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Ron DeSantis: The new Jeb Bush

A bloated campaign, a lack of charisma and his opponents targeting him instead of Trump have him stuck in a doom loop

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 26 July 2023 19:44 BST
Fox news host doesn’t hold back on Ron Desantis’ poll numbers

At this point, almost everyone, including his fans, acknowledges Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign has severely underperformed its expectations. He failed to raise more money than former president Donald Trump and still his campaign has burned through cash, which has led to him shedding staff.

Mr DeSantis’ recent headaches have drawn comparisons to his predecessor as governor and one-time Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush. Like Mr DeSantis, Mr Bush had a massive fundraising advantage ahead of the competition and often appeared at the top of the polls. But Mr Trump’s constant barbs against Mr Bush stuck with him to the point the description “Low-energy” seemed to always precede his name, much in the same way Mr Trump’s nicknames like “DeSanctimonious” or “Meatball Ron” have been hard for him to shake.

Mr Bush attracted a lot of enthusiasm early in the 2016 contest, though his support ultimately fizzled. Perhaps no moment captured the lack of enthusiasm more succinctly than Mr Bush’s infamous “please clap” request to a room of potential voters.

This past weekend, two polls from Fox Business offered a double body blow to Mr DeSantis. One showed Mr Trump leading the governor by 30 points, with Sen Tim Scott (R-SC) biting at his heels. Even more brutally, a poll in South Carolina shows he now trails the state’s former Gov Nikki Haley by one point.

Longtime readers may remember back in February, when I wrote that Ms Haley’s candidacy would not hurt Mr Trump but could be fatal to Mr DeSantis. The reasoning was simple: many of Mr Trump’s devotees will not consider anyone else for the GOP nomination, let alone someone on record badmouthing the former president.

That means he and Ms Haley would have to compete for a smaller slice of non-Trump voters, which could - in turn - hurt Mr DeSantis as the leading non-Trump candidate. This is exactly what has taken place and, on top of that, Mr Scott’s rise (particularly with Republican donors who now have buyer’s remorse with Mr DeSantis) has meant his slice of the electorate has dwindled.

With its numerous evangelical churches, Iowa is a must-win for Republicans, as is South Carolina. A poor performance in either of those states, let alone both, could end his candidacy and political career as a whole.

Meanwhile, friends of The Independent’s Inside Washington newsletter Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times published a piece during the weekend about how the DeSantis campaign is telling donors that the campaign is spinning his campaign as a “leaner-meaner” operation and marketing him as an “insurgent” candidate. One interesting tidbit: the incredibly homophobic video that his campaign on social media had shared had actually been made in-house

These stories, often called “reboot” stories, are meant to spin once shining but now flagging campaigns as overcoming a hurdle before they make a comeback. Sometimes, those comebacks happen: in 2008, John McCain pounded the pavement after a staff exodus and it led to him winning the Republican nomination (though he later lost to Barack Obama).

Stories of his lack of charisma and his need to rely on the charm of his former news anchor wife Casey have compounded the fear that he might not be able to make it for the long haul (some may remember that Mr Trump had no compunctions about attacking either Mr Bush or Sen Ted Cruz’s wives in the 2016 Republican primary).

Similarly, it’s hard to frame Mr DeSantis as an insurgent, especially since his team has marketed him as the saviour of the GOP ever since his decisive double-digit victory in November.

His team has all but said he is an electoral juggernaut who can win over Hispanic voters and formerly Democratic areas with his hybrid of “owning the libs” without the erratic behaviour of Mr Trump. To frame him now as the underdog would be akin to saying that his supposed texting buddy Tom Brady is a come-from-behind kid.

As a result, Mr DeSantis is now a victim of the narrative he built up; if he is not dominating Mr Trump in the polls, and he can no longer vacuum up money, there is less rationale to get behind him. In addition, if more donors move away from him in his hour of need, it might jeopardise his ability to stay in the contest for the long haul.

All of this spells worse news for Mr DeSantis come the first GOP debate in August. Most Republican presidential candidates know they likely do not stand a chance to siphon off Mr Trump’s voters and they will most certainly want to anger them. Hence, Ms Haley, Mr Scott and many other candidates will take aim at Mr DeSantis.

Enter the DeSantis Doom Loop: if he continues to run low on cash, underperform in polls and get savaged in debates, donors will be less likely to fork over money, which lead to underperformance in polls and Republican also-rans continuing to see him as someone they can knock down a peg without taking on the boss man.

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