DeSantis couldn't shake Trump's hold on the GOP

Republican voters liked DeSantis. But they like Trump more.

January 22, 2024, 4:06 PM

In January 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looked like the Republican contender most likely to give former President Donald Trump a serious challenge for the party's 2024 presidential nomination. But one year later, he didn't even make it to the first-in-nation New Hampshire primary: On Sunday, DeSantis announced he was suspending his campaign.

Once DeSantis had launched his campaign, he suffered from a dearth of positive headlines and consistently declining polls. Some of this can likely be chalked up to how his campaign was run, and repeating some mistakes that we've seen past high-profile contenders make on their way to dropping out of a presidential primary. Yet one factor looms above all the others: Trump. Although Trump winning the nomination in 2024 was no certainty 12 months ago, the fundamental challenge of running against an ex-president who remains extremely popular within his party is undeniably a leading reason for why DeSantis's campaign failed.

Falling from clear Trump alternative to a distant second

When the calendar flipped from 2022 to 2023, DeSantis had reason to feel optimistic about his impending presidential run. The Florida governor had built a conservative reputation that would likely appeal to the Trumpified GOP. And meanwhile, Trump had taken much of the blame for the Republicans' seeming underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections, thanks to his endorsement of GOP candidates who lost potentially winnable races, especially in contests for the closely fought U.S. Senate. From January to mid-February 2023, DeSantis trailed Trump by only around 10 points in 538's national polling average for the Republican primary — and even ran close to even with Trump in early head-to-head surveys.

But on March 30, news broke that Trump would be indicted by the state of New York on charges related to hush money payments made to a porn star before the 2016 election. This event rallied at least some Republicans to Trump: In the aftermath, Trump's national polling numbers jumped above 50 percent, where they've remained — and mostly only grown — ever since. At the same time, DeSantis's average fell. In fact, by the time he finally announced his much-anticipated campaign on May 24, DeSantis had slipped into the low 20s in our polling average.

Some of DeSantis's troubles may have come from waiting too long to announce his bid, given he had momentum heading into 2023 but didn't officially enter the race until late May. Though his would-be candidacy was an open secret for months, he had a legitimate reason to wait: Florida's resign-to-run law. Although some observers argued the law didn't apply to DeSantis, the governor waited to announce until after Florida's legislature wrapped up its session in May, during which time it amended the law to permit runs for president without resigning.

But amid that delay, negative stories about DeSantis had already started to cast a cloud over his previously sunny campaign outlook. Early in 2023, questions about DeSantis's personality garnered attention, including stories about his lack of personal charm when engaging with other Republican officials, donors and voters at campaign events. And Trump, an active candidate since November 2022, also had ample time to define DeSantis for Republicans, like dinging DeSantis's past support for cutting entitlement spending and casting DeSantis as part of the GOP establishment. Then the wave of negativity continued with DeSantis's official campaign announcement, a glitch-ridden interview with Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces.

Other campaign troubles lurked. DeSantis's strong initial fundraising belied a couple of major problems: His reliance on big-dollar donors meant that, first, the well began to run dry when those donors had maxed out and, second, a substantial chunk of the money he raised could only be used in the general election, not the primary. DeSantis's decision to outsource many campaign operations to Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing him, may have also backfired. For one thing, stories of infighting, wasted resources and poor decision making abounded at NBD. But more broadly, DeSantis may have made some of the same mistakes as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did in the 2016 GOP race. Back then, Walker's much-ballyhooed campaign relied on major support from an allied super PAC to help conduct his efforts. Buoyed by a solid early polling position in an incredibly crowded field, Walker built an expensive campaign apparatus. But his position weakened late in the summer of 2015, and Walker lost donors and ran out of the funds necessary to keep his campaign going, dropping out that September. In the summer of 2023, NBD similarly spent significant resources and manpower knocking on doors in Super Tuesday states — places that wouldn't vote for nearly three-quarters of a year. In late August, it rolled back those efforts, but the whole thing smacked of putting the cart before the horse.

The Trump factor

But for all the potential mistakes DeSantis and his allies may have made, they couldn't control the fact that DeSantis had to run against Trump. Facing a former president who remained very popular with his party was a fundamental challenge that proved too much to overcome.

