By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is formally entering the presidential nomination race on the heels of a slump. Indeed, there is speculation that he might have moved up his announcementto Wednesday during a live and glitchy audio conversation with Elon Musk on Twitter, to break a string of negative stories that had some people wondering whether he would drop out before reaching this stage.
But as DeSantis certainly knows, while slow starts in nationwide polls aren’t helpful, they can be overcome.
DeSantis may or may not wind up a serious challenger for the nomination in 2024, but in May 2023 he is still the leading alternative to former president Donald Trump. That’s not a bad position. Many eventual U.S. presidential nominees suffer a protracted downturn along the way to winning in the primaries and caucuses.
The story DeSantis would perhaps most like to mimic would be that of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama didn’t have to compete with a former president, but he did face two strong candidates, senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton, and former senator John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Obama (like DeSantis in 2022) got off to a strong start and established himself in a top group with Clinton and Edwards, but then spent the fall of 2007 failing to make any progress and actually falling further behind Clinton. It wasn’t until he won the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 that his campaign took off and carried him to the Democratic nomination, and, ultimately, the presidency.
There was an even more spectacular rebound in that election on the Republican side. Sen. John McCain, the runner-up to future President George W. Bush in 2000, began the 2008 cycle as the front-runner, but things quickly went south. By July 2007 his campaign had practically collapsed. Out of money and forced to cut expenses and staff, McCain was expected to drop out. Instead, he recovered and won the nomination relatively easily.
There have been plenty of other candidates who were faring poorly in the year before the election who went on to win the nomination, or at least managed to put their early struggles behind them. Take Sen. Gary Hart, who started out as one of the promising alternatives to Walter Mondale in 1984 but failed to make headway throughout 1983. Only when Hart finished a distant second in Iowa did he suddenly catch on, winning in New Hampshire and eventually finishing a close second to Mondale in the vote and delegate counts. Rick Santorum in 2012 had a similar, although not quite as successful, trajectory.
The lesson that candidates can surge from weak early polling might be even more relevant to Republican candidates such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina (whose support among Republicans is hovering at 2 percent nationally); former United Nations ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (4 percent); and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (1 percent); than it is to DeSantis, who is polling at a respectable 20 percent or so nationwide. Most Republican voters haven’t paid very much attention to the contest so far, and the race might look very different by the time they tune in.
Of course, some candidates never recover from early setbacks. Kamala Harris in 2019 and Scott Walker in 2015 had difficulties that look a lot like what DeSantis is going through now and what Obama experienced in 2007, but both Harris and Walker wound up dropping out. There are even more examples of candidates who, like Hart, poll in the low single digits in the year before the election; and stay that way until they quit.
As much as these precedents teach us, it isn’t clear how much they will apply to the current campaign. We’ve never had a former president vie for the nomination in the modern era. We’ve never had a front-runner indicted, with more indictments potentially to come.
(For example: Is Trump unbeatable because he managed to win with almost no support from key players in the Republican Party in 2016 and has added considerable support from the party this time? Or are his early endorsements, which are reminiscent of the modest lead Hillary Clinton had in 2008 rather than the overwhelming advantages held by Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, a sign of Trump’s weakness?)
To challenge Trump, DeSantis more than anything will need to cultivate the support of influential party players. That effort, largely invisible to voters, involves convincing people within the party that he will be a good general-election candidate and also be a good Republican president, successfully advancing the party agenda and priorities if he wins. He has already at least partially accomplished one important aspect of the process, which is to convince everyone that he has a chance to win the nomination; few party actors with any sway want to waste their influence on supporting a go-nowhere candidate.
Or at least that’s what the old rules dictated. DeSantis is a big-state governor off to what would normally be a solid start as a presidential candidate. He already has lined up a huge cash arsenal that can be put toward his campaign. His very conservative record doesn’t have any obvious disqualifications for Republican voters.
(Trump was nominated in 2016 even though he lacked conventional credentials and had no history of support for many policy positions that the Republican Party cares about. We discovered that neither factor poses an insurmountable barrier to the Republican nomination. Still, I remain skeptical, if not as much as I was eight years ago, that candidates with moderate records on abortion, for example, can overcome that to win a GOP presidential nomination.)
Whether his particular emphasis on social conservative hot-button issues, such as attacking Disney and supporting “don’t say gay” laws, is what Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond are looking for is hard to say. Nor is it clear that a “Trump without the baggage” campaign will resonate with GOP voters, many of whom see Trump as an appealing character and a successful president.
That said, the most notable thing right now is that most candidates who seemed to be running a few months ago are still at it. This suggests they don’t think Trump has the contest wrapped up; and that they also don’t think that Trump and DeSantis are the only plausible nominees.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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