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Can Donald Trump Really Beat Ron DeSantis?

President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a Make America Great Again campaign rally at International Air Response Hangar at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. By Gage Skidmore.
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a Make America Great Again campaign rally at International Air Response Hangar at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona.

Donald Trump is Slipping Against Ron DeSantis: In November 2022, former US President Donald Trump announced he was running for president yet again. This is Trump’s third run. He surprised the political world with his narrow victory in 2016. He ran – and lost – as the incumbent in 2020. He seems determined to unwind that humiliation by running again in 2024. Indeed, he is unwilling to even admit that he lost in 2020.

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In Trump’s last two bids, he sailed to nomination in the Republican primary. His combativeness appealed to a GOP electorate raised on the aggressiveness of Fox News. And the Reaganite message of his competitors was painfully out-of-date.

This time will be tougher though. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mimics Trump’s winning issues and style but shows greater discipline and focus.

Trump will likely still win, but this will be his hardest race ever. He needs to prove that his 2016 victory was not a one-off fluke and that he can control himself on the campaign trail well enough to beat President Joe Biden who beat him in 2020.

Donald Trump: Was 2016 Was a One-Off?

There is an extensive debate on whether to describe Trump’s initial victory as a fluke (or not).

Donald Trump and his team expected to lose. They ran a bizarre campaign by the traditional standards of American politics. Trump spoke in ways which normally would have pushed a candidate out of the race, most obviously when he admitted to committing sexual assault. Donald Trump eschewed TV advertising, relying instead on TV news coverage of his outrages to gin up media exposure. In 2024, Ron DeSantis will almost certainly learn from this, using his culture war sallies to create similar media exposure.

Donald Trump also won by ignoring the popular vote and focusing solely on the Electoral College. In retrospect, this is mathematically intuitive but felt inappropriate at the time. The Electoral College is a curious American constitutional quirk.

Before Trump, the notion that a presidential candidate would not even try for a popular vote victory was seen as illegitimate. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush was determined to win the popular vote.

His campaign had lost the popular vote in 2000, winning solely in the Electoral College. Bush and his circle felt a strong need to fully legitimize the contentious 2000 election by winning the popular vote the next time.

Trump ignores this legitimation hankering. In 2020, his campaign basically admitted that a popular vote victory was impossible. Yet abjuring majoritarianism completely is what raises the question of a 2016 as a one-off fluke. Trump did not win the popular vote in either of his elections. Nor has he helped the Republicans in the midterm elections of 2018 and 2022. Trump needs to prove he can win majorities and not just squeak into office via the Electoral College.

Can Trump Show DeSantis’ Discipline?

Trump’s other big problem, already in evidence since his announcement last November, is his inability to focus. In the last ten weeks, he has lost himself in his fight with the government over classified documents at his home, introduced NFT trading cards for sale with images of himself on them, and sought to sue the journalist Robert Woodward. All of these diversions are silly and time-wasting, and the money-making gimmick of Trump trading cards was so tacky and distasteful that even sympathetic right-wing media criticized it as grift.

DeSantis, by contrast, will not make such unforced errors. He has run a tight, focused operation in Florida. He has groomed donors and cultivated links with right-wing media, particularly Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, arguably the arbiters – populist and elite, respectively – of right-wing opinion.

And DeSantis, of course, has none of Trump’s personal baggage. There is no video waiting to be revealed of DeSantis engaging in inappropriate speech or behavior. Nor will he sidetrack his campaign to pursue personal grudges as Trump did in the 2022 midterm election.

Trump will probably still win. Current polling tilts strongly in his favor. That DeSantis mimics so much of Trump’s style, right down to his hand gestures, shows just how much Trump still sets the terms of debate in the Republican party. If GOP voters want the real deal, Trumpism in all its outrageousness – rather than a bland DeSantis knock-off version – Trump will win. And I still think that is the case. But Trump cannot just blunder his way into the presidency this time.

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DeSantis knows the game and is a cunning operator. He will give Trump a run for his money, and Trump’s behavior since November does not suggest the seriousness needed to win.

Author Biography and Expertise

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.