If it were up to the legacy media to pronounce Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential aspirations dead, they’d…well…they’ve basically already done that. Collectively, the non-stop drumbeat of “DeSantis is dead” news stories has worked to convince a good chunk of the GOP electorate that the primary cycle is over and that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. But we’re still six months away from the first ballots to be cast, and 10 months from the Donald Trump classified document
For the last several years, DeSantis has been viewed as the heir apparent to Trump. This was due, in large part, to the powerful narrative of the “Free State of Florida,” in which DeSantis recognized earlier than just about all other political leaders that the pandemic panic was overblown. At the risk of his political career, he opened the state up for business, and Florida reaped the benefits with a stronger economy and a massive influx of people looking for a better place to live. That story is what fueled his meteoric rise and caused millions of out-of-state Republicans to start taking a profound interest in DeSantis’s national political potential. Since then, DeSantis has taken bolder and bolder steps to further the “free state” narrative.
As the pandemic waned and Florida flourished, new issues arose, including a worthwhile fight over parental rights in education – the idea that parents, not teachers, should have ultimate control over the more sensitive areas of a child’s upbringing. The parental rights issue was a huge political winner for DeSantis and Florida Republicans, with some polling showing that parents (read: high-propensity voters) supported the parental rights legislation by a 40-point margin.
In November 2022, riding a cresting wave of dual support, both on the strength of Florida’s economy and on parental rights, DeSantis won re-election by a historic margin, enabling him to keep millions of campaign dollars in reserve to help boost his inevitable national campaign. And earlier this year, he seemed like the one GOP candidate with a legitimate shot at attracting enough voters to edge out Donald Trump and secure the nomination for president. But, so far, at least, he remains firmly bogged down, unable to gain the traction necessary to lure wary Trump voters over.
Which begs the question: What’s wrong with Ron DeSantis?
Answer: His messaging. Plain and simple.
The parental rights battle that unfolded in Florida in 2021 and 2022 was such an obvious winner for Republicans that many have now deluded themselves into thinking that more of the same will deliver more and better results in perpetuity. No one, save perhaps Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis, seems to have embraced that strategy more than DeSantis himself. In Florida over the last year, there has been a never-ending drum beat of culture war rhetoric emanating from the highest echelons of Florida’s state government – with DeSantis marking time as the drum major.
This past week, though, DeSantis finally “jumped the shark” when he decided to dogpile Bud Light after mobs of customers already did the dirty work to take down the brand. With DeSantis now spread thin in cultural combat across a broad front that includes college campuses and corporate boardrooms, and simultaneously locked in mortal combat with Disney’s Bob Iger, why pick a brand-new fight with Anheuser Busch?
Many cultural battles are often worth fighting. But a full-on culture war leaves little time for anything else, and the problem is, right now, there are many other things that require Republican attention. For many voters, those things are significantly higher on their personal priority lists than some of the very isolated battles in which DeSantis is now engaged. Worse for DeSantis, no matter how isolated the fight, it’s hard to resist the culture war catnip. But the national media will only amplify and magnify those social and cultural initiatives a thousandfold and use them to cement DeSantis’s identity as a one-trick culture war pony.
All Republicans enjoy watching DeSantis “own the libs,” but for the next six months at least, DeSantis needs to find a different way to do so. The time is now long past for him to adopt an old but still relevant message: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This famous phrase, coined during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, captured the pulse of a nation in economic upheaval and positioned Clinton as the candidate who understood and cared about their struggles. The emphasis on the economy resonated deeply with voters then, and today, it is just as relevant.
Current economic data shows that inflation, while slowing, remains a major problem. It’s also a significant factor impacting President Biden’s approval ratings. And it appears to be the gap that DeSantis has been unable to bridge among Republican voters, but one that brings with it, a chance to turn the tide in his favor.
But to seize this opportunity, DeSantis has to find a way to resist the urge to deliver a culture war smackdown every time a new challenge pops up. And they will pop up. Democrats will be relentless with “gotcha” political gimmicks that, if given any attention, will distract from this singular opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of Republican voters who are desperate for real solutions to their very real problems.
For those too young to remember, even as early as 1992, Bill Clinton was besieged with his own campaign distractions. But credit his campaign adviser, James Carville, for cooking up the “It’s the economy, stupid,” phrase that kept his campaign focused. Clinton zeroed in relentlessly on proposals for job creation, deficit reduction, middle-class tax relief, and healthcare reform. Regardless of whether you agreed with his solutions, nobody doubted what he wanted to do on economic policy.
Given some of the knocks against DeSantis’s less-than-warm and fuzzy personality, he could probably also benefit from adopting his own version of Clinton’s “I feel your pain” approach—empathizing with struggling Americans and showing them that he cares about their lives.
DeSantis found a way to channel that in the early days of 2020. He tapped into the anger and frustration of Floridians who were tired of being couped up, watching the economy sputter, and their livelihoods wither on the vine during the pandemic. And he can do it again.
With six months to go before the first Republican ballots are cast, DeSantis has a chance to redefine his campaign narrative and connect more effectively with voters. By focusing on the economy and demonstrating empathy for struggling Americans, he needs to seize the chance to regain momentum and focus the attention of the GOP electorate to make a stronger case for his presidential aspirations. His success will depend on his ability to tone down the increasingly tiresome culture war rhetoric and refocus on the economy. Indeed, as Clinton’s 1992 campaign so astutely recognized, it’s still the economy, stupid.