BECAUSE THE ONLY purpose of an election is to set up speculation about who’s going to win the next election, and because by now we almost know what happened in the 2022 midterms, Politico went ahead and ran a poll about the 2024 Republican presidential outlook. The poll pitted Donald Trump, by consensus the big loser in these midterms, against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, hailed as the big winner. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Trump led DeSantis 47 to 33.
This result shouldn’t be surprising, if you’ve been living through American politics for the past seven years. The New York Times asked for my opinion about what Trump’s expected 2024 campaign launch might mean in the light of the midterms, and my answer was that Trump is still the defining figure in his party. It was a boring answer, after a flurry of excitable articles declaring the dawn of the DeSantis era, but it seemed like the safe bet.
Discussing the new poll, the writer Jay Caspian Kang, now at the New Yorker, tweeted what struck me as the most devastatingly correct assessment of DeSantis and the DeSantis discourse:
The whole DeSantis thing also gets pushed hard by the media. It’s like he’s a backup QB with amazing PR team and the local press hates the starter bc he’s an asshole to them but popular with the fans.
That’s exactly it. For people who can’t stop covering politics as if it’s a spectator sport, the pundits have a strange inability to grasp basic sports archetypes. The Republican Party is a sports fanbase, and Donald Trump is the quarterback who led their team to a shocking Super Bowl upset. He’s a star and a legend, his contract is impossible to get off the books, and only nerds and haters care about his fundamentally unsound statistics or his ever-lengthening list of off-field troubles.
What DeSantis did in the midterms, in this analogy, was to put together two touchdown drives in garbage time, so the Republicans walked off the field with a 35-17 loss. Not so hopeless, on the scoreboard. The high point of the day.
By looking good when Trump’s picks looked so bad, DeSantis convinced the political press that right now, he’s the likeliest figure to end the chaos and conflict of the Trump era, restoring politics to a two-party balance in which it’s not embarrassing or seditionist for the public to support the Republicans. This may be hard to square with DeSantis’ record—disenfranchising voters en masse, banning textbooks, installing an antivax surgeon general, kidnapping migrants from Texas to Massachusetts for a publicity stunt—but the backup quarterback is always a speculative asset. Don’t judge by what you see, judge by what you might see once he gets enough first-team reps in practice, once they game-plan to fit his skills, once he’s adjusted to seeing the defense at game speed. Doesn’t he start to look like a winner?
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