the GOP faithful were not like DeSantis’s backers in the pundit and activist classes. For them, the cause of Trump is inseparable from the cause of the party. A clear majority of Republicans believe both that the 2020 election was stolen and, as a result, that the prosecutions of Trump for January 6-related crimes amount to political persecution.

This, in their minds, amounts to a crime of world-historical proportions: a plot against the legitimate president of the United States. It is the culmination, the centerpiece, of all the things Trump has been warning about for years: the various betrayals by “elites” when it comes to trade, immigration, crime, and the rest. This mattered to them far more than anything ongoing in Budapest or the Disney headquarters in Florida.

If you accept the basic premises of the Trumpist worldview, as DeSantis’s campaign did, you have no real room to make the case against a second Trump nomination. What DeSantis billed as “Trump but competent” scanned to voters as “off-brand Trump.” And “why off-brand when we can have the genuine article?” is an unanswerable question for a political campaign.

It’s Trump’s party

To be fair to DeSantis, there’s probably nothing any Republican could have done to beat Trump in 2024.

Nikki Haley campaigned as an establishment-type friendly to MAGA, but her recent polling surge hasn’t even come close to DeSantis’s January 2023 peak — when he was still trailing Trump by 13 points. Neither Chris Christie, who attacked Trump head on, nor Vivek Ramaswamy, who acted like a Trump campaign surrogate, made a serious impact. Trump’s power over the Republican Party is too strong for any kind of campaign message to break.

That means that DeSantis simply may have been too early. For his approach to succeed, DeSantis needed to campaign as the heir apparent to Trump’s movement. But the heir can only rise to power when the king is out of the picture. Had the 45-year-old DeSantis waited until Trump was sidelined by the inevitable march of time, it’s possible things might have been different for the Florida governor.

Now DeSantis’s political future is in doubt. The disastrous performance during the campaign has tarred him as a loser; the media narrative that DeSantis is awkward and unable to relate to voters is largely set in stone. The ignoble end of his campaign after Iowa will only deepen these perceptions, ones that will take DeSantis years to shake (if he can in fact shake them).

The key lesson from this episode is the one that’s been staring us in the face all along: The Republican Party is Trump’s party. No one does a better job capturing the resentments and anti-democratic ideologies that have come to fuel internal Republican politics in the last decade (at least).

As long as Trump is on the scene, the Republican Party is his to command. The fall of Ron DeSantis is, more than anything else, a testament to that reality.

Update, January 21, 3:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 16 and has been updated with news of DeSantis officially quitting the race.

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