Former President Donald Trump still casts a large shadow over the Republican Party. Republicans who are not Trump are playing a difficult game of trying to raise their profile without trying to be seen as pushing Trump aside.
Right now, no Republican is doing a better job of setting himself up as Trump’s successor than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. If Trump decides not to run in 2024, DeSantis has as good if not better chance of being the party’s nominee as anyone.
Just a few months ago, DeSantis was like many other potential 2024 contenders: going nowhere fast. When Trump was not included in primary polls, DeSantis was averaging less than 5% and well behind the leaders such as former Vice President Mike Pence.
But in the last two months, DeSantis is generally right at the top of the limited non-Trump 2024 polling. He’s one of the few candidates, along with Pence and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to hit double-digits regularly. DeSantis even has an advantage in the occasional poll.
This comes on top of him finishing first in a CPAC straw poll that didn’t include Trump earlier this year.
What makes DeSantis’ rise even more interesting is that he has never run a national campaign before.
Pence was Trump’s vice president for four years. We saw how President Joe Biden was able to jump out to a large lead in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, thanks in part to him being a known entity as former President Barack Obama’s vice president.
Cruz, on the other hand, ran for president in 2016. He came in second place in the GOP primary that year and made a name for himself. He’s also served in statewide office in the second most populated state for nearly a decade now.
DeSantis has only been governor for a little over two years. Prior to that, he was a member of the US House for a little less than three terms, representing a relatively small portion of Florida’s population by comparison.
What DeSantis lacks in name recognition from time on the national stage, he has made up for in his ability to attract media attention. In the last year, DeSantis has been criticized in the press for his handling of his state’s efforts to control the coronavirus.
Most recently, DeSantis was the subject of a “60 Minutes” piece over Florida’s vaccine distribution. The segment was itself criticized for being unfair to DeSantis and subject to backlash.
Through it all, DeSantis has fought back and defended his handling of the pandemic – and a lot of GOP voters seem to like what they’re seeing.
This shouldn’t be too surprising because being anti-mainstream media is a big part of the GOP brand now. As Meredith Conroy of California State University, San Bernardino wrote at FiveThirtyEight, trust in the media among Republicans is at its lowest level since at least 1997.
At the same time, DeSantis has done a good job of getting a lot of media attention from the places Republicans tend to trust such as Fox News and Fox Business. A search of “DeSantis” turned up more than 1,500 mentions on those two channels since Biden’s inauguration, according to the TV News Archive. That was more than either Cruz or Pence had on the two channels.
Corralling media attention has proven to be a key component in recent presidential primary contests. Primary fields are often many candidates deep, and voters can only follow so many candidates at a time. With voters having to choose between many candidates, a lot of press can be a very good thing.
Trump dominated the media landscape in 2016 in a way that allowed him to overcome a Republican field with more than a dozen candidates.
And in 2020, Biden was the leader in media mentions in a Democratic primary that had even more candidates running.
Whether DeSantis can keep it up is a whole other question. He still needs to win reelection in 2022.
His popularity in Florida suggests he may be able to keep it up or at least remain relevant.
Pretty much all the major office holders in Florida at this time are Republicans. DeSantis has generally been ahead of all the other Republicans in the state in terms of popularity within his own party.
Having home state popularity isn’t enough to win, but lacking it can point to major problems. Sen. Elizabeth Warren struggling in early primary polls from Massachusetts, for example, was a big warning sign to her later problems in the primary. DeSantis is passing that early test.
Of course, a lot of this analysis ultimately depends on whether Trump runs in 2024 or not.
If he does, Trump should be seen as the favorite. If he doesn’t, the field is wide open. No doubt, however, that DeSantis should be considered near the top of that wide open field.