Ron DeSantis and the Path to GOP Victory in 2024 | Opinion

Even 21 months out and with only one major candidate officially declared, the idea of a Donald Trump-vs-Ron DeSantis GOP primary showdown is already getting major media play. Other potential candidates, like Nikki Haley, Larry Hogan, Mike Pompeo, and even Mike Pence, could declare or not declare over the coming months, but it really doesn't matter. For the first time in a long time, this open Republican primary isn't "open" in any meaningful way. No, barring anything crazy, the winner will be Trump or DeSantis, and it'll be one of them by a huge margin.

So, assuming the Florida governor eventually declares, the entry or exit of any of those peripheral candidates only matters insofar as they affect the vote total for either of the two Godzillas in the ring. Thanks to his extremely loyal base, Trump has a better shot to pull it off the more candidates who declare. It's what happened in 2016, and it absolutely could happen here if enough stay in the race long enough. Which is likely why Trump welcomed Haley's potential entry while at the same time criticizing DeSantis for being "disloyal." He knows this better than anyone and he doesn't want any real competition.

Even Trump's staunchest supporters have been frustrated with the former president at one point or another throughout his time in politics. Many of his actions during the COVID-19 pandemic were less than stellar, and many things he has said or written since leaving office have been detrimental to his cause, from his constant complaining about the 2020 election to his stubborn insistence that Operation Warp Speed "saved 100 million lives."

On the other hand, Trump's repudiation of and plan to fight gender ideology at the federal level if elected is much bolder than anything we've heard from a presidential candidate yet. Though Trump has a plethora of weaknesses, he also has displayed solid political instincts, and when he follows them—as we witnessed many times during his tenure as president—it can lead to some great places.

It's easy for Trump's base to dismiss critics as "RINOs" or "Never-Trumpers," but I'd wager that if most conservatives could wave a magic wand and give Trump a second term, they certainly would. Even as he approaches 80, he would do a far better job than almost anyone in the potential GOP field and certainly any Democrat. But since that's not possible, winning the Electoral College in a national general election will have to do.

Ron DeSantis
Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 19, 2022. Wade Vandervort / AFP/Getty Images

Except, as we saw in 2020, that's much easier said than done. And despite the smug assurances of the emerging #AlwaysTrump contingent on social media who insist, without a shred of evidence, that their guy is going to "shock the world" just like he did in 2016, it's hard to see a clear path to victory for the former president no matter how hard you look. The math just doesn't work.

In all likelihood, the 2024 race will come down to four swing states: Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Nevada seems to have become a true toss-up of late, but it may not matter. In order to recapture the presidency, Trump or DeSantis must win Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Winning two out of three might be an impressive feat, but it won't result in a victory. Whoever the GOP candidate is must win them all to eke out a razor-thin victory. Razor-thin, but enough.

The question for GOP voters as these primaries unfold is simple: which candidate has a better shot at taking the trifecta of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia in a general election? Is it Trump? Certainly, the rust-belt state of Wisconsin might be a possibility given Trump's positions on trade and ramping up U.S. manufacturing. That, however, still leaves Arizona and Georgia, both of which have had unique issues with MAGA.

Can Trump take Georgia—a state he barely lost in 2020 but has since reelected one of the most left-wing Democratic senators in the country—after openly feuding with its popular GOP governor on both COVID reopenings and the 2020 election? Can he win Arizona, where Republicans fell on their face in 2022 and where the last Republican senators to serve full terms were #NeverTrump icons John McCain and Jeff Flake? A recent Quinnipiac poll showed the former president with a 59 percent disapproval rating nationally, the lowest since 2015. This unfavorability expands to 62 percent among independent voters, a crucial segment in Georgia and especially Arizona.

The Republican presidential nominee will need to walk a narrow, precarious path to victory in 2024, a path that almost certainly runs through Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Donald Trump did many great things during his term as president, but it seems clear that he isn't as equipped to walk this path as a younger, fresher candidate with fewer unfavorables (DeSantis has a 20-point overall advantage over Trump here) and a higher upside. If you're a conservative who understands the desperate need for a victory in 2024, you've got to be hoping that nominee ends up being Ron DeSantis.

Scott Morefield is a writer and opinion columnist for Townhall.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.