Published September 27, 2023
Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s attempt to defeat former president Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination is clearly floundering. But so was Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge to then-president Gerald Ford in 1976. DeSantis should study Reagan’s comeback to engineer a similar rapid turnaround.
The possibility of a Reagan presidency looked very dim in mid-March 1976. Reagan had lost the Iowa caucus and five straight primaries to the incumbent. Many of those battles were close, but a loss is still a loss. The campaign was running out of money, and many leading Republicans were calling on Reagan to drop out and endorse Ford. Reagan had to win the North Carolina primary or his campaign — and political future — would be over.
Reagan won the state, in large part by sharpening his rhetoric against the sitting president. He drew a clear distinction between himself and Ford on a panoply of policy issues. Each had its role in his comeback, but none was as important as Reagan’s opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty.
The United States had owned the land on which the Panama Canal would be built, and some surrounding territory, since purchasing it in 1903. Panama’s authoritarian government wanted it back, and Ford’s administration was engaged in negotiations to give it back. Reagan believed this would threaten American control over the vital waterway, especially if Panama came under the sway of the Soviet Union.
Reagan increasingly highlighted his difference with Ford on this issue in campaign-trail speeches. Republicans were growing fearful that the United States was losing the Cold War, and they tended to blame the détente strategy that both Ford’s and Richard Nixon’s administrations had pursued. The Canal issue didn’t get Reagan the nomination, but it did keep him in the race until he lost on the convention floor in August. That historically strong performance made Reagan the front-runner in 1980, and the rest is history.
DeSantis is in a similar position today as Reagan was then. No votes have been cast, but his showing in national and state polls has steadily declined since he got into the race. In today’s politics, that’s as deadly as losing six early races was for Reagan in 1976. If DeSantis can’t stop the slide and get momentum back soon, he will be hard pressed to make a rapid ascent later.
Fortunately, Trump has given DeSantis an equivalent to the Panama Canal Treaty issue: abortion. Trump’s clear disdain for pro-lifers and their ultimate objective — to ban abortions across the board — is as out of step with today’s GOP as Ford’s pro-Treaty stance was then. DeSantis cannot let this gift go to waste.
DeSantis should do what Reagan did, and outline a set of differences with Trump on policy — with a strong emphasis on abortion policy in particular. The message should be simple: Trump says he’s fighting for you, but across the board he either gives up the fight (he funded mail balloting, he kept Fauci and criticized early lifting of lockdowns during the pandemic) or doesn’t share our values. DeSantis cannot mince words: He has to force conservatives to choose between him — a conservative fighter who wins — and Trump.
Abortion should be front and center because church-going evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons are the party’s base. They represent the strongest and most loyal voters in today’s Republican Party, and many have made opposition to abortion a litmus test for decades. They need to be made to choose what they care about more: saving unborn children or electing Donald Trump.
DeSantis does not need to fall into a media trap and endorse a federal ban. He needs to emphasize that he thinks abortion regulation is primarily a state issue and that he does not favor anything stricter at the federal level than the 15-week ban supported by many pro-life groups. He should instead emphasize the many ways a genuinely pro-life president can act and talk to advance the culture of life.
Trump cannot meet him on those grounds. He has already blamed pro-lifers for the party’s disappointing midterm-election results. He has also staked out a clear principle that will govern his abortion policy if reelected: Abortion access should be the subject of negotiations between abortion-rights activists and pro-lifers. That principle is a chimera, something that simply cannot achieve positive results given the vast philosophical gulf between the two sides.
Though DeSantis will want to avoid this confrontation, he can’t. He needs a clear rationale for his campaign. Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley have those, but DeSantis’s efforts have thus far fallen flat. Haley is gathering the old Reaganite wing to her banner while Vivek is becoming what DeSantis wanted to be, the younger man MAGA World can back. Wait much longer, and those two will squeeze DeSantis out of the race like toothpaste from a tube.
Ronald Reagan met the party establishment head-on and ultimately won. Ron DeSantis needs to show he can do the same thing, or else he’ll be yet another appealing governor who falls flat on the national stage.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.