Out of Tallahassee, Florida, comes unsurprising news. After being barraged by negative media stories, watching its man’s poll ratings plummet downward like a kid on a zip line, and running into an early cash crunch, Ron DeSantis’s Presidential campaign is planning a “reboot,” NBC News reported last week. On Sunday, the Times followed up NBC’s scoop with a dishy story about overspending and infighting inside the campaign, which is a sprawling operation—although a bit less sprawling than it was a couple of weeks ago, before a looming money shortage prompted it to lay off roughly ten people.
News of the reboot emerged as the Florida governor found himself at the center of yet more damaging stories. Last week, Florida’s Board of Education approved new guidelines for the state’s public-school course in African American history, which said, in part: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” When reporters asked DeSantis about the new guidelines on Friday, he said that he hadn’t had anything to do with writing them but continued to defend them, remarking that they would probably show some of the enslaved “eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”
Over the weekend, the Times published another article about DeSantis, this one focussing on his record during the coronavirus pandemic, when he initially pushed for Floridians aged sixty-five and older to be vaccinated but subsequently highlighted his opposition to vaccine mandates when the shot became available to younger residents. In the summer of 2021, the Delta variant hit the state hard, and about twenty-three thousand Floridians died, nine thousand of whom were under sixty-five. “These were preventable deaths,” Dr. Scott Rivkees, who was Florida’s surgeon general until September, 2021, told the Times. “It breaks my heart thinking that things could have turned out differently if people embraced vaccines instead of this anti-vax stuff.”
How bad are things for DeSantis? According to Real Clear Politics’ average of recent G.O.P. primary polls, he is still in second place, with the support of 19.3 per cent of respondents, but he’s trailing Donald Trump by more than thirty points. The latest individual survey, from Harvard CAPS-Harris, put the Trump-DeSantis margin at forty points—Trump is polling at fifty-two per cent, and DeSantis at twelve per cent. That poll also showed Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur, who is attracting a good deal of media attention, running just two points behind DeSantis. The survey may have been an outlier, but for DeSantis the bad news keeps coming. According to the Financial Times, two of his richest potential backers, the billionaires Ken Griffin and Nelson Peltz, are now rethinking their plans to support him because of his far-right positions, including his clamp down on teaching about gender issues and his signing of a law banning abortions after six weeks.
On Sunday, officials from DeSantis’s campaign met with some of his remaining donors at a luxury ski lodge in Deer Valley, Utah, and told them that, going forward, the governor’s team would adopt a leaner, “insurgent,” posture, Politico reported. The NBC News story said that the new campaign strategy will involve “more handshaking in diners and churches,” more of a national focus with fewer references to his home state, and an effort to further engage the mainstream media. In the world of political consultants, campaign operatives, and political reporters, it is often taken as a given that operational details of this nature can determine a campaign’s outcome. Recent history doesn’t provide much support for that theory, though. In 2016, Trump’s local organization was spotty, many of his campaign stops took place in sports stadiums and aircraft hangars, and he was too cheap to blanket the airwaves. He won the Republican nomination easily. Four years later, Joe Biden got the Democratic nomination despite running a lacklustre primary campaign that saw him finish fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. After he turned things around in South Carolina, with a big assist from Representative Jim Clyburn, other moderate Democratic candidates decided that he represented the best shot of beating Trump, and they dropped out before Super Tuesday.
This record suggests that Presidential races—primaries and general elections—are usually decided by major political forces that transcend the details of the campaign. In 2016, Trump successfully tapped into nativism, nationalism, economic disenchantment, and alienation from organized politics—all phenomena which were (and are) deeply rooted in American society. In 2020, Biden tapped into an even more powerful force at the time: revulsion at Trump’s Presidency. The question facing DeSantis isn’t whether he gives interviews to Newsmax or CNN. It’s what big political force does he have at his back that could sweep him to victory?
At the start of this year, the answer appeared to be electability. Following DeSantis’s runaway reëlection in Florida, the argument was that he could appeal to a broad spectrum of Republicans who believed it was time to move on from Trump. Today, that voting demographic looks a good deal narrower. Since April, when the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, indicted Trump on charges related to paying off the adult-film performer Stormy Daniels, many Republican voters have rallied around him. Meanwhile, DeSantis has undermined the electability argument by running to the right of Trump on cultural issues, evidently in the belief that “anti-wokeism” is the big force that will propel him to the nomination. It’s too early to say for sure that this culture-war strategy is doomed—he’s still in second place, and the Iowa caucus is nearly six months away—but one thing is certain: it has propelled him into the political netherworld of encouraging anti-vaxxers and inciting bigotry.
DeSantis’s suggestion that slavery had some positive aspects is only the latest example. Late last month, his campaign shared a video that criticized Trump for past statements expressing support for the L.G.B.T.Q. community and highlighted DeSantis’s signing of extreme anti-trans laws in Florida. Even after Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing L.G.B.T. conservatives, criticized the video as homophobic, DeSantis defended its contents. He said that it was “totally fair game” to target Trump because, before becoming President, he allowed trans-women to compete in his Miss Universe beauty pageant.
Setting aside, for a moment, the sheer obnoxiousness of DeSantis’s tactics, strategic questions arise. Did anyone in his circle raise the question of how many Republican primary voters would be susceptible to the argument that Trump was a spreader of “gender ideology,” as DeSantis claimed in his defense of the video? More broadly, how strong is the evidence that “anti-wokeism” is as potent a force as DeSantis—a self-described “data guy”—believes it to be? Without a doubt, attacking Anthony Fauci and supporting the removal of some books from Florida school libraries fires up some right-wing activists, social-media influencers, and talk-show hosts. But there’s also evidence that most Republican voters are primarily concerned with many of the same things that other Americans care about: the economy, health care, immigration, guns, and crime. In the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, just six per cent of all respondents, and just eight per cent of Republicans, said that “Political correctness/cancel culture” is one of the most important issues facing the country. (Thirty-nine per cent of Republicans identified “Price increases/inflation” as a top issue, and twenty-nine per cent picked “Economy and Jobs.”)
It’s sometimes overlooked that, in 2016, Trump twinned his race-baiting and attacks on cultural élites with criticisms of C.E.O.s, corporations, and bankers who had shipped abroad American jobs, and of the politicians who had enabled them. Although debates continue about the relative importance of economic and cultural factors in Trump’s victory, his championing of economic nationalism and protectionism surely played a role in persuading large numbers of working-class Americans to vote for him. Democrats have been forced to respond. The Biden Administration has retained some of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods and has adopted an aggressive industrial policy aimed at rebuilding U.S. manufacturing.
In running as the ultimate culture warrior, meanwhile, DeSantis has largely absented himself from broader debates about the country’s future. Back in March, when he delivered his annual State of the State address, he did talk about Florida’s economic record, boasting, “We rank No. 1 in the nation for new business formations. We are No. 1 in economic growth among large states.” Surprisingly, these themes haven’t figured prominently in his campaign to date. And, going forward, according to the NBC News story, he’s going to be making even fewer references to Florida.
Reboot or no reboot, DeSantis appears to be all in on the culture war. So far, this hasn’t worked for him, and appearing at more Iowa diners seems unlikely to change things. Like the rest of the Republican candidates not named Trump, he’s left hoping for a divine or judicial intervention. ♦