It’s simple: In a head-to-head matchup, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might be able to take down former President Donald Trump in 2024. In a crowded field, Trump will win easily.
This isn’t just my opinion. It’s what Trump’s own inner circle believes. In a story published Thursday, the Washington Examiner collected anonymous statements from more than half a dozen Trump insiders, and the consensus was clear:
“Though DeSantis currently matches or beats Trump head to head in many national polls, Trumpworld predicts the Florida governor will fizzle as former Vice President Mike Pence, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Tim Scott (R-SC), former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and others all potentially jump into the race.”
“The die-hard MAGA supporters won’t vote for anyone but Trump. Everyone else who gets in dilutes support for DeSantis,” according to one operative. “Basically, we’re praying Nikki Haley runs.”
It’s also backed up by polling. In mid-December, a USA Today poll conducted by Suffolk University had DeSantis beating Trump 56% to 33% in a one-on-one contest. Compare that to the Real Clear Politics average, which has Trump leading a 10-candidate field with 47% of the vote, and DeSantis in a distant second at 28.8%. (RELATED: GOP Prefers DeSantis By Double-Digits, Most Want Trump Out Of 2024 Race: POLL)
The primaries are still more than a year away, and a lot could happen between now and then, but the way things stand, DeSantis has one path to victory: he needs to clear the field.
The last two presidential races provide opposite, though equally instructive, examples.
In the early primaries of 2016, a vocal minority of enthusiastic supporters propelled Trump to victory. In the first 15 primaries — of which he won 10 — Trump broke 40% only three times. If the votes Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich received in those 15 contests had gone to one candidate, that candidate would have won 14 of them.
Trump won the nomination not because the establishment was despised, but because it was divided.
In 2020, the Democratic machine succeeded where the GOP had failed. Eventual nominee Joe Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. Around this time, I remember hearing about a friend of a friend who was working on the former vice president’s campaign. He treated the whole thing as a joke, but figured it would at least look good on his résumé.
Biden won resoundingly in South Carolina, but on the eve of Super Tuesday, Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was in the lead, with 60 delegates to Biden’s 54. Then, all of a sudden, then-South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (who won in Iowa) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (who outperformed Biden in New Hampshire) dropped out and endorsed Biden.
According to The New York Times, former President Barack Obama had called Buttigieg and strongly hinted that unless he got out of the race right now, Sanders would run away with the nomination and probably lose to Trump. It worked. Biden won.
The 2024 version of Trump isn’t the unknown quantity 2016 Trump was, but the primary math hasn’t shifted as much as one might expect. According to the Examiner, Trump’s advisers believe he can count on firm support from “a third of the Republican electorate” — roughly the size of the pluralities that got him rolling in 2016. Even if it’s closer to half than a third, Trump will have trouble improving on those numbers. Everybody’s basically made up their mind about the guy at this point.
The votes are there to deny Trump the nomination, but only if those votes go to the same person. And nobody’s better positioned than DeSantis, fresh off his historic reelection win, to be that person. If I were him, I’d be having discreet conversations with Pence, Haley, Pompeo and anyone else who’s considering a 2024 bid. It might be hard to convince them not to run at all, but at the very least, they could all agree that, by Super Tuesday, it’ll be a two-man race.
DeSantis’ biggest challenge is one of optics. He needs to become the establishment candidate without appearing to be the establishment candidate. Nothing will rally support behind Trump faster than the appearance that party elites in a smoke-filled room conspired to derail the MAGA movement.
NeverTrump: DeSantis is just a more effective version of Trump. He’d be terrible and destabilize everything. Send us money to stop him.
OnlyTrump: DeSantis is just a more effective version of the establishment. He’d be terrible and destabilize nothing. Send us money to stop him.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) December 15, 2022
Really, though, “establishment” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. Every insurgency wants to take over eventually, and a party in which DeSantis can be considered establishment is a thoroughly Trumpified party.
With the Florida governor topping the ticket, voters who care more about Trumpism than about Trump will get everything they loved about 45 and then some. Pugnacious political style? Check. Hard line on immigration? Check. Anti-interventionist foreign policy? Check. Plus the added bonuses of more competence and way less bitching about 2020.
If DeSantis manages to clear the field and beat the former president, it would be a victory for Trumpism. Just not for Trump.