(GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

May 24, 2023   6 mins

Just a few months ago, Ron DeSantis held the Republican presidential nomination in his hands. The governor won re-election in Florida by a landslide in November and polling showed a nation-wide double-digit lead over Donald Trump. Since then, a jury in New York found Trump liable for sexual assault, while a different jury indicted him on more than 30 charges of fraud, tied to hush money paid to a porn star. Trump is 76, and DeSantis is 44. Never has a candidate enjoyed a greater head start than Ron DeSantis of Florida.

And yet… With DeSantis expected to launch his campaign this week, polls show Trump has opened up a 36-point advantage. His lead has evaporated, and his opponent gathers momentum by the day.

Spare a moment of pity for DeSantis’s poor historical timing. He faces an unprecedented opponent, a president twice impeached, who won a second nomination but lost re-election, and still enjoys the affection of millions of Republican voters. So, DeSantis finds himself stuck, forced to strike a balance between criticising Trump and avoiding the appearance of disloyalty. And while the currently unemployed Trump is free to campaign and raise funds around the country, DeSantis again must maintain a balance, positioning himself as a national candidate while still doing his job back home in Florida. That’s what led to scenes like the one in the state capital last week: Before a cheering crowd DeSantis signed a series of sweeping, headline-grabbing bills sure to appeal to a national conservative audience — a ban on transgender care for children, a ban on drag shows — and afterwards, like a celebrating pop star, he tossed Sharpie markers into the crowd.

This balancing act between local and national, responsibility and ambition, doesn’t always win adoration, though. It led DeSantis to pick a fight with one of the most powerful entities in his state: Disney. The feud started a year ago, when DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts the teaching of gender identity to young students. It was an “anti-woke” signal to conservatives across the country. Disney objected. DeSantis responded by trying to seize a special tax district that gives Disney a measure of autonomy. And last Thursday, Disney returned a thunderous salvo, cancelling a billion-dollar expansion plan that would have brought 2,000 jobs to Florida. The move shook other business leaders — and political donors — and called into question DeSantis’s ability to navigate tricky political terrain. While Trump has struggled to pin one of his famously pithy nicknames on his opponent, the six-syllable “DeSanctimonious”, DeSantis seems to have earned one on his own; the day Disney cancelled its big Florida plans, “DeSatan” trended across US social media.

In Florida, the editorial board of the Orlando newspaper seemed grief-stricken by Disney’s withdrawal: “All gone,” it wrote. “All sacrificed on the altar of one man’s outsized ambition and arrogance.” The Trump campaign took notice, and hurried to release a statement: “Ron DeSantis’ failed war on Disney has done little for his limping shadow campaign and now is doing even less for Florida’s economy.”

DeSantis’s trip to Iowa was illustrative of the difficult line he is trying to tread. During a pair of speeches, he delivered largely rote remarks, rehashing points from his book The Courage to Be Free, staking out a series of anti-woke positions within the current American culture war while also trying to leave himself room to manoeuvre in a broader general election. “As much as I wish that a majority of this country were Republicans, that is not the case,” he told the crowd. “So, you want to win the Republicans, of course, but you also gotta win independents.”

The modern moment, though, belongs to Trump. While DeSantis attempts to build a campaign framework of policies and principles and positions, Trump operates in a field of personality and identity. While DeSantis delivered stump speeches in Iowa, the rest of the nation discussed Trump’s incendiary town hall interview on CNN, where he aired political grievances and fired up an adoring crowd. He senses DeSantis’s hesitancy. “He’s got no personality,” he told The Messenger. “And I don’t think he’s got a lot of political skill.”

With days remaining before his official entry into the presidential race, DeSantis finds himself unable to openly criticise the popular ex-president, and instead must describe himself as continuing the Trump legacy without the messiness of Trump the man. Just as conservative. Just as tough. But a lot less lunatic. DeSantis uses this contrast to make implicit swipes at Trump: “There’s no drama in our administration,” he said in March. “There’s no palace intrigue.”

