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Ron DeSantis: Destined to Get Crushed by Donald Trump?

Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. Image by Gage Skidmore.
Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. By Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump is Still Beating Ron DeSantis: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is still, despite all the media hype, on track to lose the Republican primary for the 2024 US presidential race.

Former President Donald Trump has entered the race already and recently gave an aggressive, even frightening, address at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference of 2023.

Trump explicitly called for vengeance – ‘I am your retribution,’ he said – and the crowd loved it.

Trump is channeling the grievance-driven, Fox News-fueled id of the modern GOP.

The question for his potential challengers is whether they can grasp some of that magic without sinking to Trump’s level. Trump’s coarseness and bitterness have hurt GOP candidates for years; 2022’s ‘red wave’ faltered primarily because Trump-endorsed candidates like Mehmet Oz and Kari Lake could not carry winnable states.

But GOP voters love Trump.

The white knight who is to thread this needle – be Trump-y enough to win the base, but normal enough to win enough suburban votes in a general election – is Ron DeSantis. And indeed, DeSantis’s normalcy in comparison to Trump would likely help him in the general election.

But first, he must beat Trump in the primary, and nothing since last November – when the hype around DeSantis really took off – has improved his chances. 

Ron DeSantis is Still Polling Badly

One obvious problem with all the DeSantis hype is that GOP polling continues to tilt against him rather decisively.

DeSantis has the support of GOP elites – the elected officials, think-tank intellectuals, activists, financiers, and so on who comprise the party’s Washington establishment. These figures very much want Ron DeSantis to beat Trump. They are exhausted with Trump’s antics, unnerved by the cult-like bond he has with GOP voters, and disappointed at Trump’s chaotic, ineffective governance style. Trump may deliver on the emotional high of ‘owning the libs,’ but he achieved little in office, in large measure because of his own laziness and disorganization. DeSantis does not have these flaws, as his record of conservative governance in Florida demonstrates

This elite support will ensure Ron DeSantis a great deal of money for TV ads, staff, campaign travel, and the rest. He will also enjoy at least somewhat favorable media coverage from critical conservative news organs like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Trump has dominated conservative messaging for years. DeSantis looks likely to break this stranglehold. The primary will be at least somewhat competitive.

But none of this will matter if DeSantis cannot move his polling number. Trump beat the GOP establishment in 2016, and his voters loved him for that and remain tightly bonded to him. None of Trump’s endless scandals has broken his connection to the GOP base, and it is hard to imagine a charisma-less bureaucrat like Ron DeSantis matching Trump for sheer fire and excitement in the primary.

2016 All Over Again for the GOP?

Besides his blandness before voters entranced by Trump’s theatrics, DeSantis’ other big problem is a crowded primary. It is now widely understood that Trump’s path to victory in 2016 was smoothed by multiple establishment candidates competing for the diminished establishment vote, while Trump locked up the excitable, larger-than-expected hard right vote.

A fragmented primary leaving a path for Trump looks like it will repeat itself in 2024. If DeSantis wants to compete against Trump, he needs to push out all other possible contenders first. Indeed, one reason DeSantis has probably not yet declared for the presidency is a behind-the-scenes effort to clear his path. If he gets bogged down in conflicts with other non-Trump candidates vying to be the Trump alternative, he will never acquire the momentum he needs to take on Trump’s dedicated hard-core support. And Trump, naturally, will fight dirty. DeSantis can not be negotiating the exit of GOP also-rans like former UN ambassador Nikki Haley or former Vice President Mike Pence if Trump is accusing him of being a pedophile.

Beating Trump will require the consolidated support of what is left of the pre-and anti-Trump GOP establishment, and even then, Ron DeSantis will probably still lose. Indeed, former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan pointed out this problem this week in his statement that he will not run for president.

So yes, it is possible for DeSantis to win. Trump might finally self-destruct, as so many have predicted over the years. DeSantis might also lock up all the anti-Trump forces, sparking a genuine civil war over Trump inside the GOP. But DeSantis must enter soon lest the anti-Trumpers splinter like they did in 2016. And more importantly, DeSantis must out-Trump Trump to take at least some of Trump’s hardcore from him. There is little in DeSantis’ background suggesting he can channel Trump’s mix of fury and showmanship, and the polling still suggests that.

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

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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.