The Weak Horse.

John Ellis
6 min readMay 29, 2023

Ron DeSantis says that Donald Trump is a loser and that the time has come for Republican primary voters and caucus attenders to leave him behind and get on with the task of winning elections. This is an odd way to address Trump voters, to put it mildly. You’re-a-loser-if-you-keep-voting-for-that-loser is not a winning message.

Polls reflect this. For a time after the 2022 mid-term elections, it appeared that DeSantis would emerge as the Savior, the one who could defeat Trump while holding “the base.” Those hopes were quickly dashed by Trump’s announcement of candidacy, and the ineptitude of the DeSantis political operation’s response. “Trump is still our guy” was the base’s verdict. “DeSantis is not ready for prime time” was the press’s verdict. The latter judgement was not unfair.

In the wake of DeSantis’s cliff-dive in national and key state polls, the DeSantis campaign has doubled down on “Loser Don” and introduced the new-and-improved Retail Ron, who actually shakes hands, flips burgers and smiles at voters. In addition, a pro-DeSantis super PAC called Never Back Down, shared with reporters from The New York Times its plans for a super-duper high-tech/low-tech “ground game” capable of reaching every possible GOP caucus attender in Iowa “five times” and every New Hampshire primary voter “four times.” It could build this organizational behemoth, the Never Back Downers said, because it had raised (and continues to raise) so much money from so many rich people there was no counting it all.

All of this bluster and mega-bucks triumphalism feels a lot like the bluster and triumphalism of the John Connally for president campaign in 1979. Mr. Connally was, as the song goes, a “long tall Texan,” ready to vanquish the aging Reagan, who the press portrayed as unelectable and well past his sell-by date. Like DeSantis, Connally had boatloads of money, supposedly strong political support in the Sunbelt and a (manufactured) aura of inevitability. His time had come. Reagan’s best days were behind him. All the voters needed to do was sign off.

GOP primary voters and caucus-attenders didn’t sign off. It turned out Reagan’s best days were ahead of him. He went on to win the 1980 election by 10 percentage points, the 1984 election by 18 percentage points and in 1988, Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected president with 54 percent of the vote. John Connally disappeared from public consciousness. His campaign for president is mostly remembered for one Ada Mills, of Arkansas, who briefly became famous for being the $11 million delegate; the one and only Connally delegate to the 1980 Republican National Convention. (In the event, when the roll was called, she voted for someone else).

Ron DeSantis runs the risk of replicating Connally’s unravelling. No longer competitive in national surveys of GOP primary voters and caucus-attenders (he trails Trump by an average of ~33 percentage points), DeSantis finds himself at the mercy of the calendar. Specifically, he needs to win or come close (single digits) in Iowa and/or New Hampshire to have any hope of continuing on as a viable presidential candidate.

If DeSantis loses Iowa by 20 points, and New Hampshire by 15, that’s not progress, that’s it; game over, Trump wins. (See Mark Halperin’s note for more on this). There is no comeback trail in South Carolina, which follows New Hampshire on the calendar. Tim Scott, the Palmetto State’s other GOP Senator, is the best not-Trump option there.

Sen. Scott’s candidacy is more attractive than what DeSantis is currently offering. Scott is upbeat, optimistic, well-liked, glad to see you. You want him to succeed because it would be great if he did. DeSantis is grim, annoyed, not glad to see you. Peggy Noonan captured this perfectly in a recent column:

I got an interesting note about him the other day from the veteran political operative Alex Castellanos. He said the problem for Mr. DeSantis is not that he’s unlikable: “The problem for Ron is worse. It’s that he does not like us.”

The DeSantis campaign says that none of this matters; that GOP voters are looking for a viable alternative, someone who can beat Biden, someone ready to advance a populist agenda successfully, someone who will slay the woke dragons. The problem is, at the moment anyway, most GOP primary voters and caucus attenders don’t see any pressing need for a “viable alternative.” Trump remains their “murder weapon” of choice. As Charles Murray put it on Twitter, years ago:

“One of the things that struck me most [among Twitter users who engaged me] were people who say, ‘You don’t understand. We don’t particularly like Donald Trump. We are not defending his character, or anything like that. He’s our murder weapon. And I think that is a pretty short and accurate way of saying what function Trump served.”

And continues to serve.

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Does anyone really think that Joe Biden is the only Democrat who can defeat Donald Trump. Does anyone really think that Joe Biden can defeat Donald Trump? I understand why the Biden White House keeps pushing the “only Joe” message. It’s a (sort of) clever way of shutting down any possible primary challenge. You can’t run against Joe because only Joe can slay The Rough Beast. That’s the pitch.

But it’s not true. This from The Washington Post/ABC News Poll, published on May 7th:

When asked who they would support in 2024, 44 percent of voting-age adults say they would “definitely” or “probably” vote for Trump while 38 percent would definitely or probably vote for Biden. The remaining 18 percent are either undecided or gave another answer.

12 days later, The Harvard Harris Poll reported similar results:

Trump now beats Biden in a 2024 general election by 7 points, 47–40.

What’s important in these results is Biden’s weakness, not Trump’s lead. Statistically speaking, ~60% of the general electorate would prefer someone, anyone, other than Biden. Roughly 40 percent are supposedly “for” him. I would guess that a significant percentage of that 40% is “for” him only because the alternatives are unacceptable. Biden by himself is an exceptionally weak candidate for re-election. Which is why he frames the choice as “consider the alternative.”

It’s worth remembering that if Biden and Trump end up tied in the national popular vote (or if Trump is slightly ahead or behind), Trump will win in the Electoral College by a comfortable margin. That’s the way the system works. The Electoral College is almost perfectly designed, inadvertently, to augment Republican strength.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Trump beat her in the Electoral College by a comfortable margin. In 2020, Biden won the national popular vote by 7 million votes. He barely won in the Electoral College. Barely.

There’s a very 1979/1980 feel about 2023/2024. Inflation is a fact of everyday life, whether it’s the price of eggs, gasoline, or “durable goods.” Americans are being held hostage, this time in Russia. Russia is mired in a deranged war of choice. There’s a strong sense that nothing works anymore and that America’s best days are behind it. Meanwhile, the president (Carter then, Biden now) was/is seen as weak, ineffectual, not up to the task.

Carter, at least, was smart. And sharp. And also (relatively) young and vigorous. Biden is not nearly as smart, not nearly as sharp and undeniably old and frail. His mental acuity will not improve over the course of the next 18 month. And he will only grow more frail.

The notion that he and he alone can beat Trump is debatable, at least. The wackier notion that he will certainly defeat Trump is ludicrous. At the moment, Trump is either a 50–50 or 60–40 bet to win the presidency in 2024 if he’s running against Biden. The underlying reason is straightforward. As Osama bin Laden put it once: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Biden, not Trump, is the weak horse.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.