Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images and Scott Olson/Getty Images
- DeSantis could end up running for president in 2024, and he’s widely viewed as similar to Trump.
- But the two men have a lot of differences, and they’ll need to sharpen them in the months ahead, operatives said.
- They include upbringing, policy positions, and how they handle the press and opponents.
Plenty of pundits, donors, Democrats, and even other Republicans see similarities between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
At first glance, the parallels are easy to spot: DeSantis and Trump are both combative, have a flair for showmanship, and eagerly stoke the culture wars.
The Trumpy nicknames are popping up in focus groups, too. Gunner Ramer, political director for the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, told Insider that a participant recently described DeSantis as “Trump not on steroids.” The Democratic National Committee is playing up DeSantis as a Trump twin, with a recent email to reporters slamming DeSantis’ “Extreme MAGA Agenda.”
The pile on is a problem for both men should DeSantis join Trump in the ring for the 2024 nomination contest.
After all, why vote for “Trump’s Mini Me” when you can have the real thing? Why vote for Trump himself when you can have someone younger who could be in the White House for eight years instead of four? Why vote for either if you hated Trump’s term in office?
In a 2024 contest, it’ll be crucial for both men to highlight their differences. One of the most well-known, important rules for winning in politics is that candidates have to define themselves early. They can’t let anyone else — particularly opponents — do it for them.
“If we go down this path, DeSantis is going to spend a whole primary showing how he’s different,” Sean Spicer, who was White House press secretary for Trump, told Insider.
As it turns out, taking a closer look at both men shows there are plenty of ways they differ. They have radically different backgrounds, they diverge in how they handle criticism, and have distinct ways of working and making decisions.
“DeSantis is his own man,” Saul Anuzis, managing partner of Coast to Coast Strategies, LLC, a political consulting firm, told Insider. “It is an oversimplification to somehow imply that they’re in the same lane.”
So how, exactly, are the Republican men not interchangeable? Insider asked GOP strategists and people close to both men for their insight. Here’s what they had to say:
Born to wealth v. working class family
One of the most immediately recognizable differences between Trump and DeSantis is their backgrounds.
There’s Trump: The rich 76-year-old real estate tycoon who took over his father’s business, rolled through several bankruptcies, and became a reality TV star. He used to donate to political campaigns. A few days after his 69th birthday, he announced his own.
Trump won the presidency once before going on to lose the next one without conceding, and was impeached twice including over incitement of the violent riot on January 6, 2021.
Then there’s DeSantis: A 44-year-old who grew up in the small town of Dunedin, Florida, raised by a mom who was a nurse and a dad who installed Nielsen TV rating boxes. Baseball and good grades got him into Yale and then Harvard Law.
After serving in Navy, he went into politics where he was a US congressman that didn’t gain much fanfare. Then the spotlight of the Florida governor’s office turned him into a conservative darling.
His 2021 financial disclosures showed he had almost $319,000 in the bank and more than $21,000 student loans. (A not-yet-disclosed book advance in 2022 is expected to have vastly increased his personal wealth.)
—Insider News (@InsiderNews) November 9, 2022
“The contrast is clear — an athlete, veteran, conservative that knows how to govern versus a non-ideological, transactional former president that lost to Joe Biden,” Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist and former advisor to the US Chamber of Commerce, told Insider. “The GOP is sick of losing and is searching for a forward looking-conservative.”
But Trump supporters see DeSantis’ early entrée into politics as a potential area of vulnerability. Lately, right-wing media and major donors have been siding with DeSantis, which could help elevate Trump’s “outsider” status and pin DeSantis as a member of the establishment.
“He’s a career politician,” Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump supporter and CEO of X Strategies political consulting firm, told Insider of DeSantis. “And the America First movement hates career politicians, and people don’t know that about Ron.” He predicted DeSantis, a favorite of megadonors such as Citadel investment firm CEO Ken Griffin, would be “beholden” to them.
A poor legislative performance by congressional Republicans could also affect DeSantis’ chances while being out of his control, Jennifer Carroll, who was lieutenant governor under DeSantis predecessor GOP Gov. Rick Scott, told Insider.
“Folks are gonna wonder: ‘Should we trust the establishment anymore? Because we gave them a chance and they did nothing,'” she said.
Former President Donald Trump endorsed then-candidate Ron DeSantis when he ran for governor in 2018. The backing helped DeSantis seize the GOP nomination.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Compulsion v. control
Trump is famous for being impulsive, saying what he thinks in the moment when asked, and firing off big decisions over Twitter that sent his aides scrambling.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is a careful planner who turns off the combativeness at times. For instance, he welcomed President Joe Biden’s help after Hurricane Ian, and sat alongside first lady Jill Biden during the one-year anniversary of the Surfside building collapse.
