Ron DeSantis’s once-vaunted presidential bid is in freefall. In the latest ominous sign for the Florida governor, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire appears to be distancing itself from his candidacy, with once-supportive outlets from Fox News and the New York Post to The Wall Street Journal highlighting his flagging poll numbers, his policy inconsistencies, and his cringeworthy attempts to connect with voters in key primary states.
Should the DeSantis campaign fizzle out, comparisons with previous GOP stars-turned-flops like Jeb Bush, his predecessor in Tallahassee, are inevitable. But a more revealing analogy for DeSantis is to the most disappointing candidacy in the 2020 Democratic field: that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren’s campaign is now mainly remembered—as DeSantis’s may ultimately be—for the candidate’s gaffes and flip-flops. But Warren seemed viable circa 2019 for many of the same reasons DeSantis looked like a safe bet to many a few months ago.
In 2016, the Democratic Party faced its most severe split in decades, when Bernie Sanders’s insurgent challenge to Hillary Clinton’s coronation gained surprising traction among primary voters disillusioned with the party’s long-ascendant neoliberal wing. Unlike in the Republican field, where Donald Trump rode roughshod over conventional standard-bearers, the Democratic establishment managed to edge out Sanders in a long war of attrition that left many of the Vermont socialist’s supporters embittered. The disgust of Democratic voters with the Clintonite blob, and resulting low turnout, were cited as factors in Trump’s shocking general-election triumph.
As they prepared to confront Trump once more in 2020, the question Democrats faced was how to win back disaffected primary voters who had responded well to Sanders’s anti-capitalist rhetoric, without drifting too far to the left. Enter Warren. The Massachusetts senator boasted impeccable anti-corporate populist credentials, and even if the “millionaires and billionaires” didn’t dislike her quite as much as they did Sanders, they certainly weren’t fans. At the same time, she described herself not as a socialist, but as a “capitalist to my bones,” and was clearly more palatable to the party establishment and moderate voters.
Early on, Warren’s prospects looked promising. In the fall of 2019, she was polling comfortably ahead of Sanders and just behind Joe Biden, even surging ahead of the eventual winner briefly in poll averages. But by the end of the year, she had fallen behind Sanders, and when primary season began in earnest, she struggled to come in fourth, behind Pete Buttigieg.
What went wrong?
Postmortems agreed on Warren’s basic problem: She never expanded her base of support much beyond highly educated professionals, a crucial but small segment of the Democratic electorate. Attendees at her rallies chanted “big structural change,” but it was hard to imagine such a slogan gaining traction beyond her hardcore supporters any more than her wonkish mantra of having a “plan for that.” Moreover, Warren’s attempts to unite left and center ended up alienating both. She adopted Sanders’s marquee policy proposal—Medicare for All—as her own, but stumbled over the question of how to fund it without raising middle-class taxes.
Warren’s awkward navigation of identity politics didn’t help her win over voters, either. She accused Sanders of sexism, claiming he had told her privately he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump—a charge Sanders vehemently denied. She responded to Trump’s mockery of her claims of Cherokee ancestry, which apparently helped her academic career, by touting the vague and inconclusive results of a DNA test—a move that failed to silence Trump, while also offending Native Americans, for whom genetics are irrelevant to determining tribal membership. And she bizarrely vowed to allow a transgender child to vet her Cabinet.
DeSantis, like Warren, entered the primary as the candidate who looked most capable of bridging the divide between the party’s establishment and its populist renegades, but he has never come as close to catching up with Trump as Warren did with Biden in 2019. Despite that, he was treated as a frontrunner by much of right-of-center media until his declining polls recently began to provoke a reconsideration. That fact provides a clue as to what else DeSantis ’24 has in common with Warren ’20: Both candidates were heavily favored by their respective parties’ aligned media professionals and broader constituency in the educated professional class, but never managed to broaden their appeal much beyond that narrow precinct.
This fact is more surprising for DeSantis than it was for Warren, who before her presidential bid had only run for office in one of the bluest of blue states. Just last year, in contrast, DeSantis won a commanding victory in a sometime-swing state, even as the rest of his party struggled in the midterms. Nonetheless, whatever magic he worked in Florida hasn’t brought him similar results on the national stage. One plausible reason for this discrepancy is that the Sunshine State’s booming economy, a key factor in DeSantis’s 2022 re-election, was something Florida voters were directly benefiting from—but he has struggled to translate this into economic messaging with broad appeal.
DeSantis’s willingness to take on Disney seemed to underscore his seriousness about fighting the culture war to social conservatives, while also lending him credibility as a populist willing to break with his party’s usual deference to big business. Likewise, his tough immigration legislation earned him a scolding from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, that stalwart of Reaganomic orthodoxy. But just as Warren ended up coming across as Sanders Lite, DeSantis seems unlikely to persuade many voters that he can out-populist the former president who spearheaded the right-populist turn in the GOP. His flip-flops on the Ukraine war—in contrast with Trump’s consistency—reinforce that impression.
Beyond that, DeSantis’s campaign language and emphases, like Warren’s four years ago, betray a disproportionate fixation on the pet concerns of his party’s media and activist class. Take his pledge to “reconstitutionalize the executive branch,” which like Warren’s talk of “big structural change” and “plans” speaks only to a recondite subset of supporters. Meanwhile, his glitchy campaign launch event on Twitter looked designed to pander to the disaffected liberals and centrists of the “Intellectual Dark Web”—not exactly a large slice of the electorate.
“Both parties are dominated by an ‘extreme center.’”
More recently, DeSantis has confused matters further by attempting to run to the right of Trump on culture-war issues, a move certain to alienate a constituency he previously seemed eager to appeal to: moderates who object to the excesses of gender ideology but have no objection to civil rights for gays and lesbians. A recent pro-DeSantis ad criticizing Trump as too gay-inclusive prompted accusations of homophobia from conservatives. As with Warren, the supposed unity candidate seems increasingly only capable of unifying erstwhile enemy factions against him.
DeSantis partisans, like those of Warren in their time, seem to believe the winning political formula is to split the difference between the moderate center of the party and its “extreme” fringes. But this is a misconception, because the real ideological extremism isn’t on the right or left. On the contrary, both parties are dominated by an “extreme center,” to borrow the phrase of the left-wing British journalist Tariq Ali. The Republican establishment’s devotion to tax cutting, entitlement slashing, and warmongering is anything but moderate, and the same goes for mainstream Democratic stances on a wide range of issues. A self-proclaimed populist who seems eager to accommodate the extreme center is no populist at all—and will rightly be regarded with suspicion from all sides.