Kaleigh Rogers: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis just announced he’s running for president. He’s probably former President Donald Trump’s most significant opponent for the Republican Party nomination. Now that he’s officially announced, I spoke to FiveThirtyEight senior elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley to find out more about the campaign and whether or not he actually has a shot at winning the GOP nomination.
OK Geoffrey, so we’ve been waiting for Ron DeSantis to announce for a while now. A lot of people expected him to run. What has made him such a big figure within the Republican Party over the last couple years?
Geoffrey Skelley: Right, so tracing Ron DeSantis’s background, like how he got here, it starts with 2018: He wins the Florida governorship. It’s the third biggest state in the country so that’s going to get you some attention right off the bat. He then really started to garner attention in 2020 and 2021 with a host of headline-making moves on mostly culture-war issues. For instance, he moved to reopen the state quickly after the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2022 he provoked controversy by putting migrants on a plane to liberal Martha’s Vineyard.
And then over the past couple of years, I think he’s particularly leaned into what he has called:
Ron DeSantis: Florida is where woke goes to die.
Skelley: Last year, for instance, he signed what’s often referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which banned discussions of sexuality and gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade — a rule that has since been expanded to cover all the way through high school. All of this has made him a darling of conservative media, which especially played him up as the candidate of the future in 2022, both before and after he won reelection.
Rogers: So he’s obviously a significant opponent for Trump, but does he actually have a shot at beating Trump for the nomination?
Skelley: It’s still early and I think it’s important to stress that, but DeSantis may be the only Republican who can defeat Trump in the 2024 GOP primary. Currently, in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average for the Republican primary, DeSantis is at about 21 percent. Trump is at 53 percent, so that may not sound too great for DeSantis. However, historically, someone polling at DeSantis’s level would have roughly a 1-in-3 shot of winning the party’s nomination, although usually that sort of candidate isn’t facing someone else polling around 50 percent.
However, DeSantis has experienced a slide over the past few months. Back around New Years, he actually led Trump in some head-to-head polls and wasn’t far behind Trump in surveys testing most potential candidates. So you might ask, what happened? Well, Trump is definitely part of the story. Trump declared his candidacy back in November and from sort of the getgo has sought to define DeSantis early on while DeSantis hasn’t actively been in the race. Trump has labeled him “DeSanctimonious,” in classic Trump form, and has also attacked DeSantis for having backed cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare while he was a congressman.
A stream of negative stories has likely hurt DeSantis, too. Media scrutiny has raised questions about DeSantis’s personal appeal, either face-to-face with voters or with his fellow Republican officeholders. For instance, Trump managed to get most Republican members of Congress from Florida to endorse him instead of DeSantis. All this has prompted some GOP donors and strategists to fret about his strength as a candidate. So all this has sort of worked together, I think, to cause a downshift in DeSantis’s stature just as he’s declaring his candidacy.
Rogers: Right yeah, one of Trump’s more creative nicknames — “Ron DeSanctimonious.” Maybe not as catchy as “Sleepy Joe Biden.” We’ll see. It seems like DeSantis is starting his campaign off a little bit on his backfoot. Is it possible to recover, though?
Skelley: I think Trump is the favorite. There’s no question. But DeSantis still has a lot going for him as the Republican race really ramps up now that he’s in it officially. For one thing, he has all those conservative policy accomplishments in Florida to sell to the party base as evidence that he can “make America Florida,” as he put it in his recent book.
And while he has lost ground in the polls, he is in better shape than basically any other Republican candidate — no one else is clearing 6 percent in our national polling average. And as he showed in his 2022 reelection race, DeSantis can raise gobs of money. So assuming that he can do that again for his presidential campaign, you can see he’d have the ability to raise the high levels of financial support needed to really run a big-time campaign.
And so besides his resume and fundraising prowess, I also think that another thing that can help DeSantis here is that the media is already itching to write a DeSantis comeback story. And if you’re going to struggle, let it happen before you’re officially in the race, you know? Now the situation is that any positive story for DeSantis, whether he’s hitting back at Trump or maybe getting a new endorsement from someone significant in the party, can contribute to a revival narrative. To borrow a nickname Bill Clinton gave himself back in 1992, perhaps DeSantis will even be the “comeback kid” in the 2024 Republican primary.