Joe Biden and Ron DeSantis
While many Trump-backed Republican candidates faltered in the midterms, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (whom Trump endorsed in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, as he will surely remind us all repeatedly over the next several months) won his re-election by a ludicrous 19 points. That’s the widest margin for a Florida gubernatorial victory in 40 years, just four years after DeSantis survived a nail-biter.
Along the way, his national profile has continued to grow. A December Wall Street Journal poll pegged DeSantis’ name ID at 82 percent, just two points less than former Vice President Mike Pence. With more recognition came more support. Three pollsters — POLITICO/Morning Consult, Harvard-Harris and YouGov — sampled Republican primary voters both at the beginning of the year and after the midterms. In those polls, DeSantis’ average level of support nearly doubled, from 16.3 to 30.7 percent. In several post-midterm polls testing two-way Trump-DeSantis matchups among Republican registered voters, DeSantis has the advantage, with leads ranging from two to 23 points.
DeSantis accomplished these feats with Trump-esque pugnacity, combined with unrivaled ruthlessness and uncompromising ideology. He revoked tax and zoning benefits from one of the state’s biggest cash cows — the Walt Disney Company — for criticizing his new law that effectively banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. He used taxpayer dollars to lure Venezuelan refugees in Texas onto a plane to Martha’s Vineyard to tweak blue state liberals and fired an elected Democratic county attorney who signed a pledge not to prosecute abortion cases under DeSantis’ new 15-week ban. (DeSantis has almost totally eclipsed his fellow Republican mega-state governor and possible presidential candidate Greg Abbott of Texas, despite the fact that Abbott has ferried far more migrants up north than DeSantis, and enacted a far more sweeping ban on abortion.)
Most central to DeSantis’ persona is his anti-expert attitude toward Covid-19. “We had to choose freedom over Fauci-ism in the state of Florida,” he says in a well-honed stump speech. He holds up “the Free State of Florida” as a model for the country, leaning heavily on his rejection of pandemic vaccine and mask mandates. Perhaps sensing an opening by veering to the right of Trump, this month he moderated a roundtable of vaccine skeptics at which he called for a grand jury investigation of supposed “wrongdoing” by vaccine makers, and announced a planned formation of a “Public Health Integrity Committee” designed to challenge directives from the CDC. DeSantis has been regularly corrected by fact-checking journalists for his statements about vaccines, but the stance clearly appeals to some in the GOP base.
He has also widened a Republican Party divide between culture warring conservatives and culturally sensitive corporate executives, but casting himself as an “anti-woke” warrior has not impeded construction of a massive donor network. His $202 million haul is the most ever for a gubernatorial election cycle, even after adjusting for inflation (if you discount self-funding multi-millionaires). He drowned his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist in money, outspending him more than four-to-one — and still has about $70 million left over to use for a presidential campaign, giving him a huge head start over most other potential rivals.
DeSantis may have repainted Florida from purple to red, but Biden quarterbacked a midterm strategy that kept far more of the map blue than most anyone thought possible.
Six months ago, Biden was widely presumed to be dead weight, dragging down the Democrats in 2022 and beyond. In June, The New York Times reported a story about “Democratic Whispers” urging Biden not to run for re-election. Over the next few days, the Wall Street Journal ran a similar article, and The Atlantic published “Why Biden Shouldn’t Run in 2024” by Beltway chronicler Mark Leibovich. These articles appeared when Biden’s job approval in the Real Clear Politics average had dropped below 40 percent (before hitting a low of 36.8 percent in late July), his domestic agenda had been stalled for months, and he gave an abysmally disjointed interview performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
The low point passed. Biden signed a flurry of bills in the summer. He bookended the fall campaign with two scorching speeches warning that democracy itself is threatened by Trump’s “MAGA” movement, helping to elevate the issue in voters’ minds and arguably contributing to the defeat of several election deniers. He enjoyed the best midterm performance by a president’s party since George W. Bush’s Republicans in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Then he capped the year by negotiating for the release of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony and signing legislation codifying same-sex marriage rights.
Now the “don’t run” chatter has dulled. In recent polls taken by USA Today/Ipsos and Quinnipiac University, majorities of Democrats want Biden to run for re-election, which was not the case in either poll prior to the midterm (though a December CNN poll still showed a majority of Democrats against a Biden run). Newsom, upon removing himself from the 2024 mix, told POLITICO, “I hope he runs, I’ll enthusiastically support him.” Last month, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal publicly urged Biden to run again.
The retirement talk hasn’t died down completely. You can still find columnists begging Biden to hang it up. But the political cost of making an audacious primary challenge has grown steep. Without a large choir of Democratic officials publicly calling for Biden to bow out, any Democrat who eventually wants to make it to the Oval Office has to think twice about running too soon. Any move perceived as dividing the party and harming its chances in the general election could permanently damage their future prospects.
Biden’s biggest political accomplishment this year is his standing in 2024 general election trial heats. In June and July, Biden was trailing Trump in most polls (though faring better against DeSantis). In eight polls taken post-midterm of registered voters, Biden holds an average lead of 3.6 points over Trump, and is exactly tied with DeSantis. (A ninth poll, from the Wall Street Journal, has Biden two points over Trump, but didn’t ask about a race against DeSantis.) If in 2023, Biden sinks in polls, Democratic panic may rise in equal measure. But in 2022, the incumbent held his ground.