DANIEL VAUGHAN: The DeSantis path is similar to Reagan '76/Obama '08

 March 27, 2023

Sixteen years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama announced his bid for the Presidency. Having at that time barely three years of experience under his belt as a Senator, the New York Times said his greatest challenge was whether he could "win in a field dominated by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who brings years of experience in presidential politics, a command of policy and political history, and an extraordinarily battle-tested network of fund-raisers and advisers."

In 1976, Gerald Ford was the incumbent President that received a rare primary challenge from upstart California Governor Ronald Reagan. It was a tight battle that Ford didn't win until the convention, with 1,187 delegates to Reagan's 1,070. Four years later, Reagan won the primary and the Presidency.

When analyzing the 2024 Republican primaries, the default election most analysts use is Donald Trump's victory over the Republican field in 2016. In some respects, this makes sense because you're using a competitive field with Donald Trump in it. It's natural to start with 2016, but it's also wrong.

The comparison years for this primary cycle will be 1976 and 2007.

This isn't 2015 or 2016. Donald Trump is not an outside challenger; he's an incumbent candidate like Clinton in 2007 or Ford in 1975 with control of the GOP resources. Trump's nearest challenger is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, the upstart challenger like Reagan or Obama.

Like any incumbent, Donald Trump doesn't want to run a tough primary. His entire process is to end the 2024 Republican primaries before they ever begin. Ironically, what Trump wants is also aligned with the media, which is desperate for another Trump bump to their audiences, and the Never Trump coalition that became Never Republicans. These sectors are desperate for Trump to achieve victory to benefit their bottom lines.

Hence why you hear dumb lines like "DeSantis should wait his turn" or "DeSantis is a good 2028 candidate." DeSantis can respond just like the Obama campaign in 2007 to Hilary Clinton: "And people have said… that they just feel like, you know, it's Hillary's turn. That, I reject because democracy isn't supposed to be about whose turn it is."

The Obama campaign was right in 2007. We don't choose candidates here based on "who is next." You have to win the hearts and minds of voters.

DeSantis is deservedly popular.

DeSantis is popular for a reason. He's won landslides in Florida, turning a purple state into a state so red the rest of the south is playing catchup. He's not running on re-litigating 2020 or surrounded by a cast of characters that got demolished in the 2022 midterms because voters found them nuts.

DeSantis is running on a popular platform of saving Floridians from the draconian policies of blue states. He's running on progress in the school system when others failed, challenging the insanity on the far left in curriculum and making Florida a destination for people fleeing from California, New York, Illinois, and other deeply Democratic states. It's a winning platform, it's fresh, and it's a generational pivot.

These are similar winning notes that Reagan hit in 1976 and 1980 and Barak Obama used in 2008. It's a simple message to voters: do you want more of the last several years, or are you ready for a generational change built on a winning record?

DeSantis has strong early polling in primary states.

In early Republican primary states, DeSantis is already in solid shape before announcing. Josh Kraushaar at Axios noted recent polling that found "DeSantis leading Trump by eight points (45%-37%) in a head-to-head matchup in Iowa and tied with Trump (39%-39%) in New Hampshire. In a more crowded field including Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, DeSantis was tied with Trump in Iowa and trailed him by 12 points in New Hampshire."

Trump's team is pointing to his strong lead in the national polls. And they're right Trump has a strong lead in the national polls. But that's what you'd expect from any incumbent candidate at this stage. Ask Hilary Clinton how she feels about leading the national polls in the Democratic primaries for the entirety of 2007, only to lose Iowa and the nomination.

National leads matter until they don't. And the moment they stop mattering is when the Iowa caucuses start counting. Kraushaar had a similar conclusion, "National polling has shown Trump significantly ahead of DeSantis, but these polls suggest DeSantis is performing better in the early states where voters pay closer attention."

Trump is the incumbent. A weak incumbent.

Donald Trump is the incumbent candidate and should be ahead in nearly every poll out there. If Trump is showing weakness now in early primary states against a man that hasn't even announced yet, he's a weak incumbent. That's not to rule out the possibility of Trump winning - that's what we expect of incumbents. But it's easy to see why DeSantis is paying little heed to Trump's threats on Truth Social.

Compared to the media coverage Trump got in 2015, he's yelling into the void on Truth Social. He's leading the polls but in an even weaker position compared to Hilary Clinton in 2007 or Gerald Ford in 1976. That's why he's focused on forcing DeSantis out of the race before anyone casts a vote - a weak incumbent doesn't want to fight over votes.

Trump's strategy may work. It's also possible we're looking at the smoking remanent of the Trump campaign after Iowa as DeSantis charges ahead.

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