Ron DeSantis isn’t warm and fuzzy enough to be president. He’s awkward. Plodding. An oddball. Neither fun nor friendly. He’s dour. He can’t improvise. He’s not somebody you’d want to have a beer with.
So goes the “newest” narrative to emerge on the national stage in an article headlined “Just wait until you get to know Ron DeSantis.” It was published last week in The Atlantic by staff writer Mark Leibovich, who attempted to distill the essence of Florida’s governor from a handful of interviews that included avowed ex-GOP Never Trumpers Rick Wilson and Mac Stipanovich, both of whom deliver the expected quotes with their usual colorful flair.
But for those who move in political circles in Florida, the descriptions aren’t “new” at all. They’ve been used to describe DeSantis since he was just another congressman trying to make a name for himself with frequent appearances on Fox News. And the descriptions keep getting repeated, at least partly, because they probably contain some small kernels of truth.
Not everyone agrees, though.
“I reject the premise that Governor DeSantis isn’t the guy you want to have a beer with,” says Skylar Zandar, Florida’s state director for Americans for Prosperity. “I’ve had the fortunate ability to see him on the baseball field with his son and I’ve spent time with he and his family in social settings and I can tell you he’s a normal guy. He’s loves sports and loves policy. If you can’t connect with him over that then, maybe you’re not the best judge of social acceptance.”
But plenty of others have come away from interactions with DeSantis and concluded he lacks the personal magnetism they’d hoped for.
Leibovich reasons that those criticisms will knock some of the shine off DeSantis’s rising star. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, he writes, won’t take to DeSantis when he inevitably hits the campaign trail and tries his hand at their traditional retail-style presidential politics.
Ironically, this weekend, the Democrat National Committee (DNC), pushed by President Joe Biden, decided that Iowa is too white and too Republican to keep its place at the head of the line in presidential politics. Iowa may yet ignore the DNC and move their own caucus into late 2023 to keep Iowa first, but it remains to be seen just how much Iowa’s “aw-shucks” politics will factor into the presidential plans of either party or any single candidate.
The shifting caucus dates aside, does the anti-DeSantis narrative really have any teeth? Do voters care whether or not their candidate is a master retail politician, a la Bill Clinton, or chummy and charismatic like George W. Bush?
Certainly those traits aren’t bad to have, but a growing body of evidence suggests they aren’t at the top of the list of requirements to earn voter support. And by pointing out personal flaws so early, might The Atlantic and its squad of Never Trumpers actually be doing DeSantis a favor by lowering expectations?
Many of the same personality criticisms have been repeated about Florida’s governor ad nauseum since 2010. Florida’s other governor, that is. Since his emergence on the political scene, Rick Scott has been on the receiving end of similar memes and narratives that suggest, like his successor DeSantis, he’s awkward, lacks empathy, and isn’t warm and fuzzy enough to succeed in politics.
Twelve years later, Scott has proven the critics wrong three times, winning the governor’s mansion in 2010, 2014 and his current U.S. Senate seat in 2018. And like DeSantis, he also beat Florida’s warmest and fuzziest retail politician, Charlie Crist. Later Scott came out on top against the slightly less warm-and-fuzzy, but still personally likable Bill Nelson. Scott earned his share of critics over that span, but many Democrats grudgingly admit that Scott’s methodical laser-focus on policy issues earned their respect.
Combining those data points with DeSantis’s own rise to prominence, and it’s difficult to see what all the personality hubbub is about. Warm and fuzzy is nice, but is it effective? AFP’s Zandar doesn’t see it as top-of-mind for most people.
“What voters care about is, can [a political candidate] do the job they were elected to do?” Zandar says. “Governor DeSantis has blown that requirement out of the water and voters in Florida spoke.”
Indeed. DeSantis cruised to a stunning 19-point blowout of the cuddly Charlie Crist, but he’s also shown he has the ability to win the hearts, minds, and wallets of people outside of Florida, too. Some of the most important GOP donors in the country have written fat campaign checks to DeSantis. Presumably, they too, would prefer him to be as charming as possible, but serious people don’t fork over tens of millions of dollars to someone without talking to them first and getting a feel for who they are. The bank account balance for Friends of Ron DeSantis is a pretty good metric for judging whether or not DeSantis has the ability to work a room full of mega donors.
Whether or not his effectiveness and fundraising skills can trump the charisma of others in 2024 remains to be seen. But it’s notable that an avowed group of Florida Never Trumpers is expending energy talking about DeSantis’s icy interpersonal skills rather than the latest drama surrounding Donald Trump.