I was an early adopter of the idea that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) could beat Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination; I even put him ahead of Trump in my rankings as the most likely GOP nominee as far back as August 2022.
Virtually everything in the six months that followed seemed to bolster that view. DeSantis was never regarded as a heavy favorite, but he rose steadily; he sometimes led Trump in head-to-head matchups in the polls, and his 19-point reelection victory in November — coupled with Trump’s very bad midterm Election Day — felt like it could be a turning point.
I’m less convinced now.
It’s not that DeSantis’s national launch — his book tour — has been a disaster. It’s not the notion that Trump would get a shot in the arm from an indictment. Nor is it just the two new high-quality polls showing Trump suddenly gaining on DeSantis since last month (although that’s certainly notable and worth monitoring).
Rather, it’s that the Trump-usurper armor has shown some early cracks.
DeSantis once could do no wrong, it seemed, and that threatened Trump. But the last two weeks delivered something of a reality check.
DeSantis last week drew attention — and some pretty harsh rebukes from his party — by seemingly telling Fox News’s Tucker Carlson what Carlson wanted to hear about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While DeSantis had been hawkish enough on the Russia-Ukraine issue when he was in Congress, he suddenly labeled it a “territorial dispute” and emphasized the lack of a “vital U.S. interest” in further American involvement.
DeSantis has walked it back, calling Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and saying something he curiously didn’t say in his statement last week — that the invasion was wrong. Perhaps most striking, DeSantis suggested that his “territorial dispute” comment had been misunderstood. He said it was a reference to the fact that eastern Ukraine includes many ethnic Russians.
“It wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it,” DeSantis said.
Politicians who admit that they failed to speak clearly should be commended. But the idea that DeSantis didn’t know how “territorial dispute” would land is difficult to stomach. Despite GOP defenses suggesting that maybe this state-level pol just didn’t yet know what he was talking about on foreign policy, he did serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee during his six years in the House.
There also was DeSantis’s “vital interest” line and the lack of any real condemnation of Russia by him. He had responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2015 by saying we should have given Ukraine both offensive and defensive weapons; this time, he said no to giving Ukraine weapons that could be used “to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders.”
DeSantis’s shifting comments on Ukraine feel more like a miscalculation than a change of heart — the actions of a guy who said what he thought was the right answer, politically speaking, and soon decided it wasn’t the right answer.
The Ukraine flap doesn’t mean DeSantis is suddenly a bad candidate. But it reinforces a difference between him and Trump: While Trump could say pretty much anything he wanted to and the GOP would contort itself to remain molded in his image, this suggests DeSantis doesn’t wield the same kind of power.
And if you’re running against someone like Trump, that is a distinct disadvantage.
For these reasons, we’re dropping DeSantis below Trump on our list for the first time since August. The gap is not big and the situation is, of course, dynamic; we’re awaiting some big news on Trump, after all. But for now, some of the DeSantis luster is gone.
Below are our rankings of the 10 people from among whom the 2024 GOP nominee is likely to emerge. As usual, they are in order of likeliness to be nominated, which takes into account both how likely they are to run — or that they’re already running — and their formidability if they do.
Others worth mentioning: Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former White House national security adviser John Bolton, former congresswoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former congressman Will Hurd (Tex.).
10. Vivek Ramaswamy: Points are obviously awarded here for actually being in the race. The biotech entrepreneur, one of three reasonably well-known, declared candidates, also has demonstrated a knack for gaining right-wing media attention in his campaign against “woke”-ism. Don’t be surprised if you see him one day on a debate stage; the challenge from there is making enough people think he’s viable. (Previous ranking: n/a)
9. Kristi L. Noem: After our last rankings, the South Dakota governor told CBS News, “I’m not convinced that I need to run for president.” But last month, she was more coy when asked a similar question. Also worth noting: Axios recently listed Noem and three other women as being among those from among whom Trump is considering picking a running mate. (Previous ranking: 10)
8. Chris Sununu: To the extent the 2024 GOP primary contains a formidable candidate arguing for a significant break from Trumpism, the New Hampshire governor appears the most likely possibility. Others have bowed out (ex-Maryland governor Larry Hogan) or don’t really appear to have a shot (Bolton, Cheney). What’s particularly interesting about Sununu, though, is that he’s also arguing for a different course from the one offered by the other front-runner, DeSantis, who Sununu suggests is too willing to wield the power of government to crack down on supposed “woke” private entities. There probably isn’t a market for this more-staid, traditional brand of conservatism, but Sununu would be a fascinating candidate to watch. (Previous ranking: 8)
7. Mike Pompeo: The former secretary of state came out relatively strongly against Trump this month. He obliquely criticized Trump not just for his poor recent electoral track record but also on a personal level. “We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics — those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He added: “We can’t shift blame to others but must accept the responsibility that comes to those of us who step forward and lead.” Expect to hear more where that came from, because Pompeo appears likely to run. (Previous ranking: 7)
6. Glenn Youngkin: The Virginia governor has now seen a top political adviser jump ship to another potential candidate, with Jeff Roe joining DeSantis’s political operation. That could be seen merely as a move to a more formidable candidate. But The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Hannah Knowles also reported that Youngkin recently seemed “uninterested in entertaining questions about a run for national office” during a recent donor retreat in Georgia. (Previous ranking: 5)
5. Nikki Haley: The good news for the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is that she’s competing with Mike Pence in polls for the top non-Trump and non-DeSantis spot. The bad news is that still means she’s around 5 percent. Haley has carved out early ground as perhaps the most hawkish potential 2024 candidate on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And many Republicans still think that helping Ukraine is important. But unless that becomes a much more prominent issue in the primary — and to the extent that DeSantis tacks toward the middle on it — it’s not clear it will matter much. (Previous ranking: 8)
4. Mike Pence: Sometimes a quote about someone sticks with you. In his new article on the awful things Republicans in focus groups say about the former vice president, the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins offered this very insightful line: “… In creating a permission structure for voters to excuse Trump’s defective character and flouting of religious values, Pence was unwittingly making himself irrelevant. In effect, he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that the very thing he had to offer them didn’t matter.” (Previous ranking: 4)
3. Tim Scott: The senator from South Carolina is not polling like the top alternative to Trump and DeSantis; he’s usually stuck with all the others around 1 percent. But he’s doing just about everything you’d expect a would-be candidate to do, and he’s someone you can see emerging as a credible alternative to Trump — especially if DeSantis does flame out or just fades. Perhaps nobody in the field could drive the kind of happy-warrior message Scott appears likely to go with. His presence in the 2024 race could also be unusual in another way: He well might be the only senator. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Ron DeSantis: See above. (Previous ranking: 1)
1. Donald Trump: See above. (Previous ranking: 2)