It’s the sort of stance that appeals to moderates and soothes donors. And again, a brilliant tactic from 2016. The trouble is that since then the road to the White House has been littered with the bodies of Trump’s more-sane opponents: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, on and on. Of them, DeSantis seems to be modelling himself on Ted Cruz, who in 2016 used a Trump-lite strategy to win the primary in Iowa — and who then suffered withering humiliation from full-strength Trump, until nothing remained of his campaign but ashes and apologies.

DeSantis is stepping into the same trap. After Trump’s town hall meeting on CNN, the pro-DeSantis political action committee Never Back Down posted a tweet that would, in Trumpian terms, seem downright polite. But at least it called out Trump’s false claims about rigged elections, his sexual assault case, and his role in January 6, landing on the less-than-inflammatory line, “How does this Make America Great Again?”

When Trump’s allies reacted with outrage, the group — incredibly, considering its only reason for existing — retreated. “That post was a massive mistake,” said one DeSantis ally, inadvertently revealing the power Trump holds over the Republican Party: even his most formidable opponent shies away from any substantial criticism. In the meantime, Trump feels no such compunction. It doesn’t matter that much of Trump’s mockery targets DeSantis’s positions that Trump recently held himself, such as a national sales tax or raising the retirement age to 70.

Trump isn’t DeSantis’s only obstacle, of course. Democrats and allies have already begun to attack. On Saturday the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organisation in America, issued a travel warning for the state of Florida, saying in a statement: “Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”

But DeSantis’s most immediate challenges will come from other Republicans, who will use him as a shield to absorb Trump’s blows, and pummel him with their own. There will be many, but a few are notable: Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina; Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations; Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and representative from Texas; Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech mogul from Ohio; and of course Mike Pence, Trump’s longsuffering vice president. Each of these will intrigue voters in different ways, and their rise gives an indication of where the Republican Party is leaning. Scott is black, Hurd’s father is black, Haley and Ramaswamy are Indian-American. Conservative donors recognise that an anti-woke argument carries extra weight coming from a non-white candidate.

All of these Republican opponents will fail, however. Under Trump, much of the Republican Party has evolved from a traditional political organisation to become an identity movement centered on Trump as a personality; even after all his misdeeds, he holds a lock on more than two thirds of GOP voters. They won’t be dislodged, which means that the vast cast of Republican hopefuls will fight over the scraps. The only candidate with any hope of overthrowing him is DeSantis, who seems to be stumbling around the paddock on his way to the race.

Here again, though, his recent visit to Iowa offers some interesting clues as to a potential path to victory. The trip offered a showdown, of sorts, because Trump planned to visit Iowa at the same time. Which candidate would make a better speech? Which would draw bigger crowds?

But it never came to be. After a severe weather forecast Trump cancelled his appearance. The bad weather never materialised, though, and Iowans whispered that maybe Trump wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a small crowd. So, at the last moment, DeSantis re-directed his campaign caravan from the eastern edge of Iowa to the central state capital, Des Moines. He attended an outdoor barbecue party just a short distance from the site of Trump’s scheduled appearance, making a show of enjoying the weather. He spent time with influential Iowan politicians and activists, and political reporters left with spare time after Trump’s cancellation and — for a moment — seized the national conversation.

It was an impressive feat of logistics. More than that, though, it showed a nimbleness of mind and willingness by DeSantis to jab Trump in a way that diminishes him without alienating his legions of supporters.

But the forces arrayed against DeSantis are many, and powerful. He faces angry locals, upset about his handling of the Disney affair. Democratic foes across the country see him as a slicker, and in some ways more dangerous, version of Trump. His fellow Republicans paint him as a weaker, water-coloured variant. But perhaps his most powerful opponent is circumstance itself. Trump is a world-historic figure. He punches low and hard. He and his proxies have excoriated DeSantis, spending $8 million in April alone to call him names like “Pudding Fingers” and “Ron DeSalesTax”.

DeSantis’s methods seem outmoded in response. He apparently hopes to tiptoe through a primary while preserving hopes for a broader constituency in the general election. It is a strategy born of blissful ignorance: Trump has rendered that entire style of politics obsolete.

Matthew Teague is a journalist and co-author of The Steal.