When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in February that he hoped Gov. Ron DeSantis would run for president, it opened up the DeSantis campaign to comparisons with Bush’s failed run for president in 2016.
Both men were twice elected Florida governor and entered the race with lots of cash and buzz. And they both experienced declining poll numbers as the summer approached.
The Trump campaign has repeatedly made the comparison. A Trump campaign mailer in June portrayed DeSantis’ campaign logo as Ron!, in the fashion of Bush’s infamous Jeb! logo that received widespread mockery in 2016. In April, Trump shared a Truth Social post claiming that the Bushes were running against him through DeSantis as a proxy candidate.
The political environment DeSantis finds himself in is worlds apart from 2016. Trump, no longer a political outsider, faces multiple criminal indictments but a strong base of support that has transformed the Republican Party and uprooted the moderate, establishment party politics that Bush represented.
It’s also early in the race. And unlike the 2016 primary, which saw multiple candidates dip in and out of the top three spots, the 2024 primary so far has been a two-person race between DeSantis and Trump.
”Some people think that DeSantis needs to be leading in the polls in July of 2023,” said Justin Sayfie, a policy adviser and spokesperson for Bush during his time as governor. “You need to start winning in January and February of 2024. There’s a long way to go.”
Here’s what’s similar and different about the Florida governors’ presidential bids.
A fall from grace
When Utah Sen. Mitt Romney announced in early 2015 that he would not seek the presidency for a third time, many saw Bush, who had signaled interest in running, as the clear establishment-backed candidate for the job.
A two-term governor of a swing state and member of a political dynasty that had already produced two U.S. presidents, Bush was seen as an early favorite to dethrone the Democrats after eight years in the executive.
Early polling confirmed that sentiment: Bush led the pack or was neck and neck with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in polling for the first half of 2015. Some geared up for a political dynasty matchup between the Clintons and Bushes that would “bore everyone to tears,” Politico wrote.
Still, some worried that the mild-mannered Bush, then seven years removed from holding office, wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny and intensity that come with a presidential campaign.
And many pointed out that Bush had issues he would need to square with GOP voters, like his brother’s legacy in the White House and his more moderate positions on immigration. George W. Bush, the two-term president and older brother to Jeb, reportedly responded “me” when asked about the biggest issues facing his brother’s campaign.
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While DeSantis did not enter the race with such baggage, he also came in with less name recognition. And unlike Bush, DeSantis has never been considered the front-runner for the nomination.
According to the news and polling website FiveThirtyEight, DeSantis polled highest in early January at 40%, just two points behind former President Donald Trump. He has steadily declined since then, sitting at around 20% now, 30 points behind Trump.
Bush, too, saw his numbers fall from their highest point in the spring of 2015. By July, Trump, then considered a political outsider, had overtaken Bush as the party’s front-runner.
Rolling in cash
Bush and DeSantis have been fundraising juggernauts. Bush’s Super PAC raked in $100 million in six months, and the campaign brought in over $11 million just 16 days after Bush officially announced his candidacy.
DeSantis’ presidential campaign raised $8.2 million in the first 24 hours after he officially joined the race, and raised about $20 million in the month and a half following his announcement. A super PAC backing his bid has said it raised about $130 million in the second quarter of the year, about $82.5 million of which was transferred from a state committee that had leftover funds after supporting his reelection as governor.
Bush relied on his family’s connections to the White House and name recognition for donations. DeSantis has experienced a rapid political rise based partially on his relationship to Trump, a bridge that has since burned. And he now relies on his own branding as a crusader against “woke,” eager to take on issues tied to race, diversity and gender identity; and a governor who wants to make the United States more like Florida.
Dealing, or not dealing, with Trump
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said DeSantis and Bush have reputations for being awkward.
“Neither of these two guys have seemed like they’re particularly well suited for retail politics,” Jewett said. “Jeb is a very smart guy and a policy wonk. But he was not real comfortable shaking hands and kissing babies. And now that’s one of the complaints about DeSantis.”
The candidates’ uncomfortable public speaking — rigid at times, awkward at others — and messaging have stood in stark contrast to Trump’s brash and showy approach. And for Bush, Trump’s “low-energy Jeb” label stuck.
There were also Trump’s incessant attacks that Bush and DeSantis had to deal with, and both men generally took more punches from Trump than they dealt. Aside from a feud between Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush largely focused on his own agenda instead of taking aim at other Republicans.
DeSantis has walked a tightrope by criticizing Trump and simultaneously trying to appease his base. In South Carolina last week, DeSantis said that Trump should have done more to stop the Jan. 6 rioters and then pivoted to talking points about the “weaponization” of the Justice Department.
Different bases, different candidates
Brad Coker, CEO of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy in Jacksonville, said people are reaching when comparing the candidates.
“They started from different positions and they’re filling different lanes,” Coker said. “Their objectives are completely different in terms of what they have to do to be successful over the long haul.”
Bush’s role in the Republican Party hinged on his success in the 2016 primaries. And in the beginning of 2016, Bush had the worst favorability rating among the Republican candidates.
Bush exited the race after a disappointing finish in the early state of South Carolina. Observers could point to several moments when the Bush campaign started to unravel.
Among the most notable are Bush’s struggle to give clear answers to questions related to the Iraq War launched by his brother, comments about the federal government spending too much money on women’s health, the Jeb! logo and his underwhelming performances in presidential debates.
Although Bush held moderately conservative views on fiscal policy and social issues, his more progressive positions on overhauling immigration laws and education reform separated him from an increasingly conservative voting base.
There was also, perhaps, the larger issue of a Republican base ready to move on from the establishment that Bush represented.
“He was not a populist candidate, and that’s what the voters of the party wanted at that time,” Sayfie said. “There’s nothing Jeb Bush could have done differently to have won that campaign.”
The GOP has changed dramatically since 2016, in large part because of Trump’s populist approach that voters began to prefer over moderate party politics during that time.
DeSantis, though, seems to be more in tune with the new Republican base, Jewett said. He’s in lockstep with most conservative policy across the board — especially in places where Bush wasn’t, like immigration and education. DeSantis has reportedly pitched himself to conservative donors as Trump without the drama.
And his political career doesn’t have to end if he loses in 2024.
“I don’t think he’s done anything that has just totally burned bridges with Trump supporters,” Jewett said. “He’ll be back … even if he loses.”
Times senior political writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.