DeSantis has the “ability to understand moments that transcend politics,” Brian Ballard, president and founder of the powerhouse lobbying firm Ballard Partners and a longtime fundraiser for DeSantis, told Insider.
“There’s plenty of time to have the typical political debates, arguments, and infighting,” he said. “But in times of national emergency and crisis he has governed exceptionally and in a bipartisan fashion.”
DeSantis also reads studies and gets into the minutiae of legislation, whereas Trump tends to be focused more on the big picture. Still, DeSantis, like Trump, explains complicated policies in a simple way when he’s in public.
“He’s measured where Trump is not,” Carroll said. “And he does understand that you don’t need to respond to everything, particularly at the time that people want you to respond. I believe he has a very good communications crew that he listens to, that affords him the luxury of doing that.”
Direct v. subliminal
Trump began attacking DeSantis publicly just before Election Day. He nicknamed him “Ron DeSantimonious” then lashed out at the governor for being disloyal after DeSantis left open the question over whether he’d run for president.
For Trump’s base, his directness is a good thing. “What’s so great about Trump is he’s transparent,” Bruesewitz said. “He’s a real person. He doesn’t have these people that say, ‘Sir, you have to say this at this time.'”
DeSantis hasn’t directly hit back at Trump. He instead blamed the press for stirring up division. Yet he was also viewed as taunting Trump indirectly when he said Republicans should “check out the scoreboard” on Election Day — when he did well and Republicans flopped nationally.
On December 13, DeSantis announced several anti-COVID vaccine measures, taking aim at one of Trump’s top presidential accomplishments but one his base despises due to the Biden administration’s shot mandates. While he never mentioned the ex-president, he made the announcement geographically close to Mar-a-Lago, the oceanfront private club and estate where Trump lives in Palm Beach.
“He knows how to not only get things done, what the people want, but to shove it in his opponents faces specifically when its their weaknesses,” said Sam Nunberg, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign.
DeSantis often holds major announcements at locations that carry subliminal messages. On the January 6 anniversary, he held a press conference again in West Palm Beach on an unrelated matter, but when Insider asked him about the Capitol riot he was prepared to answer, saying the press was working to “milk the attack.” His comments made national headlines.
“So much of what we do in politics has to do with tone and image and how you present yourself, versus what you say,” Anuzis said.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Sioux Gateway Airport on November 3, 2022 in Sioux City, Iowa. T
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Humor v. policy
Trump knows how to make his audience laugh, which made him relatable to the middle class, Carroll said. When he talked about his vision for the US, it was simple and easy to understand.
“Trump’s comms skills are some of the best comms skills you’ll ever see a major politician ever have because he knows how to speak to America,” Nunberg said. “He’s not interested in being lawyerly or political.”
While there’s a major swath of voters who despise Trump, he retains a loyal base that feels personally invested in him, in part because of who he is as a person.
In contrast, DeSantis is more policy-oriented, Nunberg said. As DeSantis has gotten more attention, several news outlets have reported comments from sources who say he’s a social misfit. That’s something Trump supporters are quick to point out.
“He’s not likable,” Bruesewitz said. “And it’s going to be difficult when you go to these grassroots meetings and you’re trying to get people to like you.”
Anuzis, however, said that humor can sometimes backfire because it may “belittle the office and the seriousness of the situation.” Voters may be in a place in 2024 in which they’re looking for “sanity, calmness, and strength of leadership,” he said.
DeSantis doesn’t crack many jokes when he’s at a podium. He starts on time, takes a victory lap over his accomplishments, and comes with prepared remarks. When hard questions come, he’s ready for them.
“They are very different candidates in terms of charisma,” Nunberg said. “You’re not going to have your socks knocked off with Ron DeSantis, you’re just not. And you have to accept that.”
But DeSantis can still shape how voters see his personality. Spicer described DeSantis as a “fun guy,” recounting a game of catch, darts, and a golf cart race with the governor after a Newsmax town hall.
“We know what we get with President Trump,” he said. “You have to have been living under a rock to not know what you’re going to get. DeSantis is still new.”
On the media: Personal v. explaining
Trump and DeSantis both know how to effectively use and criticize the media.
But that’s where the comparisons on their press strategies end.
“They might have the same 50,000-foot approach, but when you get down to 1,000 feet you realize there are big differences,” Spicer said.
Trump got significant free air time in 2016, when cable news outlets would air his rallies in full. He criticized major news outlets as “fake news,” and when he got to the White House he insulted reporters viciously and personally.
Despite all this, Trump sat down with mainstream outlets and even with authors who wrote books about him — no matter how scathing they turned out to be. And he keeps doing it.
