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Jan 21, 2024, 6:33pm EST
politics

13 reasons why Ron DeSantis didn’t become the Republican nominee

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Ron DeSantis’ campaign came to a disappointing end the way it began: With an announcement on X. The Florida governor, who became a celebrated figure on the right as the party turned against COVID restrictions and “woke” ideology, was plagued by a slew of problems during his run, some even before his campaign even began. Here is a short — and surely incomplete — list of them.

He missed his moment. It seems hard to remember now, but there was a time when Donald Trump looked vulnerable, and DeSantis was competitive in state and national polling (he even led Trump in New Hampshire). When Trump launched his campaign in November 2022, he was at a low point politically and facing intense criticism from within the GOP over the disappointing performance of candidates he had endorsed across the country, who lost running on his false election claims. Former allies were surprisingly slow to endorse his third presidential campaign. It also didn’t help that Trump followed up his announcement with a slow campaign launch and a dinner with a notorious white nationalist.

But while opportunities to kick Trump while he’s down are incredibly rare and always short-lived, DeSantis chose not to engage. Instead, he stuck to his home state of Florida, where he focused on an ambitious first legislative session after his re-election. It wasn’t until May that he actually announced his campaign, and he actively avoided directly criticizing Trump in the run-up as well. By that time, he already looked like a clear underdog — with the help of a clever strategy from Trump.

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Trump did real damage early. Trump, angered by the idea that a “disloyal” DeSantis would “betray” him after his early support and equally frustrated with the praise he was receiving within the Republican party, attacked the Florida governor early — and hard. For months, DeSantis sustained name-calling, rambling statements dismissing his accomplishments, sexual innuendo, and efforts to cut down his support before it even really began. And for a long time, DeSantis let the attacks land, opting not to reply while also remaining cagey about his 2024 intentions.

With Trump weakened, the high-road approach may have looked like a sign of confidence to DeSantis. But it wasn’t long before at least some of Trump’s attacks started to chip at his armor. One memorable ad by Trump’s top allied super PAC combined a Daily Beast story about DeSantis eating pudding with his fingers with his history of support for changes to Social Security benefits in Congress. Combined with DeSantis’ own self-imposed wounds, the attacks began to eat away at one of the Florida governor’s biggest assets: His claim that he was more electable than Trump. It was, as Trump ally Michael Caputo put it at the time, “a textbook crib kill scenario.”

The announcement was a disaster. Already under pressure to steady the ship before he announced, DeSantis decided to formally launch his campaign in unconventional fashion on Twitter Spaces, in a conversation with Elon Musk and some of his right-contrarian buddies. It ended up being a historic disaster — worse, one that allies had warned could turn out that way ahead of time. “A lot of these things didn’t make a lot of sense,” one DeSantis backer told Semafor. “They didn’t want to win.”

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The audio stream crashed, delaying its start, and the resulting conversation was awkward, tinny, and often focused on niche topics around tech and Musk’s various struggles at Twitter (now X). The episode undermined the notion that he was a more competent version of Trump, once considered his best selling point. Almost as bad, DeSantis’s appearance with the larger-than-life Musk seemed to reinforce one of Trump’s biggest attacks on him — that he was a hanger-on to powerful people, rather than a true leader. The announcement set the tone for a poorly executed, too-online campaign, and DeSantis never really had a good day again.

He tried to outflank Trump from the right. In Tallahassee, DeSantis used his expanded GOP majority to pass conservative bills, setting up a contrast between a governor who “got it done” and a president who had failed to deliver on some stated goals. He never got the benefits, but did get all the downsides.

One month before entering the race, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban — a conservative movement priority that unsettled some of the biggest donors in Republican politics, including previous DeSantis patron Ken Griffin. Trump attacked it, too, calling the law a “terrible mistake” that would make DeSantis less electable. It immediately hurt him in New Hampshire, where evangelicals make up a small share of the electorate and a Republican-led government only limits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

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“Some of the policies that he enacted with a supermajority legislature would not fly here in New Hampshire,” New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne told Semafor after DeSantis entered the race. “He knows that.”

The early DeSantis brand, of a freedom governor who kept Florida open during the pandemic, was replaced by the image of a doctrinaire social conservative. The approach didn’t work when Ted Cruz tried it in 2016, and no candidate with that profile benefited in the race against Trump this time: Mike Pence and Tim Scott also cratered in New Hampshire after they endorsed federal abortion limits.

He ceded the anti-Trump middle. DeSantis strenuously worked to avoid being labeled an “anti-Trump” candidate early on. His path to the nomination relied on siphoning off MAGA voters from Trump while convincing moderates that he was the only viable non-Trump alternative, leaving them little choice but to back him even if they had misgivings about his approach.

