Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the early front-runner in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, but lawmakers and strategists warn this can sometimes be the “death knell” for a candidate, pointing to other early presidential front-runners who flamed out despite high expectations.
Experts say there are a variety of lessons for DeSantis to learn from those early front-runners who failed to live up to potential, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who was too cautious and suffered from a perceived lack of energy in 2016, or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) who got bogged down in a mudslinging match in Iowa.
Some pundits are warning DeSantis could peak too soon, as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did before the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Or they warn he could make the mistake of waiting until the Florida primary to fully deploy his effort and resources, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did in 2008 GOP primary — at which point Giuliani fell too far behind his rivals to catch up.
“People flame out. It’s too early to know who’s actually going to be in contention, but he’s certainly had a successful election and he’s a strong candidate from a big, important state, so you can’t discount him,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of DeSantis, who won reelection in November with 59 percent of the vote.
Many Republicans see DeSantis as their best shot to win the 2024 presidential election, but Cornyn quipped that being early the front-runner means “you’re the main spear-catcher” as rivals train their hostile fire at the leader of the pack.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said being the front-runner was “the death knell to people like Jeb Bush.”
He said he thinks the political circumstances surrounding DeSantis are different compared to Bush but added: “Right now in this political environment, nothing would surprise me.”
David Paleologos, the director of the political research center at Suffolk University, who conducted a poll last month showing that 61 percent of GOP and GOP-leaning voters prefer DeSantis over former President Trump, said the Florida governor faces an array of potential pitfalls if he runs for president.
“The second-tier candidates have an incentive to make their No. 1 target DeSantis because they know the alt-Trump candidate in the Republican primary is the better and stronger choice in the general election,” he said.
He said early presidential front-runners in past elections have made the mistake of sitting on their lead in the polls and not competing aggressively enough in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — likening it to a football team that plays a “prevent defense” in the final minutes of the game to protect its lead against big plays but winds up giving its opponent too soft a cushion.
“What happens is the candidates take a defensive posture. It’s like if you’re leading in a football game, your strategy is vastly different than if you’re trailing,” he said, adding that the team that’s playing from behind will be more aggressive, creative and scrappy.
“Pollsters for people who are the front-runners are advising accordingly, saying you don’t need to engage, you don’t need to respond, you don’t need to give any oxygen to the second-tier candidate,” he said, warning that over time that strategy can let an opponent build up too much momentum.
Strategists say DeSantis could learn from various early front-runners who flamed out early in the past.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 2015-2016
Bush announced in July of 2015 that he had raised more than $114 million for his campaign and an affiliated super PAC, far more than any of his Republican presidential rivals.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll from the summer of 2015 showed him at the front of the pack with 22 percent support among GOP primary voters, followed by Walker at 17 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 14 percent.
Trump had the backing of a meager 1 percent of Republican primary voters polled — tying him at the time with Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
Bush, however, went on to win only 2.8 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, 11 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and 7.8 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary.
One of the low points of the campaign came in New Hampshire, where he implored a sleepy audience to “please clap.” Another came when Trump mocked him at a debate for steadily losing public support and getting positioned farther and farther away from the center of the debate stage.
“I just think he was cautious. I think he was being overly defensive and cautious,” Paleologos said of Bush. “His skillset and the age of his advisers was much more seasoned and discounted the potential for someone else to come in and steal the nomination away.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 2015
Doug Schoen, a political consultant who advised former President Clinton and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign, warned in an op-ed for The Hill last month that DeSantis needs to be wary of the peril of peaking too soon.
Schoen wrote that DeSantis needs to worry about a “worsening affordability crisis” in Florida driven by rising property insurance and energy costs and — like Walker was in 2016 — is untested on the national stage.
Walker led the Republican pack of presidential hopefuls in Iowa in January of 2015, according to a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll.
A Monmouth University poll in July of 2015 showed him still leading the field in Iowa with 22 percent support. Trump was running in second place with 13 percent support in the same poll.
But Walker would wind up dropping out of the race only a few months later after he failed to show any charisma or pizzazz in two debates and got tagged with a reputation of being boring.
Walker also wound up committing a few painful gaffes, such as when he refused to talk about his views of evolution during a trip to London or say whether he thought then-President Obama was a Christian.
O’Connell recalled, “Scott walked into a big round of donors and they were like, ‘This man just not have the right temperament.’”
He said big donors “are looking for chops and also looking for personality.”
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 2007-2008
A Gallup poll in February of 2007 showed Giuliani leading the Republican field with 40 percent support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, easily outdistancing then-Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who had the support of 24 percent of Republican voters.
Giuliani was still the national front-runner in November of 2007, but he adopted an unorthodox and ultimately unsuccessful strategy of keeping his powder dry until the Florida primary, where he hoped to rack up enough delegates to leap ahead of his rivals.
The former New York politician was worried his abortion stance would be a liability with conservative voters and made only modest efforts to perform well in those early states.
By the time Florida held its primary on Jan. 29, 2008, Giuliani was no longer seen as the front-runner or even all that competitive. He finished in a distant third place with 14.7 percent of the vote — well behind McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“When you look at who actually wins, six out of the last seven presidents were people who ‘couldn’t win,’” said Republican strategist Chip Saltsman.
“We always have these inevitable conversations about inevitable front-runners a year or two years out, it’s just what we do. When you look at it, very few people who are ahead at the very beginning of the race actually run the tables.”
Saltsman, who managed Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Republican presidential campaign, said Giuliani didn’t go all-out in the early states because “he was pro-choice and didn’t think he could get through Iowa and South Carolina being the pro-choice candidate.”
He said the Giuliani staff “were spending all their time in Florida in September, October, November and December and we were slugging it out in the frozen tundra of Iowa.”
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, 2003-2004
Probably the most memorable meltdown of a presidential front-runner was the implosion of Dean’s campaign in the 2004 Iowa caucuses, encapsulated by the infamous “Dean scream” after he finished in a disappointing third place.
Dean was dominating the Democratic field only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses with 23 percent support among registered voters nationwide, according to a CBS News poll conducted in mid-December 2003.
He was well ahead of Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who tied for second place with 10 percent support. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) trailed in the singled digits with 6 percent, 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Dean still had a comfortable lead in early January 2004, two weeks before the Iowa contest, with 24 percent support among registered Democrats nationwide, while Clark had 20 percent support and Kerry had 11 percent support.
But Dean got bogged down in a nasty negative ad war with Gephardt, whom he viewed as his toughest competitor in Iowa, and both candidates wound up annihilating each other, creating a pathway for Kerry to win the caucuses and Edwards to finish in second.
“They were really going all on TV against each other and we just came right up the middle and had so much momentum and Edwards followed in our wake,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who was a senior adviser to Kerry’s campaign.
“By the time we got to caucus night, Dean and Gephardt were gone,” he said. “Gephardt got out of the race and Dean gave a speech that essentially ended his candidacy.”