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Rachel Schilke, Breaking News Reporter


NextImg:Choosing a lane: How independent voters could affect a DeSantis presidential campaign

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), without giving any indication that he is entering the 2024 presidential race, has gained national attention from Republicans hoping to usher in a new era of politics.

If he enters, he will face off against former President Donald Trump, who has emerged as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. DeSantis will not only face the challenge of appealing to MAGA Republicans but will also need the support of a major voting bloc: independents who don’t know which candidate, or which party, they want to see in the White House.

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FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature on Thursday, April 13, approved a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a proposal supported by DeSantis as he prepares for an expected presidential run. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)

Polls looking at the Florida governor’s support among independents varies, with trends indicating it's slowly growing. While an Emerson College poll showed 51% of independents across the U.S. disapproved of DeSantis, a more recent Mason Dixon Poll of Florida voters found the percentage of those who disapproved of the Florida governor decreased to 38%.

While polling right now may be leaning one way or the other, Republican strategist Jamie Miller said numbers will reflect the headlines, depending on what is in the news that particular day or month.

However, Miller said there are several other indicators that people should pay attention to besides polling when it comes to DeSantis.

“When the rubber meets the road, you have to look at elections,” Miller said. “I mean, DeSantis had a historic, 19-point win election.”

One of the most memorable parts of the 2022 midterm elections was DeSantis’s victory in Miami-Dade County, a historically blue county that had not flipped Republican since 2002. He also won similar counties, such as Broward and Palm Beach Counties, cementing his win against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D), who ran against him.

“That was a historic win, and you don’t win by 19 points in Florida without winning all Republicans, no matter how you want to categorize them,” Miller said. “However you want to define a Republican, he won them all."

Moving onto the national stage

However, the next step for DeSantis is to break from the state and see whether he can replicate his 2022 state win at the national level. For that, Florida may be one of the governor's biggest assets.

The Mason Dixon poll found 59% of respondents approved of DeSantis’s job as governor — a number that shocked pollster director Brad Coker but didn’t necessarily surprise him.

Very few governors have had an approval rating that high, Coker said, which he says gets overlooked when looking at DeSantis through the “prism of a presidential candidacy.”

“If you’re asking how he’s performing as governor, that’s a little bit of a different angle. Even his critics will say he’s been able to accomplish things — and they may not necessarily agree with the things he’s done," Coker said. "He’s doing things as governor, and he’s keeping his promise."

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) signs the Heartbeat Protection Act into law on April 13, 2023.

DeSantis ran his reelection campaign on stricter abortion laws, fewer gun control restrictions, and a crackdown on several areas within education. Last week, he signed a six-week abortion ban, one of the strictest rules in the country.

He said DeSantis’s ability to reach such a high job performance is a testament to his ability to reach conservative-leaning independents and turn them away from the extreme nature of Trump while maintaining their support of the GOP.

“You don’t get to 59% unless you get a lot of independents to vote for you,” Coker said.

However, winning independent voters on the national level is vastly different than gaining the support of independent voters in a state like Florida, where they are referred to as No Party Affiliates (NPAs) and cannot vote in a primary.

In other states, where independents are allowed to vote in primaries, it will come down to the personalities and popularity of the candidates, which will only grow harder to decide between as lanes shift from Trump and DeSantis as the top contenders to other GOP hopefuls. In Virginia and North Carolina, for example, voters are not required to register with a party but must select a party's ballot.

From there, DeSantis will have to convince independent voters to choose him over Trump, which may prove difficult given Trump's popularity and infamous behavior, despite his recent legal troubles.

“Does DeSantis ever reach a point where he pops into the third lane? Maybe, I don’t think so, because I think he has the money and the team to compete and keep a lane to himself,” Miller said. “It’s just having the megaphone of being the governor of Florida.”

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "stop woke" bill during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., April 22, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP, File)

DeSantis’s strength, Miller said, is that he has room to grow as a candidate and as a politician, whereas Trump may have already hit his ceiling.

“The positive and negative for Trump is that people know him. What you see is what you get,” Miller said, pointing to a number of Republicans wanting to go a different direction. “He does have a ceiling, but his floor is the largest, as well. There’s a certain number of people who just are not going to go away from him, and especially those voters who became voters because of Donald Trump, those folks are never leaving him.”

“DeSantis is kind of the opposite,” Miller continued. “His floor is a little lower, but he has a lot of room to grow. Trump has a ceiling, I believe that DeSantis can exceed that ceiling.”

When comparing DeSantis to Trump, he said Trump focuses more on what he would have done with a win in 2020 versus what he is going to do if he is elected president in 2024.

“[DeSantis] is at least saying, ‘Look at what I’m doing in Florida. And these are the things I would like to bring to the national stage,’” Miller said.

DeSantis’s chances of branching out of Florida and having that same appeal to voters as he does in his home state all depends on the Democratic nominee, too, Miller added.

“If Ron DeSantis is able to build the coalition that he built in Florida and apply it to some of these, what some of these people would say ‘safe Democrat states,’ they may not be that safe,” Miller said.


Building a campaign separate from Trump

Many strategists agreed that there are a few states where DeSantis may have more luck swaying independent voters to his cause than Trump, who lost several states by significant margins in 2020.

The problem with DeSantis, Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said, is that he has not done enough to separate himself from Trump that would appeal to swing voters.

“For instance, to condemn Trump’s indictment and arrest, and general behavior, that would be a great way to appeal to independent swing voters,” Bannon said.

However, DeSantis has not. He, like many other Republican lawmakers, blasted the decision of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to bring criminal charges against the former president. The governor went so far as to say Florida would not assist with the extradition of Trump from Mar-a-Lago to New York.

Breaking with Trump and establishing himself as the rising GOP alternative could also affect the race on the national level. Bannon said DeSantis appeals to less conservative Republicans who want to see Biden lose, but either do not want another four years of Trump in the White House or know that the former president cannot defeat Biden.

“Trump has too much baggage. Legal, personal,” he said. “He’s facing a year of court proceedings. I think he’s just damaged goods to independent voters. DeSantis has a better chance with them.”

Another problem DeSantis faces is his inability to showcase how his policies differ from Trump, Bannon said. Since Trump entered the 2024 presidential race, speculation surrounding DeSantis rose immediately, with people anticipating that the Florida governor would be his biggest competitor.

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DeSantis has not entered the race, and he has kept all comments regarding Trump’s constant barrage of his character minimal, instead pointing to his successes as governor. However, Bannon said this could damage him in the long run if he does not prove to independent voters, particularly Republican primary voters, which candidate to vote for.

“DeSantis is afraid to do that because he’s afraid of alienating Trump voters who vote in Republican primaries,” he said. “DeSantis has to decide whether to fish or cut bait with Trump.”