“You got to be able to win core Republicans,” DeSantis said in a CNN Town Hall last week. “You got to be able to win conservatives, and [Nikki Haley] cannot not do that.”

But as Haley quietly consolidated the moderate vote over time, DeSantis was left with a harsh reality: He was a candidate without a base. He wound up stuck between stations, trying unsuccessfully to steal Trump voters on one end, while still alienating Trump haters on the other. His assumption that the “Never Trump” vote would reluctantly pick the only ticket out of a Trump nomination turned out wrong — or at least, it never ended up being relevant, because it never looked like a two-man race.

The Trump indictments proved impossible to overcome. The Trump indictments were one of the only things out of DeSantis’ control, and no candidate — DeSantis included — discovered a winning formula to use them to their advantage. In fact, time and time again, he found himself forced to come to Trump’s defense while his lead over the field surged. As DeSantis bitterly put it late in the race, the legal issues “distorted the primary.”

DeSantis tried to make a sly quip ahead of Trump’s first arrest about not knowing “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” That backfired. He tried an electability argument, arguing in the Iowa debate that Trump’s campaign was “going to be about January 6, legal issues, criminal trials,” regardless of whether the underlying charges were legitimate. But with President Joe Biden looking weak in the polls, voters didn’t buy it.

Meanwhile, efforts to pivot to other attacks didn’t work either, including DeSantis’s final hit on Trump as an aging candidate who can’t serve eight years in a row. By that time, people in DeSantis’s orbit had begun quietly admitting that no matter what issue they honed in on, nothing hurt Trump.

His top issue lost its relevance. DeSantis offered a straightforward contrast with Trump: He had kept Florida open while the former president listened to advisors like Anthony Fauci. He’d battled vaccine mandates after Trump’s Operation Warp Speed created vaccines that many conservatives didn’t trust and declined to get.

But as he campaigned, it became clear that primary voters had moved on. More than two years after Iowa and New Hampshire lifted stay-at-home orders, DeSantis said he’d saved Florida from becoming a “Faucian dystopia” and would hold bureaucrats accountable for what they did in 2020. It didn’t help that key early states had moved on quickly from the pandemic: DeSantis was telling crowds in Dubuque and Nashua about lockdown horrors in California they never experienced.

Campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, at what turned out to be his final events as a presidential contender, DeSantis continued to talk about the decisions he made during the pandemic. “We beat the teachers union on COVID school openings,” he said at a town hall in Lexington.

The campaign was too online. With a social media army in tow, DeSantis’ team relied heavily on hard-right memes and videos to gin up enthusiasm, which quickly became a major liability. One anti-Trump video prompted backlash for its use of a fascist symbol; another sparked confusion as it mixed attacks on Trump’s past supportive comments about LGBT rights with some oddly homoerotic imagery praising DeSantis’s record.

The videos, as Semafor first reported, were produced by DeSantis staffers and then laundered through anonymous Twitter accounts. Senior staffers at the highest levels were in on the effort, which was organized via a private chat called “War Room Creative Ideas.” While its intent was to come out on top in the so-called “meme wars,” it ultimately only served to throw an already-struggling campaign further off track.

The heavy early focus on online fights also exposed another issue that doomed DeSantis: The campaign was too online for too long, restricting its focus to a niche community not representative of the many real-world Republicans whose vote DeSantis needed. And while Trump had his own rowdy online influencers who focused on similar issues, he stoked the story by mocking DeSantis’ obsession with “woke” culture war topics.

He blew off the press. DeSantis was celebrated by conservative media for most of his career, and announced his 2018 campaign for governor on “Fox and Friends.” As he cruised to reelection over former Gov. Charlie Crist, his core team interpreted his blowout win as proof that Republicans could go around “legacy media” and speak directly to conservatives.

In late 2022, at a pre-midterm National Conservatism conference in Florida, DeSantis communications strategist Christina Pushaw shared a case study in how the team blocked all but a few friendly media sources from an earlier gathering, giving conservatives exclusive access. Mainstream outlets, meanwhile, were only allowed in to cover the governor’s speech.

“Sometimes conservatives worry a lot about what will happen,” Pushaw said. “What will the backlash be? What criticism will we get if we don’t allow them? No. You worry more than what actually comes to pass.”

DeSantis brought his friendly-media-only strategy into the presidential race, taking just one round of questions from reporters at his first stop in Iowa, but giving longer interviews to supportive conservative media figures. He also chose to ignore what he called “narratives” in the mainstream press about his early campaign struggles.

The approach didn’t last: Over the summer, his campaign began to grant more access to legacy media, including hours of exclusive interviews with NBC News. Last week, he admitted to radio host Hugh Hewitt that the strategy was a mistake that limited his ability to talk to voters.

