As the 2024 presidential election gets underway, Donald Trump is testing out a risky strategy.
He’s swinging hard and often at a competitor who hasn’t even gotten in the race yet.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has given every indication he will likely run — hosting donor retreats, visiting swing states and early voting states, and dress-rehearsing policy and messaging ideas in Florida — but he hasn’t announced. Sources close to him say he might even wait as long as June to launch his campaign.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from making this a two-man race between him and DeSantis. He’s virtually ignored another competitor, and one who’s actually announced, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He’s said nothing about South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who also looks to be running. And he’s taken a few pot shots at his former vice president, Mike Pence. But no one has gotten more of Trump’s attention than DeSantis. In fact, he seems downright obsessed.
As Trump is wont to do, he’s been trying out nicknames for the governor — like Ron “DeSanctimonious,” or “DeSanctus” for short; “Shutdown Ron,” for implementing COVID-19 restrictions in Florida; and “Meatball Ron,” which Trump, inexplicably, says might just be “too crude” for his refined sensibilities.
This week he released a video in which he challenged the thing DeSantis is likely most known for and proud of — making Florida great again — saying, the Sunshine State where he’s long had a home “was doing great long before ‘Ron DeSanctus’ ” became governor there.
He also told reporters that he regretted endorsing DeSantis in 2018, saying “Remember this: If it weren’t for me, Ron DeSanctimonious would right now be working probably at a law firm, or maybe a Pizza Hut, I don’t know.”
And at a speech in Iowa Monday night, he unleashed his most aggressive attacks yet. He accused DeSantis of wanting to “decimate” Social Security. He called him a disciple of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, “a RINO loser who currently is destroying Fox [News],” according to Trump. And he said, derisively of course, that DeSantis reminded him of frequent Trump critic Sen. Mitt Romney. “So, I don’t think you’re gonna be doing so well here,” Trump warned.
The focus on the 44-year-old Florida governor is warranted — Trump and DeSantis are running neck and neck at 40% and 36% respectively among GOP voters according to a new CNN poll, with every other potential Republircan candidate stuck in single digits.
But the big question is, do Trump’s early attacks hurt DeSantis? Or do they actually help him?
On the one hand, Trump’s calculus that DeSantis is his main opponent is probably correct, and attempting to neuter him early isn’t a bad idea. DeSantis will run on his popularity in Florida and his policy successes there — Trump punching some holes in that is smart.
Accusing DeSantis of disloyalty, in particular, will help remind Trump supporters that he still owns them. Trump loyalists are picking up on the theme, with lawmakers like Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Green effectively telling DeSantis to stay put or wait his turn.
And no one could argue that Trump’s attacks on his own Republican opponents haven’t been effective. He knocked out every other competitor, skilled campaigners all, in 2016, and spent the next four years ridding the GOP of heretics and apostates. In short, DeSantis should be worried.
But on the other hand, all this attention on DeSantis, before he’s even announced he’s running, could have the opposite effect. It could end up elevating him. A smart campaign strategist might suggest to someone in Trump’s position that he run like an incumbent, ignoring the primary and pretending the general election has already begun. But instead of attacking the sitting president, Joe Biden, Trump’s not only giving DeSantis free media, but the as-of-yet undeserved gravitas of being a serious challenger. DeSantis isn’t even running yet, but he’s got Trump, the press and voters acting as if he is. Talk about an auspicious start to a presidential campaign.
We’ll have to watch the latest polls out of Iowa, where Trump just tested his aggressive DeSantis strategy, to see if it earns him a bump. Trump’s support there has eroded over the past year, with the percentage of Iowa Republicans who say they’d “definitely” vote for him if he were the 2024 nominee dropping by more than 20 points since June 2021. “There’s nothing locked in about Iowa for Donald Trump,” according to one Iowa pollster.
That’s potentially good news for DeSantis, who was in Iowa last week promoting his new book — and avoiding taking on Trump.
In the end, the Republican primary may come down to a battle of wits between these two heavyweights. Will it be DeSantis, the savvy politician? Or Trump, the savage campaigner?
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.