Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 8.20.23

What do post-debate numbers say about Ron DeSantis' performance? And was it enough to recharge his campaign?

The first debate of the 2024 GOP Presidential Primary cycle is in the books. Ron DeSantis was the only Florida man on the stage, earning the center spot by performing the best in polls among the candidates who showed up.

But DeSantis’ numbers have been falling consistently since entering the race in May (and even before that). So did he do enough Wednesday night to turn the tide?

Maybe, and maybe not. We’ll get into the Governor’s specific performance in a bit, but let’s take stock of how all of the candidates did now that we’ve got some post-debate numbers to look through.

At first glance on debate night, it seemed like the candidates landed into four categories:

— Most surprising: Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina Governor took an unlikely role as one of the candidates who most forcefully made the case against nominating Donald Trump once again. She also preferred speaking common sense over GOP-friendly talking points on several issues, most notably abortion. Haley stood out as a winner of the night.

Wait, they were there? North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson came into the night as long shots, standing on the outer edges of the stage as the lowest performing candidates. They seem like nice enough men, but really did nothing to distinguish themselves to get a pop in the polls. For the sake of narrowing this race to serious contenders, both men should recognize the obvious and drop out.

Love ’em or hate ’em: Chris Christie, Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy landed in this camp Wednesday. Christie, as expected, forcefully made the case against Trump and had some good lines. But feelings about him are mostly baked in. Pence once again mostly sounded like a robot version of a 1960s politician, delivering several wooden lines. He also obnoxiously interrupted others several different times. But he did get attention during a discussion of his actions on Jan. 6, and was more engaging while dealing with Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy was the most combative. He’s certainly got a following based on recent polls, but he also alienated several people on stage with his aggressiveness and unorthodox policy positions. That may have turned off some moderate voters.

Did they do enough? DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott belong in this latter camp. Scott, like Burgum and Hutchinson, was mostly in the background while on stage. But as a respected Senator, he’s got enough cash and support to continue going forward. It’s not exactly clear how he stands out above the field. But if he’s in until Iowa, his conservative bona fides could give him a solid result there and possibly build some momentum.

DeSantis, meanwhile, was much more forceful during his remarks and hit several policy areas the Republican base cares about (though notably didn’t work in much on his “war on woke,” which has heavily guided his governance in Florida the last few years. He certainly performed better than Scott and didn’t make any major gaffes. That earned him a spot in the winners column below, and we’ll have more to say there.

The use of “lanes” can be overused in analyzing presidential races. But there is clearly a Trump lane (occupied by Trump) and a non-Trump lane. That non-Trump lane seems to consist of more mainstream Republicans ready to move on from Trump, and those who still support outsiders and perhaps want a fresh face and someone to be even more effective than Trump.

DeSantis, through last winter, was doing a good job at uniting those two subgroups, which led him to polling competitively with the former President. But as the Governor let Trump savage him for months unanswered, it seems to have weakened some of that support from the outsider cohort. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ increasingly aggressive agenda in Florida has turned off some mainstream Republicans.

He may yet rebound. But it seems like Ramaswamy is gaining ground among the non-Trump voters who still want an outsider. After Wednesday, Haley may give DeSantis a serious run for the more mainstream wing. It seems like, as of now, those three and Trump are the main contenders for the nomination, though we’ll see if that narrative shifts further following the next debate at the end of September.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.


Honorable mention: DeSantis. Alright, so let’s give DeSantis his credit here. There is plenty of independent polling data showing DeSantis had a good night. A JL Partners Poll showed Ramaswamy and DeSantis in a statistical tie among registered Republicans who watched the debate in terms of who they thought performed best.

FiveThirtyEight also partnered with Ipsos and The Washington Post for a fuller survey featuring data from before and after the debate, to compare how candidates’ support grew or shrunk based on their respective performance.

In that poll, which asked respondents both who performed “best” and “worst,” DeSantis edged Ramaswamy 29%-26% in terms of who viewers thought had the best night. Ramaswamy’s negatives were higher, however, giving DeSantis the best net result of the night.

So why do we put the Governor in the “Did they do enough?” category? Well, that same FiveThirtyEight-Ipsos-Washington Post project showed respondents already expected DeSantis to have a good night. That is, he performed about as expected.

Other numbers reinforced those findings. The pollsters asked respondents before and after the debate to list all candidates they would consider voting for, and individuals could name more than one candidate.

DeSantis’ share went up following the debate, from 63% of respondents saying they’d consider him to 67.5%. That’s as Trump’s share dropped from 66.2% to 61.4%, meaning DeSantis had the largest share of voters willing to back him.

But Haley saw a much larger increase, going from 30.2% pre-debate to 46.7% afterward. That sent her from fifth in the field to third, leapfrogging Ramaswamy and Scott. True, DeSantis’ numbers were already higher, giving him less room to grow. But Haley’s surge was notable.

Still, all around the polling data tells the story that the Governor had a solid night. Surely his political rivals were hoping DeSantis would tank on Wednesday, further solidifying the narrative that his campaign is crumbling. That didn’t happen, and DeSantis deserves credit for holding his own in spite of recent negative headlines.

But on the flip side, DeSantis didn’t have a lot of “wow” moments that stood out. These polls show his message did connect with GOP voters. Yet it’s not clear whether it was enough to reverse a monthslong negative trend.

That is, DeSantis’ night would have been great if he was already the clear favorite. To reverse the overall polling decline, it’s likely he’ll need more standout moments in the months ahead. New poll results in the weeks ahead will show whether he’s on track to do that.

DeSantis’ team is surely happy that so many Republicans are considering voting for him. But once voting starts, people only get to pick one name on the ballot. As of now, DeSantis doesn’t have majority or plurality support when it comes down to it. He certainly stabilized Wednesday night, but likely has more work to do to regain ground he’s recently lost.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Curt Anderson. Anderson, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s main consultant, took an “L” earlier this year after it became apparent Scott had maneuvered himself out of any possible presidential run in 2024.

