clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Ron DeSantis has been reluctant to attack Donald Trump

Trailing in by wide margins in the polls, DeSantis may be ever so slowly starting to take on Trump.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a presidential campaign event in Iowa on May 30, 2023.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off his 2024 presidential campaign in Iowa Tuesday with a few light digs at former President Donald Trump, who he has so far been reluctant to criticize publicly.

DeSantis is running far behind Trump in the polls — by about 30 percentage points on average — and there are questions as to whether he can run a campaign that feels distinct from MAGA but still has enough general appeal to be successful. That’s not an easy task to accomplish without turning off a Republican base that still approves of Trump, but DeSantis seems to be acknowledging that he will have to go on the offensive somewhat. On Tuesday, he did so without ever mentioning Trump by name.

DeSantis contrasted himself with Trump on abortion and Covid-19 policy as he seeks to run to the former president’s right on those issues. In his speech at an evangelical church outside of Des Moines, DeSantis touted his signing of a six-week abortion ban in Florida, a measure that some GOP donors worry will doom him in a general election and that Trump has called “too harsh.” And he hit back at the former president’s recent assertion that New York handled the pandemic better than Florida did.

“I could count the number of Republicans in this country on my hands that would rather have lived in New York under Cuomo than lived in Florida in our freedom zone,” DeSantis said in his speech. “Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship, are you kidding me?” he added of Trump, who made his home at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

DeSantis also indirectly threw shade at Trump’s bombastic leadership style, which he contrasted with his own successful efforts to advance conservative priorities in Florida this legislative session. “At the end of the day, leadership is not about entertainment, it’s not about building a brand, it’s not about virtue signaling. It is about results,” DeSantis said.

But unlike Trump, who is already running a mudslinging campaign against DeSantis, the Florida governor has largely avoided personal attacks on his opponent. That’s because DeSantis is walking a tightrope: He has to run to the right of Trump to have a chance at winning the nomination, but can’t alienate Trump supporters so much that they oppose him or stay home in a general election. But in running to the right of Trump, he also risks losing Republican moderates or independents in a general election.

“Anything is possible, but DeSantis doing what he has to do to have any chance of winning the nomination and then surviving the resulting fallout in the general election is highly improbable,” said Mac Stipanovich, a former Florida Republican consultant who voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

DeSantis’s high-wire act in the Republican primary

DeSantis, once a protege of Trump, faces the challenge of consolidating enough support behind him to challenge the former president’s historically high polling margin over DeSantis.

That involves winning over both the faction of the GOP that never thought Trump was fit for office and the majority of Republican voters who are what ex-DeSantis pollster Whit Ayres calls “Maybe Trump” voters. DeSantis has to concede that he won’t win “Always Trump” voters, who represent about a third of the party, Ayres said.

“The key for anyone challenging Trump will be to consolidate that ‘Maybe Trump’ faction of the party and maybe pick up a few of the ‘Never Trumpers,’” Ayres said. “But no candidate is going to be able to penetrate the ‘Always Trump’ third of the party. They’ve already decided who they’re going to vote for, and they’re not interested in anyone else.”

Which is why DeSantis may not be able to afford to be overly critical of Trump, and trying to beat the former president at his own game — the name-calling and personal smears, for instance — is probably a losing proposition. “Everyone who engages Donald Trump in a very personal mud fight ends up losing because he is the all-time champion of the vicious personal attack,” Ayres said.

But DeSantis can distinguish himself on policy and his viability as a candidate. Ayres said that DeSantis would also be wise to emphasize the baggage Trump brings. That might not include Trump’s indictment in New York, which many Republican voters saw as a politically motivated attack from a Democratic district attorney, giving the former president a bump in the polls. But there may be more criminal charges and legal troubles to come.

“The key is drawing a contrast with [Trump] on those areas where he is most vulnerable — the amount of baggage that he carries and his potential to lose to Joe Biden or whoever the Democrats come up with in 2024,” Ayres said.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.