Here’s Why DeSantis *Should* Be Losing
His presidential campaign is in its denouement—but the wrong knocks against him are getting all the attention.
[Editor’s note: On the afternoon of January 21, 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign. Four days earlier, Jill Lawrence wrote this look back at his campaign.]
RON DESANTIS EKED OUT a second-place Iowa finish on Monday, but it wasn’t the blowout he needed to reclaim his early mantle as chief alternative to Donald Trump. And given his long odds in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the next two Republican primaries, he seems destined to become one more governor who sputtered out on the national stage.
As DeSantis heads for 2024 footnote status, can we take a minute to reflect on what might have been and give thanks that we’ll almost certainly be spared?
Yes, I know, Trump is romping to his third nomination while setting records for impeachments, indictments, and unhinged ALL-CAPS abuse, even against the judges overseeing his own trials. He has earned every bit of panic he has inspired. But right now, in the spirit of “not the odds, but the stakes,” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s mantra for 2024 election coverage, I want to vent about the difference between why the Florida governor's candidacy is collapsing and why it should be.
The DeSantis disappointment in Iowa, where he bet everything, followed months of getting panned for his robotic, “charisma-free persona,” the spotless white boots he wore to inspect hurricane damage, his ill-advised Twitter Spaces announcement with Elon Musk in May (“campaign launch melts down in Twitter glitches”), and chronic upheaval at his allied Never Back Down super PAC. All the while he endured Trump nicknames like “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and “Always Back Down.” Trump even appropriated DeSantis’s 2022 mantle of sent by God.
There was also the shortness problem. I’m not saying size doesn’t matter. It does, at least measured by history. More than half of our forty-five presidents have been at least six feet tall or close to it, and research—yes, there has been research—shows the taller person almost always wins.
To be fair, James Madison probably didn’t have to cope with interminable public speculation (is he 5 foot 7? 5 foot 11?) or a deep dig headlined “3 Expert Shoemakers Say Ron DeSantis Is Probably Wearing Height Boosters.” “I said that Ron DeSantis would be leading the polling for the GOP nomination,” analyst Matt Yglesias wrote (joked?) in a January 2 report card on his 2023 predictions. “I’m honestly not sure why I thought that, the guy is too short to be president.”
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Some detected belated signs that DeSantis had discovered his inner human being. He used “folksy language” in a recent town hall and tried to be more “relatable,” CNN noted. And how about that interview with Anderson Cooper after the DeSantis-Nikki Haley debate smackdown? “Light and chatty,” said Audie Cornish. “That guy was likable,” added David Urban. But wait, what the heck was going on during that debate break? “Did he just shake his wife’s hand?” the New York Times asked, incredulously.
Face it, Florida Man Jr. is terminally short and awkward. But he had much bigger problems—even just this month—that made him utterly unsuited to lead his party or the nation.
Leader of the COVID resistance
FOR INSTANCE, THIS SHOCKING January 3 announcement from the Florida Department of Health: “Florida State Surgeon General calls for halt” in the use of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines. That would be Joseph Ladapo, the discredited and dangerous “doctor” hand-picked by DeSantis to spew disinformation that threatens the lives and health of Floridians. Federal authorities responded with a polite version of Are you nuts? and noted that “misinformation and disinformation” (like Ladapo’s claims) are lowering vaccine uptake and contributing to the ongoing toll of “death and serious illness” from COVID.
A top DeSantis point of pride is his rejection of what he continues to call the government’s “COVID authoritarianism” on masking and vaccines. Back in 2021, when the Delta surge was causing Florida COVID cases and pediatric hospitalizations to set records, then–Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber called DeSantis the “the pied piper leading everybody off a cliff.”
Last September, when U.S. officials approved an updated shot for everyone over six months old, DeSantis and Ladapo (of course!) advised against it for anyone under 65. COVID grandstanding was also a mainstay of DeSantis’s closing argument in Iowa this month, amplified by the public release of Ladapo’s call to stop the vaccines.
Voters paying attention might have noticed the egregious timing. We are now experiencing what is expected to be a major, annual surge of COVID cases. Hospital admissions are not spiking, however, thanks to the updated vaccines that are safe and protective, no matter what DeSantis and Ladapo say about them. Plus, new research publicized this month shows that multiple COVID vaccine doses greatly reduce the risk of debilitating long COVID, which scientists estimate has afflicted tens of millions of people worldwide.
DeSantis, Ladapo, and other anti-vaccine leaders are having a measurable toll of illness and death on their constituents. “The excess death rate among Republican voters was 43% higher than the excess death rate among Democratic voters,” according to a study of Ohio and Florida deaths after COVID vaccines became available to all adults in 2021.
In a national study of the Delta-Omicron outbreak of June 2021 to March 2022, rural counties had higher COVID case and death rates than urban counties and “the most remote rural counties” had “COVID-19 mortality rates 52% higher than the most urban counties.” Other studies found a large vaccination gap between adults in rural counties (46 percent) and urban counties (60 percent) in August 2021; and documented that rural residents were less likely to mask up or socially distance.
Resistance to protective behaviors, not surprisingly, “was driven by rural support for former President Donald Trump and other politicians who downplayed the severity of the pandemic, consistently undermined health experts, and politicized COVID-19.”
Making America Florida, like it or not
LET’S STIPULATE THAT DESANTIS SECURED a second term as governor the old-fashioned way, by winning an election. And last year he pledged on the Illinois primary ballot access form that he would not “advocate the overthrow of the government of the United States”—a longstanding, voluntary oath that Trump did not sign.
But DeSantis has shown disturbing signs of Trump-like disregard for ethics and democracy: A heavy-handed elections police unit that’s not going as planned. Several state-paid DeSantis aides pressing lobbyists for presidential campaign contributions as their projects in the state budget awaited the governor’s approval or line-item veto. His attempts to punish the Walt Disney Company for criticizing a new law restricting classroom discussion of gay issues—violating its free speech rights, the company contends.
There’s also his firing of Andrew Warren, a twice-elected Tampa-area prosecutor who publicly criticized DeSantis laws on abortion, transgender health care, and other divisive issues. A three-judge appeals court panel said last week that Warren and his office had enforced the laws he didn’t like, DeSantis had unconstitutionally fired him for his opinions, and he could and should be reinstated.
DeSantis has promised to make America Florida, which to me would be untenable in countless additional ways, starting with these three:
He signed new six-week and fifteen-week abortion bans that are unworkable for doctors at risk of prison and patients at risk of infertility, disability, or death.
He has refused to expand Medicaid health insurance to all non-elderly low-income adults, though studies of the forty states that adopted the mostly federally funded expansion find it benefits patients, hospitals, family finances, and state economies.
Not everyone will agree with everything, or even anything, on my personal checklist. But I hope voters are noticing, if they haven‘t already, that DeSantis would make for an overbearing, cocksure president with alarming public health policies who likes to punish his political enemies.
Remind you of anyone?
DeSantis was never going to deliver the GOP or America from Trump or Trumpism, and that has nothing to do with his height or personality.