Ron DeSantis’ Branding Problem
GOP primary voters aren’t buying what the Florida governor is selling
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign for the presidency has imploded, at least according to the conventional wisdom. His launch was called a “debacle,” and he soon “lost the internet.” The governor was “awkward,” “stilted,” wore cowboy boots (which have heels) and was once rumored to have eaten pudding sans utensil.
Fourteen months ago, the Florida governor won a usually tight statewide battle by nearly 20 points, winning the votes of lifelong Democrats, hardcore conservatives and voters from every walk of life. His record as the state’s chief executive is a dream journal of victories social and fiscal. Adding to his executive experience, DeSantis is a Navy veteran, won three elections to the U.S. House of Representatives and is on the sunny side of actuarial odds when it comes to life expectancy.
As of this week, Donald Trump leads the Republican primary field with a commanding 62.7% according to RealClearPolitics. At one time DeSantis was within 10 points of Trump, but has drifted down ever since reaching that high-water mark. DeSantis now pins most of his hopes on a better-than-expected showing in Iowa—hopefully winning it outright with the support of Hawkeye stalwarts such as Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats.
Always focused on the horse race, political media has blamed his perilous state on campaign choices and consultants, sometimes on the candidate himself. Political analysts on the right claim the governor should have waited until 2028. The Never-Trump middle alleges he should have moderated his views, while the left believes his social warrior bona fides alienated voters.
None of these diagnoses is accurate. DeSantis was right to roll the dice on 2024, he remains an excellent candidate and he would likely be a successful president. Trump and Biden regularly make worse gaffes and more embarrassing moves in a week than DeSantis has had over his entire campaign.
But, for better or worse, Republicans just aren’t interested in a new nominee. Despite Trump’s lousy 40% approval rating among all voters, the base is sticking with the indicted 78-year-old who lost to Biden in 2020. That isn’t DeSantis’ fault, and he was right to offer them a better path.
Americans are in a very angry mood, to put it lightly. Nearly two-thirds think America is on the wrong track. Fewer than a quarter expect a good year for the country in 2024; twice as many think it will be a bad or terrible year. Right, left and center, voters are furious and unhappy.
In this environment, negative polarization is an easy sell. Any marketer can tell you that stoking emotion moves more units than typing a list of product benefits. Feelings tie customers to brands for a lifetime, which is why advertisers target the young. Trump is pure rage, and that sells.
I can concoct reasons I like Coke over Pepsi, iPhone over Android, Levi’s over Wrangler, but most of these are reverse engineering. In a subtle way, those brands are part of my identity. The longtime Volvo owner will replace his 2016 S60 with a 2024 S90. You can show him specifications and car reviews, proving a different make will offer higher performance at a lower price, but he’ll still get the S90. Why? He’s a Volvo guy. Dealerships wouldn’t fire the saleswoman representing Honda, Audi or Toyota for not sealing the deal. They did everything right, but the Suecophile just wasn’t interested.
A couple decades back, Chevy truck owners affixed stickers to their back windows showing Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes” micturating upon a Ford logo. F-150s would often feature the same lad similarly desecrating the Chevy logo. If you asked why they hated the other company, the answer would be the 1998 equivalent of “#lmao Chevy sucks!” (Dodge owners couldn’t decide who to hate; they just wanted some attention. There was no passion for their brand or against it. The Asa Hutchinson of trucks.)
Most voters experience politics as a murky mix of emotion, branding and vibes. For good or ill, modern politics is 20% policy and 80% personality. This is tough for the left-brained to intellectualize. I’m certainly guilty of this, smugly muttering “great minds discuss ideas; small minds discuss people” as I scroll through a particularly trenchant white paper.
I am a bloodless policy wonk who would vote for a crude “Calvin and Hobbes” decal if it could achieve my policy goals. That makes me the weirdo in American politics, a truth I reluctantly learned to accept.
Other voters fall madly in love with a candidate, be it Obama or Trump, and loathe their political opponent, be it Obama or Trump. The rest fall back on less intense feelings, a loose sense of personal identity and those all-important vibes. Besides, an average American pays far more attention to work, family, friends and the NFL than the dreary world of politics.
Politics’ ‘Chicken-or-the-Egg’ Question
As each side attacks the other’s intelligence, morality and motives, there’s another divide that is more clarifying: To modify the chicken-or-the-egg question, which comes first, the personality or the policy? Depending how you answer that question, you’ll suspect the other of putting the cart before the horse.
The policy voters include many so-called intellectuals whose fundamental goal is to achieve specific changes, not accruing political power for its own sake. If your vantage point is a think tank, an opinion magazine or the academy, your eye will first fall upon the Constitution, historical trends and policy minutiae. It’s not about the next four years, but the next four decades.
To this group, the horse is policy, which is dragging along a cart filled with flawed and flaky politicians who will, maybe, do the right thing.
The personality voters include cable news talkers, memesters and the vast majority of politicians. They too fight for certain principles, but know that without specific leaders being elected, policy wins are just ivory-tower daydreams. Their eyes are trained upon the politician who can possibly deliver the goods, at least some of the time. Why worry about 40 years from now if we don’t make it through the next four?
To the second group, the horse is the politician, who is carrying a cart loaded with policies, some of which will, hopefully, be enacted.
Both sides of this divide are active in politics, but they speak different languages. A policy wonk won’t change the mind of a personality-driven voter with a file cabinet full of charts and graphs. The candidate fangirl can’t switch the nerd’s vote with memes or insults.
The biggest problem is that few recognize this divide in the first place. The hardcore MAGA guy will call the tax-reform woman a corrupt swamp dweller; she’ll call him a dumb cult member.
But maybe, just maybe, that other person isn’t paid off, immoral or part of a sinister cabal. Perhaps their perspective is just different from yours, so they came to a different conclusion.
Understanding this can cool down the emotionalism of modern politics, making it the last thing campaign consultants want. Their business isn’t reason, but outrage. Outrage moves units, but it makes most of the country miserable.
There’s Still Time ... Maybe
For my own part, when I look at DeSantis’ track record, I believe he would accomplish more of the right policy goals in the White House than would Donald Trump, Nikki Haley or Joe Biden. He would also provide a slight respite from D.C.’s reality show so people can focus more on their community and state.
Apparently, the other candidates agree, which is why the Florida governor has been blasted with the most negative ads—$28.1 million from independent expenditures alone. This is far above the $20.6 million attacking Biden, and $18.8 million against Trump. Some blame DeSantis for not ridiculing Trump 24/7, as if that would help.
This is not to say that DeSantis’ rivals are all bad. I just find them less competent and reliable and can prove that with a color-coded spreadsheet. Then I remember I’m the bloodless weirdo in this situation.
Nothing is over until the voters have their say. Perhaps the Florida governor will outperform in the early states or an unexpected event will shake up the field. Despite declarations it’s all over, November is a long time away. But if DeSantis doesn’t make the sale, it isn’t due to poor timing, the wrong phrasing of a September ad buy or the wrong brand of cowboy boots. Rather, he was trying to get the distracted Republican voter to switch brands. Ask Pepsi how hard that is.