The pundits have weighed in—either Ron DeSantis ran the worst possible campaign ever, or it didn’t matter what he did, Donald Trump couldn’t be beat.
In between somewhere is the truth. A strong argument can be made it was foolhardy for the Florida governor to run. Another strong argument can be made that you don’t wait around in politics; if you are popular and viable, you don’t calculate for a day that might never come.
What is missing in the analysis is the messaging. Since DeSantis did run, how was he supposed to position himself with Trump in the race? What was his messaging ”lane?” This is where most of the pundits are getting it wrong.
Most assume that DeSantis needed to be more aggressive in criticizing Trump. That he needed to neutralize Trump’s support and pick up enough independent-minded conservatives to build his coalition. That he needed to be the “reasonable Trump.” Some “experts” said he needed to spend more time on liberal media outlets. Those strategies were doomed to failure. DeSantis ultimately took both of the above pieces of bad advice, and it only speeded along his decline in the polls.
Another path was preferable. DeSantis had no chance to go head-on and change the minds of Trump supporters by criticizing him. He needed, instead, to convince Trump supporters that maybe he was even more in touch with America than Trump is. After all, Trump’s main appeal is that he cuts through the layer of political BS that infects our campaigns and spells out our problems and solutions. For real.
DeSantis did something similar in Florida. He rose to the occasion by assessing the threats facing his state and confronting them bluntly. When it came to his presidential run, however, DeSantis’ message was small and seemingly oblivious to the crumbling mess America is becoming. Part of this was his handlers telling him he needed to appear as a “more reasonable” Trump. So he messaged himself out of the race.
What DeSantis should have done, especially after the Trump indictments, is double down even more aggressively than the ex-President. He should have proclaimed loudly and often America cannot tolerate such a weaponization of our justice system. He should have shouted from the rooftops about the J6 lies and persecutions, many of which victimized Florida residents. Wait, you say, wouldn’t that just be reinforcing Trump’s plight and message? Yes, but he could do it more precisely and effectively. He could go to war with the liberal media over those issues. Instead, DeSantis went on mainstream media outlets and was tepid on the issues conservatives strongly care about.
When asked why he is running if he agrees with Trump’s messaging, he could say I agree with Trump on the issues—I’m just a better messenger at this point.
Another crucial part of this strategy—he could have been equally forceful about getting to the bottom of all the COVID lies. There, he would have a sharp contrast with Trump. He would have established himself as a bigger reformer of the system than Trump.
You could argue that this messaging path was too narrow and tricky to pull off. That’s a fair criticism. However, it was his only path to victory in the primary. After all, there still remain many Republicans who are now supporting Trump but were initially willing to give DeSantis a chance. And when they saw DeSantis on the playing field, he didn’t resemble the gigantic warrior needed to take on the extraordinary and unprecedented upheavals America faces in 2024.
He looked like he was playing for second place and hoping the leader would succumb to the left’s Lawfare, or would fall prey to health problems or worse. He played to lose and lost.