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Ron DeSantis's electoral track record is worse than I thought
A semi-mea culpa. He had a great re-election campaign in 2022. The rest of his track record isn't so hot.
That’s the number I’d keep returning to in the early stages of the Republican presidential race.
It’s the margin by which Ron DeSantis won re-election for governor in Florida last year, defeating the former governor Charlie Crist. Nineteen points is a lot, even in a state that’s become increasingly red1 over the past few cycles. Donald Trump won Florida by only 3.4 points in 2020.
It’s a number I thought answered a lot of questions about DeSantis — but now I’m wondering whether it was a fluke.
DeSantis has gotten a critical reaction from the media all campaign long — a more critical reaction, in many ways, than Trump has gotten. Why, exactly? That’s a little outside our scope for today, though I think it reflects a visceral dislike of him more so than, say, a strategic calculation about his comparative likelihood of defeating Joe Biden. The early stages of the primaries, without much data to look at or many events to intercede, are when the press acts like a group of snickering teenagers at boarding school. They’re prone to groupthink and subjectivity — and it’s usually right to short the groupthink. I learned this the hard way when — like much of the media, but more stridently than most of it — I dismissed Trump’s chances in 2015 despite his continual lead in polls for the 2016 Republican nomination. In 2019/2020, I didn’t make that mistake, but other people did. There was a lot of dismissal of Joe Biden’s chances, even though Biden was in a fairly sound position all along. The lesson from both elections seemed to be just trust the polls, as flawed as they may be, they’re still better than trying to out-think the voters.
So I thought for a while that media skepticism over DeSantis’s chances was unwarranted — silly theater criticism, most of it formulated by people who are far removed from the mindset of the typical GOP primary voter. You might forget this now, but DeSantis’s polling was actually pretty danged good against Trump last fall and last winter. He was routinely polling in the mid-to-high 30s and sometimes into the 40s in national polls — quite formidable against a former president, and much better than infamous primary-season flameouts like Scott Walker, Jeb Bush or Kalama Harris ever polled.2
That, and the 19-point margin that DeSantis pulled off in Florida in 2022. There seemed to be a lot of evidence that voters liked what DeSantis was selling — even if pundits didn’t — and that the battle against Trump would be a pretty fair fight.
Well, so far the theater critics have been right.
Desantis’s national numbers have slipped to around 20 percent. He’s had one bad news cycle after another, from lackluster fundraising numbers to his weirdly homophobic/homoerotic ad. He no longer has that much distance over third-place candidates in the polls — a dangerous dynamic for him because you can imagine a cascade where Trump-skeptical Republican donors and media figures migrate to one of the other candidates, perhaps Tim Scott if another poll or two shows him closing on DeSantis there.
Now, candidates have come back from worse deficits — John McCain in 2008, for instance. The conventional wisdom that Trump is nearly certain to win is probably a little overconfident. There are likely to be some shakeups in the race at some point or another, out of media and voter boredom if no other reason. Excluding sitting presidents running for re-nomination, only Al Gore in 2000 had essentially a completely smooth ride to capturing his party’s nomination, and even then Bill Bradley gave him a real scare in New Hampshire.
But here’s what prevents me from saying that DeSantis is a good “buy low” opportunity. (At only 11 percent at prediction markets, the price is tempting, though I’d sooner buy Scott at 3 percent.) The more I look at it, the more that 19-point margin in 2022 looks like kind of a mirage.
DeSantis has run in five previous elections and won all five — three races for the U.S. House and two for governor. How impressive were the results? Other than 2022, not particularly impressive — about in line with what you’d expect from a generic Republican.
For each race, I’ve calculated what I’ll call a Generic Republican Benchmark. This is determined by adding the partisan lean of a state or district3 to the national political environment.4 For instance, in a district that leans Republican by 10 points relative to the national average, in a political climate that leans Republican by 5 points overall, you’d expect a generic Republican to win by 15 points. Here’s what that calculation looks like for DeSantis.
2012: DeSantis defeats Heather Beaven by 14.4 points to win election to the U.S. House in Florida’s 6th district. However, the Generic Republican Benchmark for this election is 15.0 points.
2014: DeSantis wins re-election over David Cox by 25.0 points. However, his district had a very strong Republican lean that year, and 2014 was a great year for Republicans. In fact, the Generic Republican Benchmark was 27.5 points, a bit higher than DeSantis’s margin.
2016: DeSantis wins a third term to Congress, defeating Democrat Bill McCullough by 17.2 points. This is decent-to-good, a bit better than the Generic Republican Benchmark of 11.8 points — although as a two-term incumbent by this point with the various advantages that brings, DeSantis should be outrunning the benchmark by some amount.