“I should have just been blanketing. I should have gone on all the corporate shows,” he told Hewitt. “I had an opportunity, I think, to come out of the gate and do that and reach a much broader folk.”

The cavalry failed to arrive. DeSantis had another reason to think his conservatives-only media approach might work: Key players seemed ready to join him in ousting Trump from the party’s leadership.

Even before DeSantis officially announced, much of the conservative orbit was looking to him — and away from Trump — as their best hope for the future: The Murdoch-owned New York Post snubbed Trump’s presidential announcement with a story buried on page 26 titled “Florida man makes announcement.” Trump also faced a “soft ban” at Fox News, with the network rolling out the red carpet for DeSantis and other Trump foes instead.

Conservative pundits, meanwhile, publicly celebrated DeSantis, and attended private dinners and calls with the Florida governor and his staff. Liberal New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait anointed DeSantis a narrow early favorite on this basis: “If you completely dismiss the possibility that DeSantis could pry the Republican base away from a president to whom it has formed a cultlike attachment, you may not be considering the potential effect of two more years of DeSantis being given the sort of coverage in the right-wing media that Pravda devoted to Joseph Stalin.”

But by the time DeSantis announced, that grip was already starting to weaken. He racked up some early missteps, Republicans closed ranks around Trump after his first indictment, and conservative media began to follow suit. By the time the Iowa caucuses rolled around, Trump’s “soft ban” from Fox appearances wasn’t just ancient history — he could count on the network to host a town hall as counterprogramming to the Republican debate. All of this was a source of much frustration for team DeSantis, and the race ended with senior staff and the Florida governor openly criticizing the same media orbit that once revered him.

“They don’t hold [Trump] accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers, and they don’t want to have the ratings go down,” DeSantis said earlier this month. “That’s just the reality. That’s just the truth and I’m not complaining about it.”

He overestimated his charm. That DeSantis polled competitively with Trump in 2022 was highly impressive for a first-term governor going against a former president and reflected the intense interest in his career on the right.

But it also led to hubris. DeSantis was largely experienced by voters in short segments and passing chyrons on Fox News, rather than long speeches or personal interviews. He was far more awkward on the campaign stump in the national spotlight. As Pat Dennis at the progressive opposition research group American Bridge put it last March: “Ron DeSantis hasn’t been vetted in a national media environment. Worse for him: he thinks he has.”

As DeSantis acquired an early reputation as an unwieldy candidate who struggled with personal interactions, it became nearly impossible to escape the caricature. His fleeting interactions, even just an odd laugh or head bob, quickly became memes with the enthusiastic support of online Trump supporters. At his town hall meetings, speaking without notes, he could ramble into the weeds of a policy question, cutting himself off with a stock phrase — “and all of that stuff,” “at the end of the day” — before pivoting back to the question. He tended to close speeches with a series of lengthy patriotic anecdotes, from Benjamin Franklin telling Americans they had a “republic, if you can keep it,” to his thoughts about viewing Arlington National Cemetery as his plane landed in D.C.

“You can run away and hide and run for governor of Florida on TV,” said Matt Dixon, a reporter for NBC News and author of “Swamp Monsters,” a new book about the DeSantis-Trump relationship. “I think they failed to recognize how hard the transition would be.”

He had a people problem. Trump didn’t pick up too many initial endorsements in Washington, but they didn’t flock to DeSantis either, who topped out early with just six House members and zero Senators supporting his candidacy. Endorsements don’t always matter much these days, but the meta-story around them may have been the bigger deal: When Florida’s delegation began coming out for Trump, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla. accused DeSantis of ignoring him for years, even after he had been badly injured in a recent fall from a ladder.

The attack fed an early image of DeSantis as an unlikeable introvert, and perhaps presaged deeper problems running a political operation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. told Semafor last April that he hadn’t spoken to DeSantis, his own state’s governor, in “a number of months.” He went on to endorse Trump this month, who famously humiliated him in 2016, and told reporters DeSantis — who he, again, said hadn’t talked to him recently — never asked for his support.

The campaign didn’t work. The DeSantis campaign overhired and spent aggressively from the start, forcing a downsizing that resulted in not just one bad news cycle, but several in a row. But much of the operation was already outsourced to Never Back Down, the super PAC headed up by Jeff Roe that took unlimited donations from donors, but could not coordinate with DeSantis and his staff. The heavy reliance on an outside PAC soon created its own problems: DeSantis and his inner circle became frustrated at the super PAC over its ads and messaging and eventually they, too, began losing staffers while infighting and spats plagued the operation.

Meanwhile, as Semafor reported back in May, Trump surprised everyone with a low-drama, high-functioning campaign in comparison to his more chaotic earlier runs. The split screen only made DeSantis’ high-drama, low-functioning effort all the more obvious as it limped along to an underwhelming finish.

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