Ever since he grudgingly departed the White House on the morning of January 20, two weeks after a chaotic effort to remain in power, the Republican establishment has been awaiting clarity on the issue that will define the future of the party: Will Donald Trump run again? The question is, of course, especially zero-sum for Ron DeSantis, the ludicrously well-funded, culture-warring Florida governor who has been preparing to swipe Trump’s mantle if the former president bows out. Instead, it appears he’ll be confronted with a far more vexing conundrum: whether to challenge Trump, himself.
Indeed, it looks like that will be the political calculus facing DeSantis after Trump gave his strongest indication yet that he’ll seek the presidency in 2024. “I would say my big decision will be whether I go before or after,” he told New York’s Olivia Nuzzi last week, teasing the possibility of an announcement before the November midterms—an announcement that would surely drain media attention from crucial down-ballot races and potentially threaten the G.O.P.’s odds of taking back the Senate in addition to the House. But Trump seems preoccupied with freezing the presidential field rather than giving Republicans their greatest chance of success. “I think a lot of people would not even run if I did that because, if you look at the polls, they don’t even register,” he told Nuzzi, referring to the handful of rumored ‘24 aspirants who have been carefully taking the temperature of donors. He went on to incorrectly cite a poll that he claimed showed him beating DeSantis by 48 points.
Trump, in fact, leads DeSantis by 16 to 40 points, depending on the poll, but the gap between them may be closing, including in key battleground states: A new University of New Hampshire poll finds DeSantis in a statistical tie with Trump, as does a poll commissioned by The Detroit Times in Michigan. A much-ballyhooed poll from the New York Times found that half of G.O.P. voters would rather have someone else run.
Notably, DeSantis appears to be gaining ground while largely staying put in Florida. “So far DeSantis has declined to go to places like New Hampshire and Iowa,” a G.O.P. activist pointed out. “His official line is, I need to get reelected first, which makes perfect sense, right? But I also think that he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, both on the reelection race, but also in like, poking Trump in the nose to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna run.’” (He has, however, shown up in areas crawling with moneyed donors: as my Puck colleague Teddy Schleifer reported yesterday, DeSantis has been puckering up for the mega-donor G.O.P. elite in Deer Valley and Silicon Valley during the past year, and may have won over a certain erstwhile Twitter suitor.)
But the number that true insiders will be watching for is DeSantis’s margin of victory in his Florida gubernatorial campaign. While the polls now show DeSantis opening up a significant lead against presumptive Democratic nominee Charlie Crist, G.O.P. operatives say they are looking for DeSantis to exceed Trump’s 3.4-point margin in 2020. “It’s less about Florida predicting a national mood and more about the talking point that he beat Trump’s margin,” one Florida Republican insider told me. “Partly just pure ego on both of their parts. But partly a show of strength.”
Whatever the case, the clock will begin ticking for DeSantis as soon as he wins reelection in Florida, or Trump declares his ‘24 candidacy, whichever comes first. The shelf life for hot-shot political stars, after all, is short, and the road to the presidency is littered with governors who had a moment in the spotlight but couldn’t close. Bobby Jindal ran too late, after a second term filled with missteps. Ditto Chris Christie, who missed his chance in 2012 when he was red-hot and then got steamrolled by Trump. And don’t forget Sarah Palin, who passed up 2012 shortly before she was consumed by various tabloid dramas.
DeSantis’s status as a relative youngster (he’s 43), combined with his highly disciplined cultivation of his political career, might suggest he wait his turn. But the battles that have made DeSantis a Fox News idol for now—over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, critical race theory, masking, and vaccine mandates—may be outdated by 2027, when the pandemic has been forgotten and Disney is replaced as a bogeyman with something else. Meanwhile, DeSantis has about $100 million in campaign cash burning a hole in his pocket. Some portion of that money is being spent on his reelection, but the elite G.O.P. donors and out-of-state billionaires filling his cup understand that its real purpose is to lay the foundation for something more. And it doesn’t necessarily hurt to try—“like Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she ran the first time,” observed G.O.P. consultant Ryan Girdusky. “Had she sat it out for whatever reason, she would have never been Obama’s Secretary of State, she would have never been waiting in the wings for eight years. If you run and you lose, there is opportunity for you. If you don’t run, you close that window.”
Then again, DeSantis can’t be sure that Trump, if he were victorious in 2024, would be the team-of-rivals type, or whether a potentially demeaning and subservient position in the Trump cabinet would be a launching pad like it was for Clinton. My past reporting on DeSantis and his wife, Casey, suggests that he has ambition and the political instincts to take his shot now, even at the risk of delaying the ultimate prize. But the proto-’24 field is beginning to coalesce, and DeSantis is no longer the only alt-Trump candidate talking with donors. Mike Pence, who has been reintroducing himself to voters and party officials in recent months, was spotted meeting with House Republicans on the Hill. Glenn Youngkin, as my colleague Tara Palmeri reported, is also eyeing the Pence-ian evangelical Christian lane. Nikki Haley recently teased a run, suggesting at an event that the next president should shred any nuclear deal with Iran “on her first day in office.” Mike Pompeo, Larry Hogan, and Tim Scott’s names have all churned through the rumor mill too.
The competition confronts DeSantis with a more arduous task. This time last year, DeSantis was being quietly discussed as one of two Manichean choices before a fractured but still overwhelmingly Trump-friendly primary electorate. Now it looks like he might be just one of several candidates in a field where Trump, of course, only needs a plurality of votes to become the party’s nominee. We’ve seen how that movie ends.