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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

DeSantis Is One Bad Debate From Becoming Scott Walker

It can be oddly fascinating to watch a presidential campaign implode, particularly if you don’t like the candidate. That’s where I am with Ron DeSantis, as I explained at New York:

Ron DeSantis remains, for the moment, the most formidable rival to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But it’s been a long, long time since he’s gotten any particularly good news in the polls. A new Emerson College survey shows him dropping into single digits and third place in New Hampshire, behind Chris Christie. In the RealClearPolitics averages of national GOP polls, he’s dropped from 30.1 percent at the end of March to 14.8 percent now. He looks relatively strong in Iowa, where it appears he is making a desperate all-or-nothing stand, but mostly just by comparison. Trump only leads him by 27 points in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, though sparse Iowa polling may disguise a less positive environment for DeSantis.

Polling aside, recent news emanating from the DeSantis campaign has been generally quite bad. He’s had three campaign leadership shakeups, a big round of staff layoffs, and at least one major “reboot” of his message and strategy. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is still building steam, and its main problem is that too much of his vast financial resources are going into legal costs in connection with indictments that aren’t hurting him at all among Republican voters. Another bad development for DeSantis is that a large field of rivals has remained in the race, spoiling his hopes for a one-on-one battle with the front-runner.

Once an almost obscenely well-funded campaign, the DeSantis effort appears to have a high burn rate and some serious donor defections. And more generally, he’s no longer the darling of Republican and conservative elites, most particularly Rupert Murdoch.

The trajectory of DeSantis 2024 should remind political observers of another recent Republican presidential bid that at this point in 2015 was about to enter a dramatic plunge into premature defeat well before voters voted: Scott Walker.

Read my colleague Jonathan Chait’s description of Walker as he appeared at the beginning of that race and see if it doesn’t sound exactly like the image DeSantis had built until his recent troubles:

“Scott Walker won three statewide elections in Wisconsin, which has supported the Democrat in every presidential election since 1984. He led national Republican polling as recently as March. He led in Iowa by enormous margins as recently as August. The Koch brothers loved him. Walker had spent his entire adult life developing an almost superhuman fealty to the principles of the modern Republican Party, its Reaganolotry, and, above all, a ruthless commitment to crushing its enemies beneath his boot heel. If there was anything that gave Walker joy … it was the goal of wiping organized labor off the map. As Grover Norquist enthused in May, ‘when you meet him, it’s like seeing somebody who sits on a throne on the skulls of his enemies.’”

Like DeSantis, Walker was relatively young, in his 40s, and thus was able to generate a sense of generational change in his party (the two previous GOP nominees were 72 and 65 years old, respectively). Like the Floridian, the Wisconsin governor had found the absolute sweet spot of the GOP zeitgeist: the strident ideologue who somehow still appeals to swing voters, and who strikes fear into the hearts of liberals everywhere as he destroys their counterparts in his state. Walker’s very colorlessness (like DeSantis’s) enhanced his reputation as a methodical Death Star come to remake America in his own repulsive image.

The question now is whether DeSantis will also emulate Walker in the ultimate futility of his campaign. There are as many parallels in the decline of their candidacies as in their rise to national political celebrity. Margaret Hartmann’s timeline for Walker’s brief campaign shows some of the same weaknesses as DeSantis’s, and also how quickly his problems snowballed:

“According to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages, during most of the first half of 2015, Walker was among the top three GOP presidential candidates in national polls, and led in Iowa by a wide margin …

“Some outlets ran stories such as “How Scott Walker Will Win” and “Six Reasons Why Scott Walker Will Be Elected President,” but the Times raised the possibility that Walker’s shift to the right on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration, and ethanol subsidies to maintain his lead in Iowa was making him appear inauthentic and costing him elsewhere in the nation.”

Coincidentally or not, DeSantis’s Iowa-driven decision to run to the right of Trump also had less than ideal consequences for his candidacy. Also like Walker, DeSantis seems to have also underestimated Trump. Walker pretty clearly didn’t know what hit him, Hartmann suggested:

“With Trump dominating the political conversation and a crowded field of 16 other Republican candidates, Walker’s campaign began imploding in earnest. After months on top, a CNN/ORC poll found Walker had dropped to third place in Iowa behind Trump and Ben Carson.”

At this point, Walker’s lack of charisma started becoming a problem for him in the retail political environment of Iowa, just as it’s a problem for DeSantis, especially after he made the dubious decision to promise to appear in all the state’s 99 counties. But what actually did in Walker after his campaign lost its magic were mediocre debate performances, beginning in August:

“Walker’s appearance in the first GOP debate was unmemorable. Just before the debate, he had more than 11 percent in an average of the last nine national polls, but afterward he dropped below 5 percent.”

In the second debate, in September, Walker was all but invisible, struggling to draw questions and attention. And then he was done, with his support dropping to below one percent in national polls even as Trump soared and Ted Cruz replaced Walker as the “true conservative” in the race.

It’s entirely possible that Ron DeSantis is one poor debate performance away from the sad fate of Scott Walker. He’s supposedly been deep into preparations for the first candidate debate on August 23 for a while now, though he’s handicapped by not knowing if Trump is going to show. But his margin for error has disappeared. He’s hardly the political behemoth he appeared to be earlier this year, and if he can’t turn things around soon, impatient Republicans will either resign themselves to another Trump nomination or quickly find a new alternative.

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