WASHINGTON — Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis? Democrats are torn on which of the two Republican front-runners they would rather face in the 2024 presidential election, according to conversations with a dozen Democratic strategists.
The conventional wisdom among many in the party is that President Joe Biden would have better odds in a rematch against Trump. The former president lost in 2020, he mobilizes the Democratic base and he has a brand that’s become toxic to many swing voters. Plus, the thinking goes, DeSantis’ relative youth presents a tougher contrast for Biden, and the Florida governor's unknowability on the national stage means Democrats can’t simply dust off a winning playbook against him.
“I would rather see Biden face Trump because we know how to beat him," said Celinda Lake, a veteran pollster who advised Bill Clinton in 1992 and has since counted a long list of prominent Democrats as clients. "We beat him once, we can beat him again. And I think he’s definitely further alienated the suburban female vote."
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But another group of Democrats sees DeSantis as the easier candidate to beat. Trump has strengths that DeSantis doesn’t, they say: Trump is more charismatic, better at retail politics and has a unique ability to stir up GOP voters and get them to the polls that the Florida governor hasn’t proved he can do on the big stage.
“I think DeSantis comes off as very unlikable. Trump, at least, is good at retail politics; DeSantis isn’t. A lot of his act comes off as performative theater,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist who advised Charlie Crist’s losing 2022 campaign for Florida governor to DeSantis.
Hopkins predicted that DeSantis won’t be as effective nationally as he has been in the Republican-friendly Sunshine State.
“Trump has 30% of the base no matter what. And DeSantis doesn’t have a built-in base the way that Trump does,” Hopkins said. “He doesn’t have the strength of Trump’s base. And so there are a lot of the MAGA coalition that I don’t think are going to go along with DeSantis just because they see him as an anti-Trump rather than being an acolyte of Trump.”
The debate comes as Democrats rally around Biden, who has made it clear he intends to run for re-election. Facing no serious primary challenger to his renomination, party elites have little to do in the presidential arena but map out how to run against their opponent next fall — and ponder which of the two Republican front-runners they’d be more likely to defeat in a general election.
'I believe that Gov. DeSantis is weaker'
DeSantis has left some Democrats scratching their heads over the past month as he has taken punch after punch from Trump without doing much to respond. He also appears to be dropping further behind Trump in GOP primary polls ahead of an expected announcement.
“Based on what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, as he inches closer to running, I believe that Gov. DeSantis is weaker,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide turned lobbyist. “It would be much better for Democrats to run against him than against Trump.”
Manley said DeSantis “has just stuck to scripted sound bites,” adding: “I view him as a very weak candidate who has managed to bully his way through the state of Florida, but I don’t believe he’s ready for the big leagues.”
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Some Democrats say it’s too early to know who's stronger.
“No one should even pretend to know the answer to that question at this point,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former White House adviser and campaign aide to President Barack Obama.
“Trump is a massively flawed nominee who could be running while under multiple indictments and perhaps convictions. Ron DeSantis has not exactly demonstrated the dexterity or charisma necessary to navigate a national campaign,” he said. “I just think we should all have some humility when the last two presidential elections were decided in total by a number of voters barely larger than the attendance of a Big Ten college football game.”
'Road map to beating Trump'
In a country this divided, Biden's re-election is no sure thing — against either of his two most likely Republican opponents.
In 2016, Trump won by some 75,000 votes; in 2020, he over-performed polls forecasting a blowout and lost the Electoral College by a similar number. His coalition includes scores of disaffected voters who reliably turn out when Trump is on the ballot but stay home when he’s not. That fueled the blue wave in 2018, the historic GOP underperformance in the 2022 midterms and other special elections where flawed Trump protégés and support for abortion rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade sunk Republicans.
Few doubt that Trump will mobilize his voters again, like in 2016 and 2020, if he’s the nominee. But would those same “MAGA” voters turn out for DeSantis, especially after an ugly primary with Trump? Would Trump back DeSantis in the general election if he loses the primary, or seek to burn the party down? And would DeSantis have a better chance with independents who may be souring on Trump over the Jan. 6 attack and the criminal charges he now faces?
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Some Democrats say Trump is weaker now than in 2020.
“The road map to beating Trump has been deployed and deployed successfully,” said Scott Mulhauser, a former Biden aide who said he believes Trump is more beatable than DeSantis. “The body blows keep coming to Trump that alienate independents at every turn, and these are the swing voters he’d need to overcome his margins last time.”
Mulhauser said Democrats have clear avenues to run against either candidate on abortion rights. But on Social Security and Medicare, he noted, Democrats have “certainly a stronger case against DeSantis,” who called for privatizing those programs and raising the retirement age in the past.
'Fomented a revolution'
Electoral politics aside, Democrats also disagree on who would be a worse president.
Hopkins said he believes that “DeSantis is a more dangerous candidate to be honest,” citing “a certain intellectual vindictiveness with DeSantis that I don’t even think Trump has.”
“Look at his battle with Disney right now. Whereas Trump is really undisciplined and emotional, DeSantis comes off as vindictive and mean,” he said. “And I think that’s a dangerous combination.”
Mulhauser disagreed, citing Trump's attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election based on fabricated claims of voter fraud.
Although Mulhauser made it clear he’s no fan of either Republican, he believes it would be worse for the country if Trump returns to power than if DeSantis becomes president.
“Donald Trump, while president, fomented a revolution that attempted to overturn the will of the people, the rule of law and our democracy. That cannot be unseen or undone,” he said. “I’m not sure DeSantis is any better on a host of policies or culture-war dog whistles, but you hope he could at least recognize the country needs to stand.”