Friday, November 11, 2022

Why Is Ron DeSantis Such a Marco Rubio?

Following his apparent 59/40 romp to reelection over Charlie Crist, Eugene Volokh wants descriptive answers to the question of why Ron DeSantis did so well, particularly in contrast to his razor-thin 2018 victory (where he won by less than half a point). What's the secret of his political success?

I'm not going to fully venture an answer to that question. But there's an important data point that I want to flag which is I think easily overlooked in the coming DeSantis mania, namely: that Marco Rubio had almost the exact same result as did DeSantis. He prevailed in his Senate race over Val Demings 57/41. This also represents a significant improvement over Rubio's margin in his last race (which was in 2016, not 2018, so not apples-to-apples, but still pertinent)

I mention this because it suggests that a consilient explanation for DeSantis' strong performance probably should be one that also explains Rubio's near-identical performance. The similarity in results is especially notable given that Rubio and DeSantis don't seem like especially similar political figures or cut similar profiles beyond both being conservative Republicans -- it'd be hard to come up with personal attributes that both share that represent plausible explanations for explaining their respective performance. That DeSantis and Rubio seem quite different (we're talking about DeSantis, not Rubio, as a potential 2024 contender) makes it all the more noteworthy that they basically had identical margins this election. That suggests that the factors driving the results had less to do with DeSantis' personal political genius (unless that genius is something he somehow shares with Rubio), and more on broader structural considerations that have little to do with DeSantis-qua-DeSantis.

So, to move towards an answer to Volokh's question of why DeSantis did so much better in 2022 than 2018, some plausible factors (none of which naturally demonstrate particular "political brilliance" by DeSantis) include:

  • The general "reddening" of Florida.
  • 2018 being a worse year for Republicans than 2022.*
  • Incumbency advantage.
Now, of course, all of these could be unpacked further, and potentially in a fashion that gives more individualized credit to DeSantis. For example, maybe Florida is "reddening" in part because of DeSantis' policies or personal popularity (though the trend seems to predate him -- there hasn't been a Democratic Governor in Florida since 2000, hasn't been a Democratic Senator since 2018, and by 2018 Democrats were already down to a single statewide elected official). Or maybe Rubio's performance this time around is attributable to good coattails from running with DeSantis.

But to a large extent, I think we're overstating DeSantis' political acumen based on this election. I understand the first-blush appeal -- he did far better than many of his Republican colleagues in the 2022 cycle. But he didn't do materially better than his other Florida Republican colleagues, which suggests that the explanation for his success might be Florida-specific, but probably isn't DeSantis-specific. Contrast that to, say, Marcy Kaptur in Ohio, who seemed to dramatically outperform other Ohio Democrats -- that suggests that she might have some personally unique mojo worth looking into. Ditto Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, who easily won reelection in a swing state where Democrats won three tightly contested Senate and House races. Compared to Kaptur and Sununu, DeSantis looks pretty well ordinary -- no more impressive than Marco Rubio.

* This is obviously true, though it's a bit obscured because Democrats probably overperformed expectations more in 2022 compared to 2018. But the actual results of the 2018 midterm were far better for the Democrats than was the case in 2022.

1 comment:

Erl said...

I think this is exactly the right level to look at. And I think we miss it because Florida's reddening trajectory is pretty distinct from the major long-term do-si-do that's powering most state shifts.

If you look at the relative trends of states over my lifetime, it looks (to me) like "Dems fall in the greater rustbelt, gain in the greater sunbelt". So one one side we see Missouri, then Iowa, and now Ohio, falling from "purple" to red"; Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania go from "blue" to "purple"; and even Minnesota starts to show up on the Republican wishlist. All of this is explained by the rightward trend of increasingly un-unionized blue-collar white voters.

Then on the other side we see New Mexico and Colorado go "purple" to "blue", Virginia get dramatically bluer (hard to say "blue" straight out with Youngkin and co, but the Presidential trend is clear), Arizona and Georgia go "red" to "purple", and Texas showing up on the wishlist. And all of this is explained by these states' increasing urbanization, diversity, and youth, and the greater alignment of those features with the Dem platform.

But I have no idea where to fit Florida into this story. None of the broad demographic trends seem to explain it, and the shift is quite striking. (Imagine explaining in ~2008 that the 2022 Florida statewide was MORE Republican than either Georgia OR Texas!) And there isn't really a specific other story to tell—it's not as though Trump presided over a Cuban counter-revolution or something dramatic like that.

So I think this anomaly raises the salience of personality-focused explanations. And it does seem to be the case that Florida is the center of gravity of the contemporary Republican party—between Trump, DeSantis, and Scott—in a way that we haven't seen a single state be in a long time.