The Ron DeSantis presidential campaign has been officially underway for about a month now, and it is safe to say that things are not going well. Since the campaign launched during a chaotic Twitter Spaces session, it has become evident that the Florida governor may not be cut out for the big time.
Every recent poll shows DeSantis slipping nationally. Betting markets even favor California Gov. Gavin Newsom over DeSantis in a general election (despite Newsom’s stated lack of interest in running for president in 2024). Even Republicans are uncertain about DeSantis as a presidential candidate.
Just last week, his campaign released a malicious ad attacking Trump for his perceived support of the LGBTQ community. The video was poorly edited, filled with peculiar internet subculture jokes, and made light of the tragic 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which claimed the lives of 49 people and injured 53.
Richard Grenell, a former Trump administration official, denounced the video as “undeniably homophobic.” Caitlyn Jenner, a trans Republican who was also attacked in the campaign ad, wrote, “DeSantis has hit a new low. But he’s so desperate he’ll do anything to get ahead—that’s been the theme of his campaign.”
Not only do Republicans have concerns about DeSantis’ campaign communications, but his policy positions also seem out of step with the party.
After signing a six-week abortion ban in an obvious attempt to portray himself as an anti-abortion zealot, DeSantis faced criticism from Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who called the legislation a “non-starter.” During an appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation, Mace said, “Signing a six-week ban that puts rape victims and victims of incest in a difficult position is not the way to change hearts and minds.” Conservative news pundit Ann Coulter even labeled DeSantis move as “a total disaster and a huge mistake.”
Instead of running a campaign based on addressing the problems voters see in their communities, DeSantis has done the exact opposite. He has relied on knee-jerk reactions to cultural moments that are at odds with the American public. By attempting to attack controversial aspects of American culture, DeSantis has branded himself as a chronically online, out-of-touch divider, rather than a uniter.
There have been other Republicans who have been able to speak to the GOP base without coming across as out of touch.
For example, consider Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. During the coronavirus pandemic, Youngkin noticed that Virginian parents, regardless of their political affiliation, were concerned about school closures. He took advantage of this by running a campaign centered around the need to ensure schools stay open for students. Moreover, he strategically incorporated Republican values about “parental rights” into his messaging.
Although these ideas about education are not accurate, as parents aren’t being shut out of the classroom, Youngkin’s approach worked because he began by addressing a problem that most people recognized. Then, he added his own conservative position about the state of education in America.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has done the exact opposite.
Instead of starting with a problem that both Democratic and Republican voters can agree exists and then incorporating his own conservative stance, he has immediately launched himself to the far-right. He has attacked education as being “too woke” and argued that teachers are indoctrinating children. But the idea that teachers are largely partisan actors is only shared by a tiny segment of Republican voters.
According to a recent Pew Research study, 44 percent of Republicans (and 42 percent of Democrats) believe that teachers’ influence in the classroom is just about right. Only 16 percent of Republicans think teachers’ influence in the classroom is oversized.
Put simply, DeSantis is focusing on a problem that most people don't believe exists.
So, we have to ask ourselves, why is his campaign doing this? Why does he continue to address a problem that only 16 percent of people see as an issue? As a politician, his ultimate goal should be winning the election, right?
Instead, it seems that he has completely forgotten that he’s running for president and instead acts like he's vying for the title of Chief Online Republican Troll.
For the likes of Tim Pool, Matt Walsh, and Ben Shapiro—far-right pundits who largely exist in the online realm—the role of teachers in the classroom is one of their top priorities. They incessantly post about it, launching verbal attacks against teachers and librarians. This is DeSantis’ base, but it’s not even close to broad enough to secure victory—even in the GOP primary.
The predicament DeSantis finds himself in is entirely predictable. Here’s a news flash: if you fail to address the concerns that voters want their politicians to prioritize, you simply won’t win. Furthermore, following the lead of online pundits who have never been involved in any political campaign or engaged with voters during an election is a losing strategy.
While I can’t claim to know what Republican voters are seeking, the chronically online strategy of berating teachers, pushing a radical abortion ban, and attacking LGBTQ Americans who were victims of a mass shooting doesn’t appear to align with the preferences of the average Republican voter, much less the average American.
If DeSantis wants to surpass Trump, who is currently outperforming him in the polls, DeSantis must craft a message that resonates with independent voters while simultaneously appealing to Republicans. Blindly following the online crowd off a cliff won’t earn him any votes; it will simply turn him into just another presidential also-ran.