“He’s very direct in saying whatever he wanted to say about the media, which at times really turned people off and then also made the media mad at him because they didn’t feel like he was respectful,” Carroll said. “But they had access.”
In contrast, DeSantis’ sit-down interviews are more limited to conservative press, though after Hurricane Ian he interviewed with CNN and local outlets. He appears often on Fox News, which receives exclusives of major announcements.
Yet there is one way DeSantis is accessible: When he holds press conferences he answers questions even if they are off topic. And his team also livestreams the exchanges and posts them to social media. That means even national outlets that don’t have correspondents in Florida can tune in.
During these events, DeSantis can sometimes have tense exchanges with reporters — but they’re on the substance of their question rather than who they are as a person. One CBS “60 Minutes” response debunking a story about his COVID vaccine rollout went viral.
“When he takes on the media he’s calling them out, but he does it in a way in which rather than personalize he says, ‘That’s not true. Here are the facts,’ and puts them in their place,” Anuzis said.
Carroll said she noticed that DeSantis’ communications team will also attack the media for him, including by posting screen shots of press inquiries on Twitter or mocking stories.
“His communications people tend to do it more so than he directly,” Carroll said. “So it gives him more of a cushion in his pushback on the media, having an intermediary.”
According to Ramer, DeSantis’ approach is working to get his name ID out. People in focus groups even in other states such as West Virginia bring up his name as favorite for the 2024 nomination.
But Bruesewitz saw a weakness in DeSantis’ strategy, which he called “calculated” and “theater.”
“It’s all scripted,” he said. “You can’t be scripted in a debate against Donald Trump.”
Then-President Donald Trump campaigns with Ron DeSantis at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, on November 3, 2018.
AP Photo/Butch Dill, File
Voting rigidity v. voting malleability
The way Trump and DeSantis encourage voters to cast their ballots could be crucial to how they perform in a primary.
Trump has trashed mail-in, absentee, and early voting, even during the 2020 presidential election, when the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder for voters to leave their homes. Republican political arms, however, are beginning to concede that they’re at a disadvantage if Democratic voters have more time and can more easily cast their votes.
For instance, at campaign stops during his 2022 reelection, DeSantis urged people to vote early in Florida, even to do so on their way home from that very rally.
At the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in November, DeSantis even pushed Republicans to engage in “ballot harvesting.” The governor was referring to state voting laws that allow third parties to collect and deliver completed ballots on behalf of people who can’t get to polling stations.
In Florida, DeSantis pushed the legislature to limit ballot collection by non-family members. But he said at the Las Vegas-based RJC meeting that Republicans should try to benefit from election laws in other states.
“Whatever the rules are, take advantage of it,” he said.
Tested v. untested
DeSantis won a historic, 19-point victory in Florida on Election Day, all without Trump’s help. It was the one “red wave” Republicans got out of the 2022 midterms.
But whether DeSantis can replicate that success nationally is still an open question, political insiders say.
Carroll said that DeSantis’ Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, wasn’t particularly standout during his time in Congress. He also had been “all over the map” and “was not well trusted” because he used to be a Republican governor, and then an Independent, before settling on the left, she said.
“If DeSantis had run against a candidate that was likable, recognizable, or was more credible, it may have been a different turnout — it could have been the same, but we really have to put it in context in terms of who was running against whom,” she said.
Crist, the Florida Democratic Party, and national Democratic political arms also didn’t put up much of a fight, Bruesewitz said.
“Ron has never been tested,” he said.
Should DeSantis enter the 2024 contest, other GOP candidates are more likely to pile onto him as the runner up so they can try to get head-to-head with first-place Trump. What will it look like when millions of opposition research and ads go into attacking the Florida governor?
As for Trump, it’s widely accepted that his MAGA base isn’t going anywhere. Trump invokes a “deep-rooted personal connection,” Nunberg said. “It’s something you rarely see.” They’ve followed him through numerous personal, legal, and political scandals, and perhaps even a pending indictment.
“He has a base that’s unquestioned, that has stuck with him through thick and thin for the past six years,” Ballard said.
While a few news outlets have described Trump as “diminished,” Ramer from the Republican Accountability Project said it was still possible for the former president to get stronger ahead of the 2024 election. He noticed in focus groups that Republicans were souring a bit on Trump during the Select Committee’s hearings about January 6, because it reminded them of all the baggage that came with his presidency. But after the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, there was a “rally-around-Trump” effect.
Whether it be DeSantis or anyone else, the ex-president is unmatched in getting away with scandals that would torpedo most people’s political careers.
“He was a one-of-a-kind politician in our generation,” Anuzis said.