What is it with Florida governors?
Eight years ago, former governor Jeb Bush’s presidential run turned out to be a surprisingly poignant character arc, with the once-favored Bush son devolving from imposing front-runner and all-but-certain winner, to a pitiful, shrinking figure diminished by round after round of public humiliation, often at the hands of Donald Trump.
Eight years later, it’s been the same story for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who on Sunday suspended his campaign for president, clearing the way for another Trump GOP nomination.
Things started off well for DeSantis, who spent years setting himself up as the capable, sensible man’s Trump, right down to creepily adopting his opponent’s mannerisms. He was outraging liberal America, was way ahead in the polls, was short-listed for Time’s Person of the Year, and benefited from an apparent drying up of Trump’s creative juices, with the former president managing to coin only uninspired nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious” and the slightly more entertaining “Meatball Ron.”
For a variety of reasons — not least of all the fact that the Trump indictments that should’ve strengthened DeSantis’s pitch solidified his rival’s hold on the Republican electorate — all of this promise turned to ash. As the campaign’s misfortunes piled up, reporting on DeSantis shifted from profiles of evil on the march to schadenfreude-ridden reveling in his car crash of a campaign. As the 2024 election plods toward its depressing climax, let’s take a minute to savor the comedic highlights of the failed campaign of one of the most vile men in US politics.
1. The Twitter Spaces debacle
We got an early hint that DeSantis’s run would be more Police Academy than Heat from its launch, when the Florida governor made the baffling decision to declare his bid on the buggy Twitter Spaces. “No major presidential candidate has ever announced their candidacy on social media this way,” venture capitalist David Sacks said as he prepared to introduce DeSantis, and it soon became clear why.
It would’ve been a bad idea no matter what happened next. Rather than an exciting kickoff with a large crowd that would’ve energized supporters, demonstrated his popular support, and provided B-roll footage for TV news, the campaign would instead start, effectively, on a podcast, with three men murmuring quietly into microphones.
In practice, it was worse than that. The launch was plagued by repeated crashes, audio problems, thousands of users being kicked off at random, and long periods of silence, in between apologetic muttering from Sacks and Twitter CEO Elon Musk. Nearly an entire half hour went by before the candidate was able to speak. “It’s unfortunate. I’ve never seen this before,” Musk said at one point, inadvertently summing up most people’s verdicts.
Most everyone mocked DeSantis over the fiasco, including both Joe Biden and Trump, whose campaign put out a scathing AI-generated parody video of the stalled launch featuring Musk, George Soros, Dick Cheney, Hitler, and the Devil all talking over each other and DeSantis as he tried to make his announcement. DeSantis had achieved an impressive double whammy, at once undercutting his claim to competency and fueling charges that he was way too online.
2. The campaign’s scandal-plagued videos
DeSantis bounced back from the debacle with a similarly bizarre campaign ad. Presumably meant to salvage the chaotic launch, the video overlaid DeSantis’s speech that day on top of a cyclical montage of DeSantis action shots. . . and, inexplicably, footage of Musk: smiling, exiting a truck, using a flamethrower, and dancing, as if he was an actor being introduced in the opening credits of a sitcom.
It was the first of several multimedia flops. In July, the campaign drew headlines for a video attacking Trump as too “woke” that managed to be both homophobic and homoerotic, proudly plastering headlines about DeSantis’s persecution of LGBTQ people over images of shirtless bodybuilders, handsome fictional sociopath Patrick Bateman, and a pouty Brad Pitt from the movie Troy. The worst of both worlds, the video was both mocked and harshly criticized for being bigoted, including by the Log Cabin Republicans.
Later that month, the campaign stepped in it again, when it came out that a campaign staffer had been sharing literally fascistic pro-DeSantis videos. One compared him to Hitler and Mussolini, seemingly approvingly. In another — which the staffer, a former writer for National Review, made himself — DeSantis speaks in front of the state seal of Florida, which dissolves into the Sonnenrad “Black Sun” symbol adopted by today’s white supremacists, containing the phrase “Make America Florida,” as columns of armed soldiers march into the horizon. The staffer was swiftly fired, but there was no similarly elegant solution to the candidate himself repeatedly suggesting that chattel slavery might have been useful for upskilling.
3. A painfully awkward campaigner
Running for any kind of office, let alone the US presidency, means having the press and an army of strangers pick apart your every tic, foible, and screwup, which is why it lends itself to people who are secure and naturally gregarious. It soon became clear that DeSantis is neither.
The man who needed a written reminder to be “likable” turned out, shockingly, to loathe human interaction, and he soon withered in the arena of retail politics. First, it was just reports of DeSantis standing in the corner to avoid talking to donors, or of cringing his way through long lines of voters eager to meet him. Then, we got to see it for ourselves, as videos trickled out of DeSantis struggling to exchange basic pleasantries in a New Hampshire diner (“Good to s — what’s your name?” “I’m Tim Anthony.” “Okay.”) or revealing his unorthodox method for responding to a small child holding an Icee (remarking “That’s probably a lot of sugar, huh?” followed by a hearty handshake and a “Good to see ya”).
We soon learned that DeSantis’s discomfort with basic human behavior went beyond small talk and extended to simply smiling and laughing, as videos and images of the Florida governor cackling maniacally at banal chitchat with voters went viral. Next were his pained and uncertain efforts to crack a grin in the debates, which called to mind a giant bug desperately trying to work the muscles under the DeSantis suit it was wearing.
