By Joshua Green / Bloomberg Opinion
A few months ago, Ron DeSantis was riding high. The Florida governor had just won a landslide re-election, was leading in some Republican presidential primary polls, and appeared to have hit upon a successful way to distinguish himself from Donald Trump: Give GOP voters a simulacrum of the former president by starting big cultural fights that upset liberals — with Disney, “woke” capitalism, Venezuelan migrants, and so on — but with the implicit assurance he’d have enough self-control not to get impeached or indicted.
As it turns out, however, mimicking Trump isn’t so easy; especially when the original himself is also on the ballot. Instead of trying to match Trump outrage for outrage in the culture wars, DeSantis should emphasize that Trump is no match for him when it comes to the economy.
The downside of DeSantis’ current strategy is evident in the polls. Trump’s indictment in Manhattan for paying hush money to a porn star yanked the spotlight off DeSantis. Yet DeSantis has shied away from attacking Trump, even as Trump has stepped up attacks on him, going after everything from DeSantis’s past enthusiasm for cutting Medicare and Social Security to his disgusting-if-true habit of eating pudding with his fingers (a new Trump super PAC ad manages to combine both themes). According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump has widened his lead over DeSantis among Republicans, 49 percent to 26 percent. Internal polling shared with me by a rival campaign has Trump well above 50 percent and DeSantis fading.
DeSantis seems unsure of how to respond. He’s rerunning his old playbook by attacking “woke” brands such as Bud Light (for supporting a transgender influencer) and reviving his battle with Disney by threatening to turn nearby state land into a prison. But voters don’t seem all that interested anymore. DeSantis might have a better shot of reversing his fortunes if he focused instead on what got him re-elected last November: the sense among Floridians that he’s done an excellent job of managing the economy.
One of the stranger aspects of Republican politics in the Trump era is that accomplishments that traditionally would be central themes of a Republican campaign are now often pushed to the periphery. DeSantis’ stewardship of Florida’s economy is a prime example.
As I traveled around Florida last fall for a profile of DeSantis, voters at his campaign rallies consistently said they supported him not because of his stance against Disney or his deportation of migrants, but because he’d pushed back against covid restrictions to keep schools and businesses open and the state’s economy humming. And it wasn’t just Republicans: Independents and even some Democrats credited him for their sense that jobs were plentiful and people hadn’t been stuck at home during the pandemic as they had been elsewhere. They thought the “Free State of Florida,” as DeSantis called it, really had fared better than other states.
If DeSantis were inclined to lean into this argument, plenty of recent economic measures could be marshaled in its support. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three of the five big cities with the lowest unemployment in the county are located in Florida: Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay. In Miami, wages are rising at a rate well above the national average. Florida also leads the country in the percentage of mortgage-free homes, so it’s better protected from a drop in real estate prices. And Florida recently surpassed New York in total number of workers, as more and more people pick up and move South. Yes, beaches and sunshine are always an attraction. But a poll of New Yorkers who relocated to Florida last year found that lower taxes, lower cost of living, and better job opportunities were the primary reasons for their move.
Before Trump, a Republican governor with an eye on the White House and a booming economy would be broadcasting his success through a megaphone; especially if the Democratic president had a paltry 31 percent approval rating and the public was dissatisfied with the economy, as Joe Biden does and Americans are. And especially if the Fed was forecasting a recession, as new projections show it is. What better contrast could a Republican governor hope to make to appeal to a majority of voters?
But even when he does talk about the economy, DeSantis tends to adopt a culture-war frame to signal his MAGA bona fides; focusing on companies’ alleged “wokeness” or criticizing their efforts to, say, mitigate covid infections. He could make a far more straightforward case by pointing out that he’s made life pretty great for millions of Floridians with good jobs, rising wages and paid-off homes.
With his Republican honeymoon fading, Trump picking up steam, and rich backers like the billionaire Thomas Peterffy abandoning him over his extreme stances on abortion and book bans, DeSantis might want to consider a new strategy. He was never going to out-Trump Trump. Fortunately for him, there’s another path available; and he doesn’t have to look much beyond his own record to find it.
Joshua Green is a National Correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”