2018: DeSantis is elected governor of Florida, defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum by 0.4 points or about 32,000 votes. This is better than the Generic Republican Benchmark of -4.6 points. (In other words, the benchmark had him losing by 4 or 5 points.) But, I’m not sure how much credit to give him for this one. Florida was in the process of becoming much redder, and the benchmark score is purely retrospective, formulated from past elections rather than future ones that we wouldn’t have known about at the time. And Gillum was an, um, interesting candidate, although some of his issues weren’t known until later. Granted, 2018 was a strong Democratic year. But “just squeaks by in Florida against an extremely flawed Democratic nominee” doesn’t scream electability.
2022: DeSantis wins by 19.4 points, as compared to a Generic Republican Benchmark of 10.2 points. Look, if you wanted to nitpick, you could point out that Marco Rubio won by almost as wide a margin. But that’s potentially unfair because Rubio may have benefited from DeSantis’s coattails. So let’s give DeSantis full credit for this one. He crushed it, a really impressive result on an otherwise massively disappointing election night for Republicans.
So you have four cycles of essentially league-average performance, and then one cycle where DeSantis killed it. This is basically the politics equivalent of the year that Luis Gonzalez somehow hit 57 home runs.
What made the difference in 2022? Performance-enhancing drugs? Nah, it was probably COVID.
I’m stealing this hypothesis from Josh Barro, but I increasingly think of DeSantis’s COVID policy as One Neat Trick that will be hard to replicate in future elections. DeSantis kept the state relatively open, resulting in a lot of domestic migration to Florida and a strong economy — Florida ranked 4th in the country in GDP growth in 2021 and 3rd in 2022.
And despite this somewhat ridiculous New York Times attempt to spin things to the contrary — for some reason, the article compares Florida’s vaccination rate to that of much wealthier New England, which is sort of like comparing my basketball skills to those of someone who’s 6’11” — Florida initially did quite well in vaccinating seniors. (DeSantis would eventually turn to more of an antivax stance, which in addition to being objectionable on its own terms5, also really undersold one of his accomplishments.) It’s overall death rate from COVID was about average (per the NYT) to somewhat worse than average (per Worldometers). But that’s with a substantial elderly population, which one probably ought to adjust for given the extremely steep increase in the IFR for COVID for people in their 70s and older. Average-ish age-adjusted mortality in exchange for open schools, more personal choice and a robust economy. This is not the place to get into a philosophical discussion about trade-offs inherent in COVID policy, but if we’re at least acknowledging there were trade-offs, a lot of places did worse.
And in November 2022, voters were still giving DeSantis a fair amount of credit for how he’d handled COVID. In the AP VoteCast exit poll, there’s a question about school closures during COVID. I wish this question had asked about COVID policy generally rather than schools specifically, but it should be a fairly good proxy for voters’ overall attitudes toward COVID. In that poll, DeSantis won 90-10 among voters who thought schools had gone too far in responding to COVID. He also won 57-42 among voters who thought schools had gotten the policy “just right”. By contrast, that was a strong group for Democrats in other states: Democratic candidates for Congress won 61-36 among “COVID school policy just right” voters in the national version of this poll. That accounts for a lot DeSantis’s overperformance right there.
But COVID, thank goodness, is almost totally off the radar for 2024 — less than one percent of voters rank it as their most important issue. And DeSantis hasn’t even particularly tried to make an issue of it lately; he hasn’t had much to say over the latest kerfuffle about COVID’s origins, for instance.
I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias that DeSantis has also made some strategic blunders. I don’t necessarily know that DeSantis could or should have run as a moderate. The best candidates — like Barack Obama in 2008 — can kind of run on two tracks; Obama had taken a more progressive positions than Hillary Clinton on issues like the Iraq War, but also branded himself as a pragmatic, “post-partisan", quasi-centrist. Even Trump took moderate positions on some issues along with ultraconservative ones on others.
That takes a lot of talent to pull off, however. There’s not much evidence that DeSantis has that sort of talent — other than 2022. Sure, 2022 is a pretty big other than — other than that, Mrs. Lincoln — and political reputations have been made on less. But with every week that his polling numbers stagnate, the 19-point win looks like more of an outlier.
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And by the way, it’s possible that Florida is becoming redder in part because of DeSantis. There was a lot of migration there during the COVID pandemic, perhaps motivated in part by people who were tired of strict COVID regulations in blue states.
As determined by the aggregate popular vote for the U.S. House.
Yes, there are those of us who think the vaccines did enormous good even if school closures and lockdowns were harmful on balance.