DeSantis Should Have No Regrets. No One Could Beat Trump and His Indictments

As we close in on the Iowa caucuses and the first time GOP primary voters will cast votes in the 2024 presidential election, the Republican writing seems to be on the wall. It tells a tale of a dominant Donald Trump easily dispatching a field that sought to keep him from a path back to the White House. There were some surprises, thought; former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley exceeded expectations, while entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy shattered them–for a while anyway. And then there was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who so many expected to pose a devastating challenge to Donald Trump—only to see him tank in the polls.

Why didn’t DeSantis catch on? What did he do wrong? The answer is: virtually nothing.

In the horse-race-obsessed style of modern campaign coverage, conclusions are binary—winners are winners and losers are losers. While that will always be technically true, any head-scratching over the DeSantis performance misses key points.

First, there was no way DeSantis was going to spring out of the gates to approach Trump’s numbers when he announced in late May. While the prospect of his campaign had long been touted as the most plausible threat to Trump’s domination, an instant bounce would have required two elements: GOP voters swooning over the Florida Governor and legions of Trump voters deciding to bail.

DeSantis earned some early support from various conservative corners and retains devotion from hopeful backers to this day. But the other end of the math problem never materialized. Trump supporters didn’t just maintain their steadfastness—they ramped it up, joined by ambivalent poll respondents who wanted to make a statement against what they see as a politically motivated barrage of criminal charges.

Against that wave of sentiment, catching Trump in the polls has gone from difficult to impossible for any rival. DeSantis admitted as much in an interview last week. “If I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,” DeSantis told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, adding that the cascade of indictments “just crowded out so much other stuff…. It’s sucked out all the oxygen.”

Ron DeSantis
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during the Scott County Fireside Chat at the Tanglewood Hills Pavilion on December 18, 2023 in Bettendorf, Iowa. Iowa Republicans will be the first to select their party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential race when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Precisely.

This is the sound of DeSantis realizing that he was never going to catch Trump in the 2023 polls. His supporters should realize the same, and so should anyone who comments on such things for a living.

DeSantis has done well in debates, in his ads, in public events, and in TV appearances. It is the shallowest of analysis to go looking for nitpicky things he must have done wrong—he focused too much on this, too little on that, he seems awkward at times, his boots have high heels.

All ridiculous. Ron DeSantis is a deeply gifted conservative with executive experience that would make him a superb president. Even Trump voters know it. His supporters just want their guy.

The dumbest shade thrown at DeSantis is that he hasn’t attacked Trump enough. Ask Chris Christie how well that approach is working. DeSantis has taken the occasional potshot, jabbing at Trump for skipping debates, obsessing over 2020, failing to completely build the literal wall or drain the metaphoric swamp.

Those are not the smartest talking points when you are trying to lure voters who harbor such gratitude for Trump’s service that they seek his return. The wiser DeSantis narrative would have always been, “Like you, I loved his presidency. But if you want those policies back, I am your best bet. I have a better chance of beating Biden, and I can serve two terms.”

Not that this would have magically vaulted him the forty poll points necessary to catch Trump, but it would have landed better in what is still Trump’s Republican Party.

As the calendar page turns to January and its tantalizing dates with destiny in Iowa and New Hampshire, the only hope for DeSantis is for large blocs of conservative voters to grudgingly conclude that their dream of Trump’s hand on the Bible on January 20, 2025 is a bridge too far in view of the land mines that lie in his path.

That is not an implausible conclusion, and many January voters may reach it. Trump is not likely to vanquish DeSantis (or anyone else) by the nearly 4-to-1 margins seen in some polls. But a Trump victory by any margin would turn polls into reality, making him even harder to topple in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina on the way to Super Tuesday March 5.

If Trump has the nomination locked up by that busy day of primaries, look for post-mortems with further barbs about DeSantis’s failures. They will be largely ill-placed. His problem will not have been a campaign badly run, it will be a campaign unfortunately timed at a moment when Trump-loving GOP voters respectfully passed on alternatives because the object of their admiration was still available for service.

Mark Davis is a talk show host for the Salem Media Group on 660AM The Answer in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and Townhall.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.