Amid a national discussion about whether President Joe Biden is too old to pursue a reelection bid in 2024, commentators and journalists have floated a number of hypothetical general election matchups in the event that he does not run. Prominent among these potential scenarios is a contest between Vice President Kamala Harris and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Political observers and experts, including senior figures within Republican Party politics, have expressed a range of views to The Epoch Times about the governor’s prospects in such a race, with some praising his economic record in Florida and others arguing that DeSantis still needs to do considerable work to build appeal and name recognition outside Florida on par with the current vice president.
Harris’s supporters within the mainstream media have dismissed characterizations of her tenure as vice president as largely undistinguished and devoid of real accomplishments, and have argued that she will be a strong candidate in 2024 if Biden turns out not to run. In a July 11 MSNBC segment titled “Harris, despite wave of critical media coverage, still beats DeSantis in 2024 polling,” host Joe Scarborough acknowledged that 64 percent of Democrat voters want a candidate other than Biden to be the party’s nominee in 2024.
Scarborough contended that if Harris ends up as the nominee, then in spite of daily negative headlines about her, Harris will easily defeat either former president Donald Trump or Governor DeSantis in the general election.
Calling DeSantis, derisively, “the great white hope,” Scarborough suggested that, for all DeSantis’s popularity among some resentful white voters, polling results show Harris beating DeSantis in head-to-head matchups. Scarborough alluded to, but did not name, recent surveys such as a Harvard University Center for American Political Studies (CAPS) poll finding that Harris commands the support of 39 percent of voters in a hypothetical matchup and DeSantis 37 percent, with 23 percent still undecided.
The poll results notwithstanding, DeSantis has drawn national attention in recent weeks. On the heels of his office’s release of highly positive economic figures for Florida in 2022, with unemployment standing at 3.2 percent in March—0.4 percentage points below the national rate—and 325,000 jobs added between March 2021 and March 2022, DeSantis was the subject of a lengthy June 20 profile in the New Yorker. The profile characterized DeSantis as an intelligent and hard-working rising star within the GOP, while taking him to task for his stance on COVID-19 and other issues.
DeSantis has many critics, and for some, the results of the CAPS poll offer grounds for dismissing criticisms of Harris’s record as well as DeSantis’s prospects in a general election.
“What these polls show us is that, as unpopular as Vice President Harris may seem to be, Ron DeSantis is even more unpopular. The same can be seen with President Biden and the fact that his favorability is very low, yet he would still beat Donald Trump in a head-to-head election,” said David Carlucci, a former New York state senator who follows national political trends.
“What this tells you is that the current political climate is more about who you’re against rather than who you are for. We can expect U.S. political leaders to continue to have higher and higher negative polling numbers and still be viable to win,” Carlucci added.
For other observers, MSNBC is simply finding results that fit its confirmation bias and have little applicability to an actual contest between the vice president and Florida’s governor.
“The MSNBC polls are meaningless. It’s far too early for predictions to be credible. To be frank, MSNBC and the rest of the mainstream media see themselves as political actors, working for the Democratic Party,” said Charles Steele, chair of the Department of Economics, Business, and Accounting at Hillsdale College.
“Kamala Harris was the least popular candidate in the 2020 Democrat primaries and the first to drop. Her speaking style is bizarre and her comments vacuous. If she were to run against someone articulate, such as DeSantis, she would lose,” Steele said.
But Steele is not sold on the idea that Harris will be the party’s nominee in the first place if Biden does not seek reelection.
“I will be very surprised if she receives the Democratic nomination. The Democrats have a number of stronger candidates, such as Gavin Newsom, Pete Buttigieg, or even Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez,” he said.
Does Harris Bank on a Weak Opponent?
If Harris is the Democrat candidate, Steele does not expect her to fare well against an articulate Republican, whether turns out to be Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, or Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.
“Harris’s best hope would be if the Republicans were to run an establishment candidate such as a Jeb Bush or John Kasich,” Steele added.
Other observers note the razor-thin margin given to Harris even in polls, such as the CAPS survey, projecting a Harris win. They argue that this tiny margin means little so far in advance of the 2024 election and may be a fleeting result of voters’ familiarity with a candidate they saw on the debate stage in 2020.
“There is no polling that shows Kamala Harris with a decisive lead. The most recent polling shows Harris with a 2-point lead over DeSantis (Harvard/Harris and Yahoo News). But Harris has a significant name recognition advantage over DeSantis due to being VP and campaigning in 2020,” said Keith Naughton, a political consultant.
Biden’s handling of the economy, and the current economic woes afflicting Americans, namely record 9.1 percent inflation and a bearish stock market, are unlikely to help Harris even if she is not directly responsible for them, he suggested.
