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Ron DeSantis, unlikable as he is, can still win

DeSantis is banking on a far-right political message to make up for any personal likability failings. More specifically, he’s promising to make America like Florida.

Who’s more unlikable? Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis?Doug Mills/The New York Times; Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Who’s more unlikable? Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis?

And when it comes to winning the White House, how much does that matter anyway?

Just a few decades ago, the “likability” of a presidential candidate was considered an issue of great importance, said John Sasso, a veteran political consultant who knows what can happen when a candidate is judged to be “unlikable.” He worked on the presidential campaigns of two Democrats — Michael Dukakis and John Kerry — who were criticized for likability problems that now seem quaint. “In the ’88 campaign, there was a lot of talk about a different kind of likability — are you a regular guy? The country is so far beyond that now — that kind of likability is no longer a factor of any kind. It’s the only way to explain DeSantis’s rise,” Sasso said. As Sasso sees it, the Florida governor “is the most unlikable individual because of his meanness, his culture wars, and pettiness.”

Kerry lost a who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with question to George W. Bush, along with the 2004 election. Yet post-election analyses of other races show that while likability can be a factor, it’s not all that matters. In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton were both considered unlikable, with 60 percent of voters holding an unfavorable view of each candidate. In the end, Trump won the electoral vote, leading analysts to conclude that likability matters more for women than for men.


In 2020, voters found Joe Biden more likable than Trump. Today, the unfavorability ratings of Biden and Trump are similar. Even so, at least one recent poll put Trump ahead of President Biden by 7 points. Trump’s current domination of the Republican field comes after his exposure as a serial liar and cheat, not to mention enabler of the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. He was also found civilly responsible for sexual abuse and is the first former president to face criminal charges.


Now comes DeSantis, who falls into a surly, snarly class of his own. It makes him at least as unlikable as Trump — if not more so. His favorability rating has declined among Republican voters from a high of 71 percent in January to 56 percent in May, according to one recent poll. Meanwhile, as the world beyond Florida gets to know him, there’s nothing in the DeSantis story that presents a warm and fuzzy side.

Vanity Fair called him “an unlikable jerk” and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Even in a world made crueler by social media and Donald Trump, DeSantis seems mean.” He gleefully takes away rights and freedom, and delights in going after Disney, the LGBTQ community, and women. He is virulently anti-immigrant, despite having family members who came from Italy. He even used his children in a political ad to pitch the building of Trump’s wall. In the lead-up to the announcement of his presidential run, DeSantis did nothing to tell a story about himself that would inspire voters in a positive way. So far, his idea of addressing the likability issue is to talk to donors, rather than ignoring them, as he previously did. Then, there’s that report that he eats pudding with his fingers.


Picking up on his rival’s perceived weakness, Trump is trying to tag him with the nickname “Ron DeSanctimonious.” After the DeSantis announcement that he’s running for president, Trump said: “He’s very disloyal, but he’s got no personality. And if you don’t have personality, politics is a very hard business.”

Of course, you can have an unlikable personality, which is true for Trump and DeSantis. But just like Trump, DeSantis is banking on a far-right political message to make up for any personal likability failings. More specifically, he’s promising to make America like Florida.

An Associated Press roundup of legislation signed by DeSantis shows what that could mean: DeSantis signed a bill banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. He expanded the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, to cover all grades — and continues to fight Disney and try to punish the company after it criticized that law. He signed a bill that prevents school personnel or students from being required to refer to people by pronouns they prefer. He signed a bill that ends a unanimous jury requirement in death penalty sentencing. Floridians can carry concealed guns without a permit under another bill signed by DeSantis. Yet another new law bans colleges from using state or federal funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. That follows last year’s Stop WOKE Act, which restricts certain race-based discussions in schools and businesses.


Florida is now a place where a complaint from one parent can lead to the removal of the poem read by Amanda Gorman at Biden’s inauguration from an elementary school library. To me, that makes DeSantis much more than unlikable. But others would clearly welcome such an outcome.

“He’s scary, but he could actually be the Republican nominee,” Sasso said.

Even scarier is the idea that DeSantis could become the next president. If enough voters in the right states like his policies, they could certainly overlook any personality flaws. It happened before with the unlikable Trump.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.