Published June 13, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a risky strategy to defeat Donald Trump: Run to the former president’s right. It’s a tactic that has a long history of failure in presidential primaries — yet this time, it might just work.
The Republican Party has long been seen as much more conservative than it actually is. As I showed in my 2015 book co-authored with University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, very conservative voters have long been a decisive minority in the pre-Trump GOP. Their favored candidate lost every presidential contest between 1992 and 2012, except in 2000 when George W. Bush beat the more moderate John McCain.
Trump’s 2016 triumph was a textbook example of this dynamic. At the time, Trump’s base was the party’s moderate wing. Ted Cruz emerged as his final serious foe because the senator from Texas was the favorite among the party’s very conservative base, but that was far from enough for Cruz to prevail because his voters made up less than one-third of primary voters. The final competitive primary in Indiana showed this clearly: Cruz lost the state by more than 16 points despite winning half of very conservative voters.
For decades, candidates have made similar errors to Cruz’s because they confuse intensity with quantity. Voters who come to rallies or attend party conventions tend to be from the party’s most conservative elements, just as the Democratic Party’s activists and small donors are more likely to be very liberal. As a result, candidates often come into contact with the most rabid party members more regularly than they meet more temperate supporters, giving candidates a poor sense of the activists’ voting power.
But exit poll data consistently shows that both parties are governed by their center faction. These voters tend to agree with the base’s issue stances and priorities but are attracted to more practical candidates. Thus, a conservative party backed John McCain, Mitt Romney and Trump in its last three open contests over more ideologically pure opponents. Similarly, Democrats picked establishment liberals Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over more progressive challengers.
Trump’s base of support within the GOP is now the polar opposite of what it was in 2016. National polls all show that Trump’s highest level of support is now among very conservative voters, followed by his backing with somewhat conservatives and relatively low standing with moderates. So one might think the best strategy would be to counter Trump’s strength by being conservative enough to satisfy the somewhat conservatives and relying on moderate voters in later primaries after their favorites drop out to pull ahead.
That’s probably still the soundest approach for someone such as DeSantis, but it’s complicated by two new developments within the GOP: First, somewhat conservatives want a fighter for conservative values. They might be willing to settle for someone who can compromise in the end, but they want someone who acts and sounds more like a MAGA Republican than someone from the pre-Trump era.
Second, moderate Republicans’ distaste for Trump is palpable. These voters have higher disapproval rates for the former president and are very unlikely to back him when the race winnows down. As a May CNN poll found, only 12 percent of moderates who backed someone other than Trump picked him as their second choice. These voters remain resistant to DeSantis — 40 percent selected Nikki Haley, Mike Pence or Chris Christie as their second choice. But they might just hold their nose and back the Florida governor in a final contest with Trump.
This means DeSantis’s gamble has some chance of success. If he can dislodge some supporters from Trump’s ideological base, he would also likely gain with the MAGA-fied party center and thus secure his position in the final round. He can then hope moderate non-Trumpers switch to him despite any misgivings they might have.
A lot could go wrong with this strategy. DeSantis will have to be hardcore enough for some intense conservatives, conventional enough to attract conservatives who value results and acceptable enough to moderates so that they don’t decide to sit out the final round. He also has to hope that none of the minor candidates to his left catches fire and consolidates non-Trump, non-MAGA voters.
Even still, DeSantis’s strategy could work, even if improbable. And especially after Trump’s rise and Biden’s resurrection following his victory in the South Carolina primary, the improbable should not be ruled out.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Thomas W. Smith distinguished scholar in residence at Arizona State University for the winter/spring 2023 semester