Ron DeSantis’s Prisoner’s Dilemma
Notes from the road: Team DeSantis considers the long game and makes the case for nobility—no really.
Hey fam: Tim has been on the trail in Iowa and has some reporting for you in my stead this morning. It’s good stuff. —JVL
1. Convention Madness
As I was crisscrossing Iowa following the third indictment of Donald Trump, I caught wind of a fresh perspective regarding the right time to winnow the field.
The conventional wisdom has always been that Trump’s opponents need to consolidate around the strongest challenger as quickly as possible to avoid dividing the opposition votes. Mitt Romney argued that the drop-dead date should be February 26, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. (My view: Even that might be too late.)
But now at least one of Trump’s opponents is wondering if the frontrunner’s legal troubles could change the calculus and require candidates to stay in for the long haul in order to try and amass delegates in case there is a convention battle because the former president is . . . otherwise indisposed.
“This is about meeting the moment while also thinking long-term,” said a DeSantis super PAC staffer on the condition of anonymity pointing to their massive super PAC war chest.
The long-term game theory takes into consideration what might happen should the January 6th trial move fast enough to prevent Trump from accepting the GOP nomination (I’m lighting a Jack Smith votive candle as we speak). If the legal calendar presents that possibility, might his opponents have to consider earning as many delegates as they can ahead of a convention fight, rather than dropping out of the race once it’s clear they can’t win?
This possibility could be simply the case of consultants with a lot of super PAC dough trying to ride their moneymaker as long as possible. (Which is what one of DeSantis’s rival campaigns’ spokespeople suggested to me.)
But is it so crazy to think that these campaigns might be caught in a prisoner’s dilemma that disincentivizes them from getting out of the race—and thus helping Trump . . . again? Wasn’t that possibility the reason so many anti-Trump Republicans were warning about a big field to begin with?
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A hypothetical: If the early contests offer a muddied result that doesn’t elevate a single challenger above the herd—but also Trump is staring down the barrel of spring court dates—it would not be illogical to assume that candidates would have incentive to stick around and try to earn delegates in the later states where they are allocated proportionally, just in case things get wild in Milwaukee.
This wishcasting candidacy would surely be met with some resistance and mockery, but that hasn’t stopped ambitious politicians before. And let’s be honest, after getting schlonged by a man under multiple federal indictments in the first few contests, the remaining candidates might figure there’s no point in getting out to preserve dignity that, by that point, would be long gone.
I don’t expect that we live in the beautiful timeline where Trump rots in jail while his sycophants fight on the convention floor. But it would be about par for the course for the sweet dream of this possibility to freeze a fragmented field—and help him coast to a third nomination.
2. Ron DeSantis: Noble Warrior
I was chatting with two women in the cafe outside the livestock auction in Tama, Iowa, where DeSantis was about to hold a sparsely attended event when a field staffer from the Never Back Down Super PAC approached us with some commit-to-caucus cards.
Both women were undecided on whom to support at this stage and politely declined, so the young man went into his spiel.
He began by credentialing himself as a former Trump 2020 staffer before offering the case for his candidate. “We shouldn’t have to pick between policy and personality,” he said. (I presume the subtext here is that he thinks DeSantis has both?)
But then it got interesting. He said that Republicans deserve somebody who is “mobile.”
Well, at least, that’s what we heard.
The three of us at the table began laughing and I asked him for clarification. As it turns out this was not a dig at Biden and Trump’s advancing age. He clarified that he was saying that he thought the party deserves someone “noble.”
Now that is an interesting argument we haven’t heard much from Trump’s top-tier opponents! The staffer quickly pivoted to more anodyne talking points about the importance of winning the election because he’s worried his generation is succumbing to socialism. Then he moved on to the next table.
This suggestion that Trump might not be noble has not been something we had been hearing from DeSantis to date, but the candidate did get as close as he has come to making the moral case against his rival the previous day at a town hall in New Hampshire.