by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Due to his sharp political instincts, DeSantis has positioned himself extremely well vis-à-vis Trump going into a likely 2024 matchup. But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face — and face punches are what Trump doled out in healthy servings in the 2016 primary. While Trump may trail DeSantis in focus and competence, he beats him in raw charisma. DeSantis would be a good president because he’s an extremely competent executive and a shrewd political operator, and he has a proven ability to deliver on conservative priorities, even (or especially!) over the objections of powerful left-wing institutions. He does not have the sort of world-historical stump energy that Trump has. To be fair, no one does.
I’m sure this isn’t news to DeSantis. He is almost certainly aware of this weakness, and insofar as he’s gaming out a future debate with Trump, it’s surely something he’s planning for. The advantage that he — or anyone hoping to challenge Trump in the 2024 primary, for that matter — has is that Trump no longer enjoys the element of surprise. By the time Republican elites figured out that Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop, take-no-prisoners style was working in 2016, it was too late to organize a counterattack. That won’t be an issue in 2024.
Thus far, DeSantis’s initial back-and-forths with Trump have appeared to be successful, but they’ve been mediated via third parties. Even years of preparation might not give DeSantis an edge over Trump on the debate stage. Charisma can be learned, but only to an extent. The political science research, with a number of caveats, tends to show that televised presidential debates have surprisingly little effect on the general election, but they can sway significant numbers of voters in the primary.