These small moments might have come and gone for another candidate, but a press that hated DeSantis — both because they were appalled by his cruelty in Florida and because he made a point of treating them like dirt — turned them into a full-fledged media narrative, raising the stakes for every eyebrow raise and utterance in DeSantis’s public appearances. The result was that, as his campaign hit a wall, reporters started virtually bullying him. Scrutiny of his boots and whether they were hiding lifts went on for weeks, reaching its humiliating pinnacle when podcast host Patrick Bet-David confronted an uncomfortable DeSantis about it directly, pulling out a pair of Ferragamo shoes for him to put on (DeSantis declined — “I don’t accept gifts, I can’t accept it”).
4. The entire Iowa campaign
As his campaign stalled — poll numbers stuck way behind Trump, donors jumping ship, money problems, waves of campaign staffer firings — DeSantis hit upon a solution: he would go all in in Iowa, taking a page from eight-term Senator Chuck Grassley, and personally tour all ninety-nine of the state’s counties. “I think that’s what voters want to see. I think they want to be able to meet you, they want to be able to ask your questions,” DeSantis said.
It turned out that, no, they didn’t — at least not DeSantis, who by this point had provided ample evidence that meeting him in person would involve running a gauntlet of secondhand embarrassment. Worse, as he doggedly made his way around the state, headline after headline cast doubt on the electability argument central to his candidacy, with polls suggesting that DeSantis wasn’t popular among GOP voters. He barely clung on to his second-place status — against an unknown like Vivek Ramaswamy, no less — and was eventually overtaken by Nikki Haley, to whom DeSantis lost his coveted Trump-killer designation.
By July, the large crowds he had drawn in his first visits to the state dwindled. A month out from the caucus, moderator Megyn Kelly brought up the campaign’s polling and money woes directly to DeSantis on a nationally broadcast debate. “Look at that face,” a panelist rewatching the painful moment later accidentally commented on a hot mic. “He looks like he shot his dog,”
What should have been a triumphant moment, with DeSantis finishing his ninety-nine county tour, was instead commemorated by news of firings at the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC, with which the campaign had been feuding for months, and whose CEO spent hours of the final week leading up to the vote engrossed in a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle instead of doing his job. Two days before voting, a voter at a campaign event presented a visibly hurt DeSantis with a participation trophy, because “you’re probably not going to win the election but we’re proud of you for trying,” drawing laughs from both attendees and DeSantis’s own wife. “He’s special, he’s unique, and he’s our little snowflake,” the man said to more laughter.
In the end, DeSantis’s tour seemed to have succeeded mostly in convincing Iowans not to back him — he lost every county he visited, with all but one going for Trump, who barely bothered to campaign in the state, and Haley picking up the straggler. By a conservative estimate, DeSantis shelled out $53 million to win 23,420 votes and nine delegates, or around $2,262 per voter and nearly $6 million per delegate. He went on an unfriendly Fox News to spin the defeat, desperately rattling off a list of the election debates he claimed he had won in the lead-up. “But you didn’t win a single county, right?” replied host Neil Cavuto.
5. It weakened him in Florida
Presidential campaigns often elevate a political figure — boosting them a few rungs up the career ladder, turning them into future contenders, or landing them lucrative book and media deals. In other cases, presidential bids can render a candidate weaker than when they started, potentially unraveling their future prospects.
DeSantis’s campaign has fallen firmly in that second category. Its chief side effect has been to undermine his most important source of political security: his domination of Florida. As early as four months ago, the state’s political insiders were discussing not whether, but how much his failed campaign was going to hurt him back home, with DeSantis’s sense of indomitability — fueled by a November 2022 landslide reelection win that set him up as a threat to Trump in the first place — having evaporated by midyear.
The long list of figures that DeSantis had pissed off in Florida lined up to take their shots, with bitter former staffers joining Trump’s campaign and members of the state’s congressional delegation defecting to Trump. They announced their endorsement of the former president one by one just as DeSantis prepared to take a trip to shore up his support in Washington, and to really rub it in, Trump later brought the roughly dozen Florida lawmakers with him to the Iowa State Fair as DeSantis was working the grill.
As his campaign faltered, DeSantis’s approval rating in the state also fell, with one Florida GOP strategist speculating that an extended lame-duck period would follow. In the final indignity, DeSantis bowed out of the race by endorsing Trump, a man who previously implied he was a sex offender.
DeSantis Deserved Worse
There’s no reason to feel bad for Ron DeSantis. He is an awful human being, someone who hasn’t hesitated to build his ambitions on top of whatever vindictive opportunity against the downtrodden offered itself, whether by virtually kidnapping and dumping migrants on Martha’s Vineyard, making it harder for workers to band together to improve their pay and working conditions, or effectively criminalizing young kids and their teachers for their sexual orientation. And the more embarrassing and desperate DeSantis’s campaign became, the meaner and dumber he got, threatening to invade Mexico, banning pro-Palestinian student groups, and gleefully slinging anti-Muslim vituperation.
The national humiliation DeSantis has suffered in the past year is nowhere near an adequate comeuppance for what he’s inflicted on people throughout his appalling career. But in a political system where the political elite rarely, if ever, face any justice for their cruelty, it’ll have to do.