At this stage of the campaign, former President Donald Trump is not only in the driver's seat for the Republican nomination, but it's hard to see an easy way for any other candidate to wrest the wheel from him. 

How did Trump get in such commanding control, when just a few months ago his political fortunes looked shaky?

Most voters don't pay close attention to politics, especially this far out from an election. Instead, they are influenced by what they are seeing, reading and hearing from the media, their friends and family and their social media contacts. For much of the 2022 cycle, Trump played an outsized role in all of those mediums. He endorsed candidates, hosted rallies, and attacked his enemies via social media. By the late summer, media attention centered on the classified documents seized by the FBI at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence and the January 6th Committee hearings on Capitol Hill. 

By November, the underwhelming performance of Republicans overall, but specifically Trump-backed candidates, was a major story on both the left and right ends of the media spectrum. For many GOP voters, including those who supported Trump in both elections, the former president no longer looked as shiny and appealing as he had back in the 2020 campaign. In focus groups over the course of the summer and late fall of 2022, many GOP voters expressed interest in an alternative to Trump. 

Ron DeSantis was perfectly positioned to take advantage of that moment. Fresh off a successful re-election campaign, the Florida governor's overall appeal, especially in the late fall, was that he would be the candidate without the chaos—a younger, more disciplined and forward-looking version of Trump. 

But as the midterm elections faded into the background, DeSantis' bump faded as well. His' legislative agenda, especially on issues like his war on "woke" schools and Disney, generated plenty of press coverage. But, without an organized campaign apparatus, DeSantis was unable to link the work he was doing in Florida with the broader rationale for his presidential campaign. 

Most importantly, the indictment of Donald Trump in April on charges of "falsifying New York business records in order to conceal damaging information" related to payments to a former porn star meant that Trump finally had an adversary. Before the announcement from Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, Trump's most consequential opponent was himself. His involvement with the events on Jan. 6, 2021, his continued obsession with the "stolen" 2020 election and his support of GOP candidates who were clearly out-of-step with the swing states in which they were running were all self-inflicted errors. 

But, with Bragg, Trump had a case to make to the GOP faithful. Instead of complaining about the past wrongs done to him, Trump could now make the case that the left was really and truly out to get him. If he wasn't electable and was over-the-hill, why were these liberal prosecutors so obsessed with ensuring he can't run again? 

A Trump town hall with CNN in early May was another key factor in putting Trump ahead in the nascent GOP primary contest. If Trump had lost a step or two in his two years out of the White House, this is the place it would show. Did he look tired? Uninspired? Did he lose some zip off the fastballs he usually threw at the "biased" media? The answer to all those questions was no. Or, as one Democratic strategist texted to me the next day, "Trump was depressingly good. He was just as sharp…coverage was focused on his lies, but as a message maker he was infallible." In other words, DeSantis' contrast with Trump on things like youth and vigor no longer looked as obvious. 

Moreover, for DeSantis' electability argument to have traction two things need to happen: 1) polls need to show DeSantis' lead over Biden to be significant; and 2) Republicans need to believe that these polls are accurate. Given the fact that Trump has consistently been underestimated by polling, GOP skepticism about the veracity of voter surveys is understandable.

Now that DeSantis has finally launched his campaign, the media is eager to see if the Florida governor will focus his well-branded truculence on Trump. In his public speeches, DeSantis has avoided direct attacks on the former president. But, in the media, DeSantis has taken some swings at Trump on everything from his handling of COVID, to his inability to follow through on some of his key campaign promises, to the fact that Trump would be limited to just one term, while DeSantis could serve two. 

However, attacking Trump's record in the White House is a tricky needle to thread. While Trump may not have finished building "the Wall", or fired Dr. Anthony Fauci, it's going to be hard to convince many GOP voters that he was an ineffective president. 

"Republican voters think he did a really good job," said Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Bulwark and host of "The Focus Group" podcast. To underscore that point, Longwell, who conducts frequent focus groups of GOP voters, pulled some quotes for me from her recent sessions. 

- "I feel like he got undercut from the time that he could have had, and that there's more that he wanted to do, more that he could do, more that he's willing to do that he should be given the chance to," Lizzy (NV - May 23)

- "Look at his record, see what he's done. It was the best four years that we've all had in the last 10." [...] "We need a man that is strong as hell and a brick house and he is that man. And we need him back and let 'em continue to poke at him. Let 'em continue to persecute him." -Fred (SC - May 23)

“[Trump’s] a known asset. He doesn't have to prove that he's already done it. DeSantis has no business background," -Mark (TN - May 16)

Instead, said one pro-DeSantis strategist, the way to beat Trump is to hit him from the right on social and cultural issues. While no one can outflank Trump on issues like immigration, this strategist said, the former president can be portrayed as M.I.A while the left expanded the reach of CRT (Critical Race Theory), DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) into our businesses, schools and overall culture. Meanwhile, DeSantis has been proactive in pushing back on this overreach by academic and corporate elites. 

That strategy, however, risks putting DeSantis in a tenuous position with the kind of swing voters who have defected from the GOP since Trump's entrance onto the scene in 2016. The GOP base may want a "culture warrior," but do independent voters really want that? They seem more concerned about turning down the heat in politics, not revving it up even higher. 

However, as Echelon Insight's Patrick Ruffini noted in a recent post about the six key factions of the current GOP, the most pivotal voters in the primary "will be the most conservative ones." Ruffini goes on to note that his firm has "been polling a Trump vs. DeSantis head-to-head race at various points since 2021" and has recently found that "the very conservative, representing 35 to 40% of the party, [have] swung most dramatically in Trump's direction." These same voters, writes Ruffini, "also swung strongly [toward] DeSantis following Trump's midterm debacle. Their volatility in the race so far makes them a juicy target for both camps."

In other words, Ruffini writes, if the race ultimately boils down to Trump vs. DeSantis, "don't expect the party to become friendlier to suburban moderates, at least not until the general election starts in earnest."

More from the Cook Political Report

Amy FP
First Person
Cook Politcal Logo
CPR Archives
User photo