Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
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Why Ron DeSantis Can Beat Trump in 2024

The party is deciding, and the voters are getting the message.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

If you want to get a sense of which way the Republican Party is headed in 2024, here are two straws in the wind. First, Gary Fineout reported that Ron DeSantis might not seek Donald Trump’s endorsement in his reelection contest for governor — a risk DeSantis can probably afford, given the Republican tidal wave that will be at his back in November. Second, a poll of likely Republican-primary voters in New Hampshire found DeSantis edging out Trump 39 percent to 37 percent.

If you still think DeSantis is only floating a presidential campaign in the hopes Trump will back out, think again. DeSantis is building a campaign to take on Trump. And he can win.

One of the points I made in my feature story on DeSantis in March is that he is the beneficiary of a concerted effort by Republican elites to promote his candidacy. The coordination behind DeSantis is reminiscent of how the party coalesced behind George W. Bush in 1999. What had begun as a wide-open race with multiple contestants winnowed very quickly as the word got out that Bush was the pick.

Something very much like that is occurring with DeSantis. DeSantis is hoovering up cash from the party’s donor class, including the support of at least 42 billionaires. The most telling fact about the New Hampshire poll is that while DeSantis leads Trump by just two points overall, he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and among conservative radio listeners by 16 points. Republicans who consume conservative media are getting the message. The voters who are not yet tuned in to conservative media may still name Trump in polls, but they are likely to follow.

Crucially, the support for DeSantis spans the current internal divide within the party between anti-anti-Trump conservatives — who disdain Trump as a liability and wish he was gone but support him against the Democrats — and enthusiastically pro-Trump conservatives.

If you do not follow conservative media, the full force of this effort may not be visible. But if you do, the drumbeat for DeSantis is being sounded literally every single day. At National Review, a stronghold of anti-anti-Trumpism, recent DeSantis coverage includes headlines like “Ron DeSantis Can Save America’s Universities,” “Defiant DeSantis Touts Home State During NYC Visit,” “DeSantis Is on Democratic Minds,” and twoitems touting the New Hampshire poll. There are three columns responding to TheNew Yorker’s feature on DeSantis (“Progressives’ Grunts Are Growing Desperate,” “Republican Consultants: Dumb and Evil,” and “The New Yorker Accidentally Makes Ron DeSantis Look Awesome.”

But if you peer over at the pro-Trump media, it is also heavily favorable to DeSantis, though it does not read as though it was produced by his own press secretaries. American Greatness, a website created for the purpose of flattering Trump, has published stories with headlines like “DeSantis Slams White House and Media for ‘Lying’ About Florida’s COVID Vaccine Policy For Babies,” “Elon Musk Says He Voted For Republican Mayra Flores in Historic Texas Special Election; Is Leaning Toward DeSantis in 2024,” “Ron DeSantis Defends His Press Sec After WaPo Publishes ‘Totally Ridiculous Smear Piece’ Suggesting FARA Violation,” and “Trump’s Growing Rivalry With DeSantis Must Be Contained.”

The last article, the closest thing to outright criticism of DeSantis you will find in conservative media, argues, “I know DeSantis would make a fantastic president and I badly want him to be president at some point,” but beseeches the governor to consider whether 2024 is “his year to run, especially knowing that, barring a legal complication over the next few years, Trump will be running for president again.”

Elon Musk has identified DeSantis as a proponent of the “moderate” policies he allegedly prefers. But DeSantis has accomplished this without positioning himself to the left of Trump on anything. He has not refuted Trump’s claim to have won the 2020 election or affirmed Biden’s legitimacy. He is running sharply to Trump’s right on vaccines, thrilling the anti-vaccine movement as the sole governor not to support the jab for kids under 6 years old.

There is no detectable reservoir of DeSantis skepticism on the party’s right. Infowars, Alex Jones’s conspiracy-theorizing publication, churns out headlines like “DeSantis Blasts ‘Lying’ Biden White House & Legacy Media’s Support of Jabbing Babies With Covid Vax.” The article concludes, “Bold stances like this are why DeSantis is America’s most popular GOP governor and a rising presidential contender.” Joshua Hammer is “all-in for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the ideal Republican presidential nominee in 2024.”

The Murdoch-owned media, meanwhile, is suggesting with increasing firmness that Trump step aside for DeSantis in 2024. “Tune out the Jan. 6 hearings,” editorializes the New York Post. “Unsubscribe from Trump’s daily emails begging for money. Then pick your favorite from a new crop of conservatives. Look to 2022, and 2024, and a new era.”

David Folkenflik, author of a book about the Murdochs, tells Joe Pompeo, “There’s no way these papers are dumping the Donald without the tacit assent of Lachlan and Rupert.” The strategy from these outlets is to depict Trump as an agent of the past and to invest their audience in the cultural fights DeSantis is picking.

Here’s what I wrote three months ago: “If you completely dismiss the possibility that DeSantis could pry the Republican base away from a president to whom it has formed a cultlike attachment, you may not be considering the potential effect of two more years of DeSantis being given the sort of coverage in the right-wing media that Pravda devoted to Joseph Stalin.” DeSantis may still trail Trump nationally, but he has made up a great deal of ground already, and he still has a year and a half to go. At this pace, DeSantis could easily overtake Trump.

Why Ron DeSantis Can Beat Trump in 2024