But it looks like Anderson is going to get a sizable paycheck after all.

Democrats have recruited former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to run for the chance to challenge Scott in the 2024 General Election.

Mucarsel-Powell still has to get through a Democratic Primary, which includes former congressional candidate Phil Ehr and former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. But the Democratic Party has all but overtly endorsed Mucarsel-Powell’s bid. She’s going to rack up plenty of endorsements and cash in the months ahead, and is, as of now, the favorite to face Scott.

As to whether she would mount a serious challenge to the incumbent Senator, that’s still to be determined. Does the 2024 electorate look more like 2018, when Scott narrowly ousted then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in a margin so thin it triggered a recount? Or does it look more like last cycle, where statewide Republicans cleaned up by double digits?

That remains to be seen, but the Democrats recruiting Mucarsel-Powell as a nominee shows they’re willing to fight for this seat. That means money is going to be poured into this contest, and Anderson is going to benefit from that as he looks to keep Scott around for another six years.

The biggest winner: Florida consumers. It’s hurricane season, there’s a possible storm bearing down on Florida, and you’re kicking yourself for missing the disaster preparedness tax holiday earlier this year.

Well, fear not, because Florida is running two such tax holidays this year. And the latest began Saturday and is now ongoing.

Floridians have until Sept. 8 to take advantage of the savings on items such as generators, batteries, radios, paper towels and pet food.

But procrastinators beware: There is no third option this year. Miss this chance, and you’re out of luck until 2024.

The tax holiday is part of a major tax cut package lawmakers approved during the 2023 Session. And this one may have particular importance as forecasters eye a Gulf system that may have Florida in its sights. A state of emergency has been declared for a large chunk of Florida.

These savings are coming at an ideal time, so stock up if you need to.


Dishonorable mention: Francis Suarez. Last week, we touched on the drama surrounding whether the Miami Mayor would end up on the GOP debate stage in Milwaukee and what it might mean for him to have a chance to introduce himself to voters.

Well, the question was answered the day after that column was published, with the Republican National Committee finding Suarez did not meet the threshold in enough qualifying polls to make the cut.

That’s a brutal blow to Suarez, who himself said candidates who do not make the first debate should drop out of the race. So far, Suarez hasn’t made that call, but it’s tough to make the case he’s a top contender for the nomination going forward.

On top of that, the Florida Commission on Ethics is reviewing whether Mayor Suarez violated ethics rules by attending recent high-profile sporting events, such as a Formula One race in Miami-Dade County and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Suarez is required to disclose gifts of more than $100 from non-lobbyists. Gifts under $100 from lobbyists must also be disclosed, while lobbyists are barred entirely from giving gifts valued at $100 or greater.

The Mayor already faces a major decision regarding his future as a presidential candidate. He may continue facing headaches even if he drops out as this ethics investigation moves forward.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Trump. Trump famously skipped Wednesday’s debate. Remember that poll we referenced earlier, showing Haley getting the biggest bump in terms of respondents who said they’d consider voting for her? Well, Trump was the person who lost the most support following the debate.

Trump fell into second place behind DeSantis following that nearly 5-point drop. That doesn’t mean he’s lost his status as the favorite by any stretch. But it shows his decision to pass up an opportunity to address voters didn’t help him, at least not in the short team.

His decision is also opening up likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden to potentially skip out on debates should Trump win the nomination. It will be hard for the Trump camp to cry foul that Biden is avoiding competition right after Trump did the same thing.

Plus, Trump also had to once again reshuffle his legal team just before he turned himself in on new charges in Georgia.

Oh yeah, and there was that mug shot.

Yes, Team Trump is already trying to turn that image into merch. Yes, it will probably work because his fans have constructed a reality where Trump can do no wrong.

But that photo is now a historic image which will be used against Trump as much as he tries to co-opt it. And a new survey shows 62% of American believe Trump committed a crime, with a 12-point swing among independents in a two-week span.

Nearly every week seems to introduce new reasons why Republicans should move on from Trump as their standard-bearer, but it remains as unclear as ever whether they’ll take that opportunity.

The biggest loser: Glen Gilzean. Gilzean walked away from his position on the Commission on Ethics to retain his job as Administrator of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which oversees Disney World.

The decision follows swift backlash after the Florida Bulldog reported that Gilzean holding those two positions raised conflict of interest questions. Members of the Commission on Ethics are barred from holding “any public employment.” Last week, Commission on Ethics General Counsel Steven Zuilkowski released a letter stating Gilzean is facing a conflict.

“It appears that your position as District Administrator for the District is public employment,” Zuilkowski wrote. “Maintaining the public employment is inconsistent with the requirements.”

Faced with a decision between the two, Gilzean unsurprisingly chose to keep the $400,000-per-year gig. In a way, that’s a win! But more news this week from the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is not casting Gilzean’s leadership in the best light.

The body is looking to cut back perks for Disney district employees, including firefighters. Multiple firefighters spoke at a board meeting this past week urging the district to reconsider the move. Some district members have floated raising wages in lieu of those perks, but no final decision has been made.

Perhaps this will blow over if employees are fully compensated for the stripped back perks. Otherwise, Gilzean is going to be remembered as the guy who revoked annual passes from Disney’s firefighters, and that’s not a great look.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


  • Richard Russell

    August 27, 2023 at 1:20 pm

    If for any reason Trump cannot run in 2024, I wholeheartedly support Mike Pompeo to run in his place. With very, very, few exceptions, Mike will be as Trumpian as Donald J Trump in dealing with all of the domestic and international issues as President.

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