While Governor DeSantis seems poised to enter the 2024 presidential primary, it may torpedo his political potential and weaken him as a future candidate.
The 2024 Republican presidential primary has officially begun, but the field is looking sparse. Right now the only declared, serious candidates are former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. There is plenty of speculation as to who may jump in, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, however none have made public statements about a presidential run. Comparatively, in 2016, Trump would not officially announce until June 2015, but by March he had already said to reporters that he was planning to run for president and was hiring staff in early primary states.
Gov. DeSantis, on the other hand, has not started an exploratory committee or even commented publicly on whether he is interested in running. DeSantis has become the main potential, non-Trump candidate, with polls in various states showing him in either first place, or second place behind Trump. In a recent poll of Iowa republicans, one of the first states in the Republican presidential primary, DeSantis is viewed favorably by 74% while Trump is viewed favorably by 80% of Republicans. No other potential candidates crack 60% favorability in that poll. The media tone and news stories being written about him are almost assuming that DeSantis will run in 2024, but there are two main reasons why he might not run.
1. DeSantis has a good gig as Florida governor.
Governor DeSantis won reelection in 2022 by an unprecedented nearly 20 points, the largest win for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in the state’s recent electoral history. With a Republican-controlled state legislature in his first term, he has been able to push through bills that banned teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, implemented a gerrymandered congressional map, and banned abortion after 15 weeks. In his next term, with a larger electoral mandate, Gov. DeSantis has big plans to further consolidate his power from reshaping the Florida higher education system to match his ideological beliefs to lowering the bar for public figures, including politicians, to sue news organizations for libel. DeSantis has the ability to implement one of the most reactionary and conservative policy platforms in the country over the next four years.
2. Running against Trump is a lose-lose scenario
A 2024 run requires DeSantis to run against Trump, and if Republicans learned anything from 2016, Trump is savage to his opponents in a primary. Highlights from the 2016 Republican primary include Trump giving out Sen. Graham’s personal number at a town hall, criticizing Carly Fiorina’s appearance, blaming George Bush for 9/11, and calling Ted Cruz a “soft, weak, little baby.” Even if DeSantis beats Trump in the primary, he will go into the general election having sustained significant attacks, and Trump may not support him in the general. Even if Trump endorses DeSantis, it is still a question whether the Trump base votes when he is not on the ballot. Alternatively, losing the primary to Trump, who previously lost a general election, would make DeSantis a weaker presidential candidate in a future Republican primary, such as 2028. Sustaining months of attacks by Trump, and likely attacking him back, would likely turn off some of the Trump base from supporting him in the future.
DeSantis entering the Republican presidential primary seems all but certain, but he would do well to take a hard look at the 2016 primary before deciding to enter. Many candidates look strong before entering the race, like Scott Walker who flamed out before Iowa or Jeb Bush who is now most notable for pleading for people to clap for him. The two candidates both made their name as culture war governors that shaped their states in a conservative vision. DeSantis may be a stronger candidate than them, but he struggles in debates and his own supporters doubt his retail politics capabilities.
DeSantis very well could run for the 2024 Republican primary, and win. Trump could endorse him and he could consolidate the Republican party in the general. But if the 2016 primary showed anything, Trump is as vicious to his own party members as he is to his Democratic opponents. Of course Trump might be indicted in any one of the open investigations into his behavior, but that will not stop him from running for president, and might not weaken him either. At this point, Trump seems as strong as ever in his position as frontrunner in a Republican primary and in order to bring him down DeSantis would likely take some substantial damage, possibly permanently damaging his ability to run another presidential campaign in the future.
Anna Hickey is a fourth-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. They are a Managing Editor for the American Agora.
Image courtesy: Gage Skidmore