A few years back, there was a hilarious video of an Irish announcer doing play-by-play of Olympic sailing. After a few minutes of confused analysis, during which the boats scurry around frantically, the narrator realizes that he’s not watching the end of the race, but the competitors massing at the starting line. Such is the state of our political analysis of the 2024 GOP presidential primary, especially in light of Donald Trump’s triumphant CNN town hall on Wednesday night.
That starting line in the race for the nomination will be the official announcement of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that he is in. For months now, admirers of the so-called future of the party have felt rather like a young woman whose boyfriend keeps taking her to romantic locales and bending to one knee only to keep tying his shoe. If this engagement is to be announced, it is time to produce the ring box from the old beast pocket.
One must say that on whatever day DeSantis chooses to drop the question to GOP voters, he is already looking at Donald Trump with a strong head start. This was not always the case. Just after last year’s midterm, Trump’s MAGA slate of senate candidates having more or less flopped, polling showed a tighter race, a 15-point Trump lead rather than the current 30-40. A January giddiness surrounded team DeSantis as his “Florida is where woke goes to die” inauguration speech rang out in Tallahassee.
Since then, it's not so much that DeSantis’ support has softened, he’s only dropped a few points and sits in the low 20s, but that Republican voters are coming home to Trump. It is generally accepted that the former president’s indictment by a far-left district attorney in Manhattan and legal scuffles with porn star Stormy Daniels only served to help him. Mobster John Gotti might have been the original “Teflon Don,” but Trump does him one better, not only do the shots bounce off of him, but as he pointed out Wednesday night, they make him stronger.
All of this might lead a sensible observer to conclude that DeSantis should simply sit this one out, but not so fast. Over the past two months or so, it has been blatantly obvious that the Trump campaign was trying to snuff out the DeSantis campaign before he could announce; a crib death, as it's known in politics. Massive ad buys attacked the Florida governor, major endorsements from figures such as Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Marsha Blackburn were announced. To put it simply, a lot of ordinance was discharged, but it did not sink the DeSantis battleship.
For historical context, in the summer of 2007, Hillary Clinton had a large lead over Barack Obama, who, like DeSantis, was pulling in about a quarter of the vote. Obama would not overtake Clinton in the polls until January of 2008. The young senator achieved this not so much by slinging mud at Clinton, but by presenting himself as a fresh, new, and attractive force. This is what Ron DeSantis must do if he is going to have a chance to win. And the CNN town hall with Trump this week showed exactly why.
By far Trump’s most successful moments, and those that scored the most outright audience laughter, came as he parried hapless moderator Katilan Collins’s breathless accusations regarding his stance on the 2020 election, or January 6th, or his sexual assault case. As confused and melancholy as it may make the Jake Tappers of the world, many Republican voters, by and large, see the media’s obsession with issues not just as overwrought, but as an attempt to unduly influence the election.
This is a hugely important lesson for the soon-to-be DeSantis campaign. Engaging in these issues is pointless and counterproductive. Such an approach is predicated upon a belief that there will be a lightbulb moment when 40 percent of GOP voters suddenly say, “That’s it, I’ve had it with Trump.” It has never happened and it will never happen. That isn’t how the Trump phenomenon will end.
As is often the case in life, DeSantis’s biggest disadvantage may hold the key to his possible success. He supported Trump in 2020. He’s on the record saying Trump was a good president; there’s no wiggle room there. But there is an opportunity to run, not as the the anti-Trump candidate, but as the candidate who can execute the policies that will make Trump’s popular political vision a reality.
Sailing, like politics, is a patient sport that is all about knowing which way the wind blows. DeSantis has experienced choppy waters of late, some of his own making, but his campaign is still a sturdy vessel, its crew is talented and motivated. As the starting line approaches, one thing is clear: There will be a competitive GOP primary starting the moment DeSantis plunges in, and all of the sport of the past few months will fade at the sound of the starter’s horn.