Did Ron DeSantis Run The Worst Primary Campaign Ever?
A look through history.
Just like that, it’s over.
After years of speculation and hype and roughly six months of actual campaigning, the Ron DeSantis 2024 presidential campaign died with a whimper on the afternoon of January 21st. This was a surprise, if only because the death of his bid had long been a matter of “when,” not “if.” Everyone knew he would lose, but to see him officially end things so early on—before New Hampshire, before Nevada, before Super Tuesday, before anything—was still something to behold. After hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on his behalf, he will enter the Republican National Convention this summer with only nine delegates to his name. He will have won precisely zero counties. His national vote total will be so small that he will likely not even be afforded a spot on the 2024 Republican presidential primary wikibox. Historians of the future will have to scroll down the page just to know he ran in the first place.
It’s a truly calamitous end for the Florida governor. As I put it in my list of 2023’s winners and losers, DeSantis did not just lose a campaign for president this year. He lost a lot more than that. At the age of only 45, he may have very well destroyed his own political future. The idea of him as a political terminator, always the most important part of his brand, has been destroyed by the sheer haplessness of his effort. His bet that he could win over Republican primary voters by talking up the policies he passed turned out to be a bad one. Voters simply did not care. He didn’t even benefit from boosting his own name recognition—all that increased exposure ended up doing was making him one of the least popular politicians in the country. Just a year after it felt impossible to imagine an American political future without him, it’s now equally hard to imagine one with him.
This got me thinking. I had once described DeSantis’ free-fall as the sort of collapse you only see once in every few generations. But how often do these sorts of things actually happen? Does Meatball Ron truly have no precedent? Has there ever been another candidate who fell off so much, after receiving so much backing, with such disastrous consequences for their political future? I decided to look into this. Going back to the beginning of modern presidential primaries, I have reviewed the campaigns of a number of particularly notable losers in the history of presidential primaries to see how they stack up against the slow-motion car crash we all witnessed over the past year. In this, I hope to answer an important question:
Did Ron DeSantis truly run the worst primary campaign in modern history?
Contender #1: Bernie Sanders, 2020
No, I don’t like thinking about it either. But this list consists of candidates of a similar profile as DeSantis 2024, and, unfortunately, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign falls into that category. He came in with a lot of hype, looked very strong at some points, but ended up losing. Since he’s the most recent non-DeSantis candidate to do this, he serves as our first reference point. So, how does Sanders compare? Does the first entry on this list outdo the Florida governor in running a bad campaign?
Not really. Not at all, in fact. The difference here is obvious: Sanders stayed in far longer, and had a lot more success, than DeSantis did. He won several early primary states and achieved frontrunner status during the elections themselves, not just a year before them. He also did this while facing a far more hostile institutional environment than DeSantis ever did. Heading into 2024, elite GOPers were salivating at the chance of a DeSantis nomination. A lot of very powerful people were willing to put a lot of money on the line to help him succeed. Right-wing media magnates directed their outlets to boost him at every opportunity. This was a massive boon for him. To the extent he had any success at any point, it can pretty plausibly be credited to these immense efforts on his behalf.
Sanders, on the other hand, was seen as the #1 enemy of the elite liberal class from the very beginning. Everyone from billionaire mega-donors to your average establishment-aligned journalists cast him as a dangerous nuisance, and they certainly weren’t bankrolling PACs for him. They were desperate for a new, friendlier figure to establish themselves as the leader of the left, whether that be Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren or even Beto O’Rourke. In this context, the fact that he managed to become a frontrunner at any point is pretty impressive. While he didn’t get what he wanted in the end, he thwarted these efforts to erase him and fully established himself and his brand of politics as a permanent fixture in the party. He forced the winner of the primary to respect him, at least during the course of the campaign. That’s not something that should be taken for granted. DeSantis, for one, came nowhere close to it.
To the extent that there are any major similarities between Sanders 2020 and DeSantis 2024, it’s that both adopted fundamentally flawed strategies that arguably doomed their campaigns from the start. For DeSantis, this was his decision to avoid any pointed anti-Trump messaging and go through with a pained, too-clever-by-half attempt to run to the former president’s right. This left his effort without a clear raison d'être and ceded the framing of the entire campaign to Trump, completely muddling what could have otherwise been a clear argument for change.
As for Sanders, he reportedly chose early on to make the extremely dumb decision to rely on a small-tent strategy, where he would win in a crowded field with roughly 30% of the vote. This was an absolutely disastrous choice. In going down this path, Sanders hinged his entire bid on the assumption that the Democratic establishment would inexplicably be dumb enough to keep the field divided and let him win for no reason. When they weren’t that dumb and ended up uniting against him, he was left with no recourse. It singlehandedly ruined all of the efforts of what was otherwise a pretty solid campaign. This was such a catastrophic choice that I plan to write an entire series about it at some point. But, even still, his campaign was far better, and far more successful, than DeSantis’.
Contender #2: Hillary Clinton, 2016