Presidential campaigns are usually launched in a bright burst of hope. Slick videos are posted, bus tours of the hinterlands are announced, e-mails seeking donations flow into in-boxes like the tide. The candidacy of Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, contains some extra, darker emotional layers: defensiveness, a bristling ideological fixity, an undercurrent of dread. In a new poll, DeSantis is down nearly forty points to Donald Trump among Republican primary voters. Yet this month DeSantis set out on the trail—a barbecue joint in Iowa, the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire—hoping to make a good first impression on voters who do not follow politics obsessively and who may have missed the latest fallout from the arcane war he insists on prosecuting against the Walt Disney Corporation.
Then, on Wednesday evening, DeSantis formally announced his run during an audio-only discussion with Elon Musk, on Twitter Spaces. The event was a glitchy mess; it took twenty minutes to start and rapidly shed viewers. When DeSantis finally got going he dwelled on the niche interests of conservative insiders, at one point digressing about the “accreditation cartels” that govern universities. Somewhere out there, presumably, were voters curious to get a feel for him, but they couldn’t even see his face, only a miniature lecturing avatar.
The two candidates most likely to win the Presidency in 2024, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, are, respectively, eighty years old and quickly nearing that age. Both are working from public personae that were largely established by the time DeSantis finished elementary school, and their politics run thick with nostalgia. DeSantis, who is still far ahead of the rest of the G.O.P. field, is forty-four and, if he were to win, would be the second-youngest President ever elected. More significant, his brand developed almost entirely during the Trump era in a stepping-stone manner, built on his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, his campaign to suppress the teaching of racial and gender themes in schools and to punish teachers who defy him, his backing of permissive gun laws, his aggression toward immigrants and trans people, and his ban on nearly all abortions after six weeks. It isn’t always clear how sincerely DeSantis means to impose a puritanical society in Florida (of all places) and how much of his culture war is about political positioning. But name a banner that the Republican Party has gathered under in the past few years and he is likely to have been the one waving it. He is, in that way, a very modern candidate.
As a challenger, DeSantis has some impressive attributes, most tangibly an outside spending group with a two-hundred-million-dollar budget, run by the conservative super-strategist Jeff Roe, which plans to hire enough people to knock on every Iowa voter’s door five times. One way to view the G.O.P. primary contest is as a man—Trump—versus DeSantis’s machine. And, crucially, DeSantis’s project has been popular: he has attained hero status on Fox News and, not coincidentally, he raised record-breaking sums for his reëlection bid last fall, which he won by almost twenty points. Florida is also undergoing a population-driven economic boom, gaining about a thousand new residents each day, who typically move there for the weather and the low taxes, and apparently feel that living in DeSantis’s anti-woke citadel is worth the occasional python in the swimming pool.
If the brand is clear, the tactics are still a little fuzzy. Analysts have pointed out that the campaign needs to pursue those sectors of the Republican coalition which are ready to move on from the former President—a group that includes moderates appalled by his attacks on democracy, religious voters who find his personal behavior repugnant, party élites exhausted by his inconstancy and his narcissism. That tactic, though, hinges on a question that hangs over DeSantis during each campaign stop and donor call: how he plans to attack Trump. (The question hanging over his advisers is whether it’s even possible to do that in a Republican primary.) DeSantis, who has made virtually no overtures to voters who aren’t committed Republicans, has tried to have it both ways. To donors, he has reportedly made the case that Trump is fundamentally unelectable—a plausible assumption, particularly given the number of civil and criminal investigations he still faces. But so far in public DeSantis has declined to make any real criticism of Trump, or even to say clearly that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen.
Trump, of course, has not been timid. Having doubled down on a somewhat tortured taunt—Ron DeSanctimonious—he recently discovered a simpler line of attack. DeSantis, he said, has “no personality.” Watching the Governor stiffly navigate his way through Iowa and New Hampshire did bring to mind the time an aide suggested that he write “LIKABLE” on a notepad ahead of a debate, as a reminder. But plenty of effective politicians—George H. W. Bush, Al Gore—are awkward on the rope line. It isn’t that DeSantis is charmless—or it’s not only that. It’s that his career has been spent on a charmlessness offensive, trying to persuade voters exhilarated by Trump’s willingness to brawl that he is made of the same stuff.
Yet the DeSantis machine represents a larger enterprise than the candidate himself, as Musk’s presence, and Roe’s, and the vast funding make clear. For several years, conservative operatives and donors who had grown sick of Trump studied the political situation relentlessly, scrutinizing poll cross tabs and focus-group transcripts, quizzing younger friends and acquaintances, searching their own souls. Some may have had second thoughts when Tim Scott, the Black Republican senator from South Carolina—a sincere conservative without the authoritarian baggage—launched his campaign with a happier, if hokier, message. (If Scott’s Presidential bid doesn’t pan out, he might be a formidable V.P. pick.) But for most of the conservative élites lining up against Trump the consulting contracts have already been drawn up. DeSantis is their man.
Some Republicans have long held that Trump should be taken seriously, but not literally—that while the rage he channelled is real, his threats and proposals shouldn’t be accepted at face value. The DeSantis campaign is taking Trump literally. The central proposition of DeSantis’s career in Tallahassee and, it appears, of his Presidential candidacy, is that he can actually deliver the social retrenchment that his rival has promised. The issue for DeSantis is whether this prospect will appeal only to conservative insiders, as his Twitter Spaces rollout seemed to do, or whether his maximalist war on progressivism is really what Americans want. ♦