Editor’s Note: Justin Sayfie has served in the administration of three Republican presidents and was a top adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Sayfie is a partner at the lobbying firm of Ballard Partners and publisher of SayfieReview.com, a website on Florida politics. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The 2018 midterm elections were terrible for the Republican Party. The GOP lost 41 seats in the House of Representatives, and Democrats beat GOP candidates by more than 10 million votes — the largest raw vote margin in a House midterm election ever. Democrats also gained seven governorships that year.
Despite those anti-Republican hurricane-force headwinds, Republican Ron DeSantis beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race by 0.4%, or roughly 32,000 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast.
In the 2022 midterm elections, the anticipated bright-red “tsunami” evaporated into a colorless mist. Yet DeSantis scored an unprecedented victory for a Republican in Florida, beating his Democratic opponent by more than 19 percentage points and 1.5 million votes.
When Republicans were asked who they would like to see as their party’s nominee for 2024, a recent Monmouth University national poll showed DeSantis even with former President Donald Trump in a hypothetical field of seven and ahead of him in a direct head-to-head matchup. A Quinnipiac University poll found a near even race between Biden and Trump, with 48% supporting Biden and 46% supporting Trump, and a close race between DeSantis and Biden, with 47% supporting DeSantis and 46% supporting Biden.
How has DeSantis gone from narrowly escaping defeat in 2018 to now becoming a formidable prospective contender for the White House?
His rapid national ascent began during the early pandemic in 2020 when he became a hero to millions for filling a vacuum of leadership at a time of global crisis and uncertainty.
Vulnerable older adults in Florida witnessed how he prioritized their health and safety by prohibiting transfers of patients infected with the coronavirus from hospitals into long-term care facilities, unlike in New York. Parents of Florida schoolchildren witnessed how he focused on keeping schools open, so students wouldn’t fall behind in their learning. Small-business owners witnessed how he battled to get and keep businesses open, so they and their employees could continue to feed their families during the pandemic.
Being the governor of tourism-rich Florida meant that voters within the state were not the only ones who noticed or benefited from DeSantis’ pandemic leadership. Florida counted about 200 million visitors in 2020 and 2021. When visiting Florida, millions of domestic tourists experienced Florida’s openness and returned home having personally experienced the benefits of DeSantis’ leadership.
DeSantis’ governance style during the pandemic not only earned him respect from many around the country, but it also became a weathered template for other battles he has fought.
Here is the recipe for DeSantis’ political success:
Step 1: Take decisive action. This step follows a counterintuitive political principle that DeSantis gets: It’s more important for a leader to be decisive than for the decision itself to be popular. Voters do not want weathervanes for leaders. They appreciate a leader who takes bold action and gets things done much more than someone who constantly puts a finger in the wind, unsure of which direction to move next.
Step 2: When possible, take your most decisive actions on issues that unite Republicans, divide Democrats and appeal to independents.
Step 3: Hope to be condemned by major news media outlets or scorned by elites in Hollywood or university faculty lounges.
Step 4: Stand your ground. Do not back down.
DeSantis’ decisions on Covid-19 are prime examples of how this recipe worked. He was decisive, even when public opinion started out against him. He was criticized in news reports and by editorial boards, public health experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci – then the nation’s highest ranking government official on infectious disease – and by Biden. Yet instead of hurting him politically, these criticisms only magnified DeSantis’ street cred with so many Americans who wanted a champion to stand up against lockdowns.
The Florida governor has followed a similar playbook on other issues – from immigration to education issues.
In September, DeSantis flew migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, where three municipalities had adopted sanctuary policies limiting local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws. While editorials as well as local officials representing those sanctuary jurisdictions heaped scorn on DeSantis’s decision, DeSantis was tapping into widespread national concern about the failure of border enforcement.
More than half of Americans believe it is completely or somewhat true that the United States is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, with 76% of Republicans and 47% of independents holding this view, according to an NPR/Ipsos poll in August. Meanwhile, 59% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents say border security should be very or somewhat important, and almost 4 of 10 Democrats say that increasing deportations is very or somewhat important, according to a Pew Research poll. This widespread bipartisan dissatisfaction on border enforcement provided a vast political space for DeSantis’ decision to relocate migrants.
DeSantis also supported a bill that prohibited classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity to kindergarteners and other young students. Disney, a global entertainment conglomerate, opposed it and the hosts of the Academy Awards made fun of the bill on national television.
But while Hollywood kingpins and celebrities disapproved of the bill, a New York Times-Siena College poll in September found Republicans united in opposition to such classroom instruction in first through fifth grades (95% against), while 42% of Democrats strongly or somewhat opposed it. More interestingly, 71% of independent voters strongly or somewhat opposed classroom instruction of gender identity to children in elementary school, the poll found.
DeSantis issued a proclamation declaring Florida native Emma Weyant the winner of the NCAA Division I women’s 500-yard freestyle final after the NCAA declared Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, the victor. Just like the other issues DeSantis has taken on, Republicans and independent voters were strongly in favor of DeSantis’ position, while Democrats were split almost evenly, according to a NPR/Ipsos poll.
Regardless of whether one agrees with his policies or his politics, DeSantis has shown he has a recipe for political and electoral success that has made him the governor of red-state America as well as an effective critic of progressive Democrats.
In today’s “cancel culture” environment, DeSantis has uniquely channeled the emotions of what former President Richard Nixon called the “silent majority.” That term is more politically potent now than it was then, because those voters who consider themselves part of this group – regardless of whether they are a majority – feel more silenced than ever.
One may be tempted to believe that such a strategy has limited appeal – but consider the following: In 2020, although Trump beat Biden in Florida, Biden beat Trump by 11 points among independent voters. Yet two years later, DeSantis won back this important bloc of nonpartisan voters, winning a majority of independents and besting his Democratic opponent by 8 points among independents.
DeSantis’ proven ability to galvanize Republican voters and simultaneously appeal to a majority of independents is what makes him capable of winning both the GOP presidential nomination as well as the general election, should he choose to run next year.
It’s a recipe that has worked brilliantly in Florida – an incredibly diverse, multicultural and fast-growing megastate. Anyone who doesn’t think it can work elsewhere may belatedly regret such skepticism in 2024.