It's true that DeSantis was running close to Trump in polls late in 2022 and early 2023. Some Republican voters were casting about for other possibilities in the wake of the midterm elections, and Ron DeSantis was a name many of them knew. Right before the midterms, about 80 percent of Republicans had an opinion of DeSantis — and most had a favorable view. DeSantis had attracted conservative applause and significant attention from Fox News for many of his actions as Florida's governor, such as reopening the state quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state's oft-labeled "Don't Say Gay" law and his handling of Hurricane Ian when it hit Florida in September 2022. That November, DeSantis won a huge reelection victory, producing positive headlines about him while Trump came under fire for his role in key Republican defeats.

Then came that first indictment, and from there, Trump's numbers in primary polls improved, and his favorability among Republicans increased, too. The indictment only strengthened the former president's front-runner status, as the GOP base rallied around the Trump flag at what they largely perceived to be politically motivated attacks against the former president. Not only did Trump's standing go up, but his popularity within the GOP put many of his primary opponents in a spot where they were essentially forced to defend Trump — or at the very least criticize those pursuing legal cases against him. DeSantis himself said in December that the indictments "sucked out a lot of oxygen" from the primary and that if he could have changed one thing about the 2024 race, it would have been for Trump to never have been indicted.

More broadly, DeSantis faced a historical aberration as a roadblock. Trump is the first former president to leave office and then run for president again since the modern presidential nomination system took shape in the 1970s. Two one-term presidents who lost reelection in this period — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — did not receive any serious consideration as possible contenders four years later. But Trump still has extraordinary pull in part because a large majority of Republicans — 60 to 70 percent in most polls since 2021 — believe Trump didn't legitimately lose the 2020 election. Why should GOP primary voters pick MAGA-adjacent DeSantis when they have the genuine article in Trump? Why move on to a leading alternative when they can just have Trump again? Electability arguments from DeSantis and Haley haven't broken through, either, because Republicans also think Trump has the best chance of beating Biden. How much of that is down to respondents' support for Trump is harder to say, but they may not be as inclined to question Trump's ability to win because they don't think he lost in the first place.

Looking ahead to 2028 and what's left of 2024

DeSantis's decision to drop out was certainly a function of his losing position, but it was also about his political future. Hanging around to fight a losing battle against Trump could have only harmed his standing within the Trump-dominated GOP. Unsurprisingly, DeSantis endorsed Trump while announcing his departure, putting him in line with most of his party's elected officials.

And that's potentially critical to his future political aspirations, which the 45-year old governor surely has. DeSantis is term-limited and will leave Florida's governorship in January 2027. That means he could run for president again in 2028, and he would probably have a receptive audience among GOP primary voters — assuming Trump is out of the picture. Now, it's true that Republicans aren't as favorably inclined toward DeSantis as they once were. In early February 2023, DeSantis's net favorability (favorable percentage minus unfavorable percentage) hit a high of +64. When he exited the race on Sunday, that figure stood at +40. Yet DeSantis was the only candidate on par or close to Trump in net favorability among Republicans this cycle. By contrast, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's net figure is currently at +17.

But with DeSantis out, the 2024 picture may have only gotten clearer. As 538's Nathaniel Rakich recently noted, DeSantis's supporters tend to prefer Trump over other options. With DeSantis gone, his backers are more likely to shift to the former president's corner. In New Hampshire, this is more bad news for Haley, who trails Trump by 14 points in our polling average. DeSantis was polling at 6 percent in New Hampshire when he left the race, but now a chunk of that support could move to Trump, putting him clearly over 50 percent: While based on limited sample sizes, about half of DeSantis supporters preferred Trump as their second choice, on average, in three recent New Hampshire polls. (Not to mention, the Jan. 15 departure of another Trumpy candidate, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, may also give Trump a slight boost.)

A New Hampshire win for Trump would seemingly just about do it for the 2024 Republican race, although it could technically continue into February. The Granite State loomed as Trump's weakest early state, so his ability to claim victory there would suggest there are few places where he wouldn't win as we get deeper into the primary calendar.

For DeSantis, meanwhile, it'll be back to the drawing board as he exits this year's contest stage right. But the good news for DeSantis is that the list of recent Republican presidential nominees is replete with politicians — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney — who fell short in a GOP primary but came back and won the nomination the next time around. Like many others, DeSantis might find that the second time's the charm.

Nathaniel Rakich contributed research.