CEDAR KEY, Florida – Walking along the coast, visitors can find a gift shop along Dock Street with an “Impeach Biden” sign in the window, mixed with several apolitical touristy items such as sunglasses, drinking cups, and Florida stickers on display. Step inside and there’s more politics—albeit a small part of the store.
You’ll find some disparaging caps and t-shirts about President Joe Biden inside, but also ball caps saying, “Trump-DeSantis 2024,” and another saying simply, “DeSantis 2024.” Both versions said, “Make America Florida,” an appealing sentiment on a near 80-degree December afternoon, but clearly a knock-off of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Trump-DeSantis or just DeSantis might sell hats in this red region of Florida, but it has to be one or the other (or perhaps neither) for the Republican presidential ticket in 2024. To be fair, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have also been mentioned as potential contenders, but at least for now, neither seem likely to break through.
The occupant of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee wins every national poll of GOP contenders if the field doesn’t include the occupant of the mansion at Mar-a-Largo. As for surveys that include both the governor and the former president, it’s murkier, though, generally, most GOP polls favor Trump. That’s sort of what you might expect this far out. Trump’s name recognition alone is a huge advantage.
Yet, one late September poll found the two in a dead heat—Trump leading 26.2 to 25.2 for DeSantis and every other potential candidate in single digits. The source of the poll was John Bolton’s super PAC, so, eh, well, make of it what you will. At the Western Conservative Summit in July, DeSantis edged out Trump in a straw poll. Of course, if straw polls were good forecasters, Ron Paul would have been president.
As a rule, when Trump is in a poll of GOP candidates, he wins big including against DeSantis. DeSantis is consistently the top choice in a Trump-less field.
In October, Trump told Yahoo Finance of DeSantis, “If I faced him, I’d beat him like I would beat everyone else,” but added, “I think most people would drop out, I think he would drop out.” Though, in November, Politico reported that Trump was growing agitated that DeSantis hasn’t publicly ruled out running for president if Trump runs.
Trump has said he would announce his intentions after the midterms. DeSantis has his own 2022 reelection campaign to think about first. He’s favored, but the Cook Political Report rates Florida only as “leaning” Republican.
Neither Trump nor anyone else should presume that the governor will just wait his turn if the 45th president seeks a third Republican nomination—or (as one of the hats indicates) just hope to be the vice presidential pick.
DeSantis is ambitious. He embraces – and almost assuredly benefits from – the national media scrutiny. He came out a clear winner earlier this year when 60 Minutes attempted a hit piece. The CNN grenades and targeting by MSNBC can only make him better able to weather the storms of a presidential campaign.
Handling Trump as an opponent is another question entirely. Trump, despite the baggage, still has an impressive pre-COVID-19 record to point to on the domestic and international front as president.
A Republican primary that winnows down to Trump vs. DeSantis might resemble the 2008 Democratic primary when it seemed Hillary Clinton might not be stoppable for the presidency—never mind the nomination. But Barack Obama was a bright new star that generated excitement to his party’s base, and Hillary’s inevitability was shattered the first time.
Hillary wasn’t a former president like Trump. But she was a former first lady to a president known for an administration with economic prosperity—despite baggage. I’m old enough to remember Democrats at the time—while they virulent opposed the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton—thought it might be nice to move on from all that mess for 2008. Could Republicans—even if sickened by Democrats’ treatment of Trump—still prefer to move past all that come 2024.
There are no precise parallels, and I’m well aware that Trump and Hillary don’t appreciate any comparisons.
Just as Obama gave Democrats the Bill Clinton trait of a charismatic stump speech without Clintonian soap opera, DeSantis could conceivably offer Republicans the trait of being a Trump-style fighter without the Trumpian drama.
At any rate, there is more than one path for attempting to “make America Florida.”
Fred Lucas is chief national correspondent for The Daily Signal and author of “Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump.”