“Vice presidents normally get saddled with all the bad news from the incumbent administration and get less credit. Anyone claiming Kamala Harris is a shoo-in over Ron DeSantis in 2024 is engaging in pure propaganda,” Naughton said.
Former Florida GOP Chief Weighs In
Van B. Poole, a former member of Florida’s state senate and former chair of the Florida Republican Party who today works as a political consultant, does not entertain the idea that DeSantis’s name recognition is limited to Florida and that he will be harder to sell to voters nationally. Poole, who spoke to The Epoch Times from his current residence in Montana, is in agreement with Steele that much of DeSantis’s appeal has to do with the perception that he is far from a run-of-the-mill, establishment candidate.
“I’m out here now in Montana, and people are constantly asking me about DeSantis. They like what they hear, and what he’s saying, and they think he’s doing a great job taking on the establishment,” Poole told The Epoch Times.
Poole recalled a conversation he had last year with one of DeSantis’s chiefs of staff, who told Poole that, in contrast to some governors who tend not to favor frequent press conferences, DeSantis confers with his staff five or six times a day about potential opportunities.
“I think his strong suit is that he’s not a ‘yes man,’ he thinks ahead, he’s not scared to take a strong position and face the consequences that go with it. Look at his record on COVID and on schools. People really respect him,” Poole said, alluding to DeSantis’s refusal to lock down most of Florida when other governors were imposing highly restrictive pandemic measures, as well as his backing of Florida’s controversial parental rights in education bill banning the instruction of children in kindergarten through third grade in matters related to gender identity and sexual orientation.
“So many states got very cautious, with all the shutdowns, and DeSantis just felt that that’s the worst thing you can do. We’re going to kill our economy [with lockdowns] and people need to work, and they will be careful,” Poole said.
Poole views DeSantis’s stance during the pandemic as one of optimism tinged with caution and realism about the need to practice reasonable measures.
“He didn’t lock it down, he just urged caution and staying healthy, taking care of yourself, washing your hands a lot, and keeping your distance. And then there was the controversy about masks, and he played it safe and said, ‘wear the mask, if you don’t you might be taking a chance,’” Poole continued. “He took on the labor unions and the teachers’ union when they were forcing schools to close. He thought it was the safest place to be.”
In Poole’s view, all these aspects of DeSantis’s record make him a strong general election candidate, and his popularity inside and beyond Florida is a trait that Harris conspicuously lacks.
“That’s one thing that the Democrats are extremely weak on—their image—and she’s as unpopular, or more so, than Biden,” Poole said.
Local vs. National Support
A question that will receive ever greater scrutiny in the months to come is DeSantis’s ability, or lack thereof, to parlay his popularity in Florida into a national phenomenon.
Richard Conley, a professor of political science at the University of Florida and the author of several books about U.S. politics, holds little doubt about DeSantis’s standing in his home state, but his views about the governor’s national prospects are nuanced.
“On the whole, I would say DeSantis is very popular here. The question is, does he have the name recognition elsewhere? That’s not clear to me. Going through Mississippi and Alabama as I drove to Colorado, [I found that] the further west you get, the fewer people know about him,” Conley said.
“This is the challenge, if he decides to run, and there seems to be a lot of support in this state for that idea. He takes on the media, he’s a populist like Trump,” Conley added.
Conley noted that American history holds out examples of governors, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, rising to prominence and parlaying their local support into a winning national constituency.
“But does DeSantis have the same recognition, can he get that message across, and what would that message be with the economy in turmoil and the Dow down after the latest inflation reports?” Conley asked.
Yet another complicating factor for DeSantis is the possibility—if not the likelihood—that Donald Trump very much intends to run again in 2024.
“I think that’s the big X factor, whether Trump decides to run. That’s going to be a huge calculation for him, because whether or not you agree with [the findings of] the January 6 hearings in Congress, is that enough to dissuade independents?” Conley asked.
“There’s a lot to be seen in the next few months, and it may help distill what DeSantis decides to do or not do. DeSantis’s appeal comes from, first of all, this cultural issue around education, which has got conservatives and others upset. The pandemic probably prompted a lot of people who ended up staying home for a year or more to pay more attention to the curricula in schools,” he continued.
While Democrats may have made a case for Biden as a politician who would lower the political temperature, Conley sees a potential analogous role for DeSantis.
“If DeSantis can present a coherent message that’s free of vitriol, I would like to see that. We tend to emphasize the sensational and the outrageous, but I think that most Americans, whatever their partisan stripe, value their freedom,” Conley said.
The Epoch Times has reached out to Harris’s and DeSantis’s offices for comment.