Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen as the top potential challenger to Trump in 2024.
He'll have to decide whether he wants to run for president in 2024 or wait it out.
Both approaches carry risks that could torpedo his chance at the White House, top GOP political strategists told Insider.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often gets compared to ex-President Donald Trump. But as he faces a decision over whether to run for president in 2024, DeSantis shares far more similarities with two other ex-GOP frontrunners: Former Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Like DeSantis, Walker and Christie once seemed like inevitable frontrunners for the White House.
The two men made vastly different choices when it came to actually running for president. Walker seized the moment, while Christie let his moment pass.
They both lost.
Their stories provide a look into what could happen to DeSantis, too, if he decides to run in 2024 GOP nomination - or if he decides to wait until 2028.
"Timing is important," Mike DuHaime, CEO of MAD Global and adviser to Christie's 2016 presidential campaign, told Insider. "He's at a high point right now. Running when you're at a high point is a good thing. Timing is in many ways the most important and least controllable part of politics."
Walker emerged as a darling of the right when Barack Obama was president. Like DeSantis, he skyrocketed to national prominence by picking fights with key Democratic allies.
But Walker's campaign crashed so badly that he never even made it to the voting stage. He would also fail to secure a third term in Wisconsin in 2018.
As for Christie, he was brash, populist, and had a big personality. It turned out that these were attributes that 2016 voters genuinely wanted in a president. But a certain reality TV star had those qualities too, just in far higher quantities.
If Christie had run in 2012, when he was having a moment, maybe he would have been sitting in the Oval Office rather than Trump. Instead, he rebuffed influential Iowa Republicans who literally flew to New Jersey to beg him to run.
DeSantis could trip up early in a '24 contest. A scandal could emerge during his second term that he can't come back from. Someone could steal the spotlight if he delays his run until 2028. Or, waiting might be the right move to secure an eventual White House win - he could have a strong second term in Florida with even higher approval ratings.
"Those are definitely calculations and considerations that smart people in DeSantisworld would put out there," said a GOP strategist not affiliated with DeSantis, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. "And they would probably look at some of these past candidacies as a case study. There is a such thing as a perceptual moment and then sometimes the shine dulls a little bit."
'We were a big deal'
Walker was the one everyone was talking ahead of 2016.
In 2010, he'd flipped the Wisconsin governor's mansion just two years after Obama carried the state. He then took on public sector unions to the delight of conservatives and the Koch brothers.
Liberals tried to recall him. Then Democrats turned to his reelection campaign. By the end of 2014, Walker had won three times in four years. He was holding court with wealthy donors in Madison by the following summer. Neighboring Iowans clamored for his presence and a presidential campaign, as pollsters saw his fortunes rise.
It all came crashing down just two months after Walker made his presidential run official.
"We were a big deal, before we even had a campaign, because of what we did," Walker told Insider in an interview. "But we really didn't have the infrastructure or the experience nationally to deal with that."
On top of that, the day-to-day questions a candidate faces as governor are vastly different than what can arise on the campaign trail, a top aide on Walker's Iowa team told Insider.
"The national press scrutiny and the presidential issues are a completely different ballgame than being governor," said Eric Woolson, who was Walker's Iowa communications director. "It's one thing to be talking about state issues, and it's another thing to suddenly be talking about foreign policy and federal policy."
Then, Walker's debate performance solidified his standing as a candidate unprepared for primetime. He was crowded out by well-known national Republican leaders on stage in heated debates.
"It was almost like if they were trying out for a track team, and it was like, 'Oh, wow, everybody's a lot faster than me,'" Duhaime said. "He wasn't as good as when you put Trump and Christie and Ted Cruz, and Marco [Rubio]. They were all A-level debaters, A-level thinkers, on this stuff. Walker was just kind of the junior varsity on that stage."
DeSantis may face a similar situation. He has more national and foreign policy experience because he served in the US House. But while he gets significant national coverage, he hasn't reached the national stage yet. He didn't face a serious challenge to the governorship this year, he isn't known as a gifted orator or debator, and rumors proliferate about about his lack of people skills.
But DuHaime said DeSantis was "stronger than Walker ever was" and had "substantive experience" after dealing with hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"You don't have to be the best - you have to be good enough," Duhaime said about DeSantis getting on a debate stage. "And my guess is he's good enough at that point."
DeSantis could face a pile on
DeSantis is Trump's most formidable potential rival for the 2024 nomination. A total of 33% of potential GOP primary voters said they'd vote for DeSantis today, shows a Morning Consult/Politico tracking poll released November 15. But he's still 14 percentage points behind Trump, who made his presidential run official last week.
The Florida governor has so far been mum about his future plans, but he hasn't committed to serving out all four years as governor.
He isn't the only one who could jump into the 2024 race. Other prospects include former Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, former CIA director Mike Pompeo, Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
Should DeSantis not run, it's possible one of these other candidates could beat Trump as well as President Joe Biden, locking out the possibility for DeSantis to seek a White House run until 2032.
If DeSantis does enter a large field, he would become vulnerable not just to attacks from Trump, but from all the other candidates that view him as a threat. DuHaime said presidential races were a "grind" unlike any other run for office.
"Millions and millions of dollars just turn on you in an instant," he said. "It happens to everybody. Only one person survives that."
Hogan told reporters last weekend at a Republican Jewish Coalition event, a high-profile gathering in Las Vegas, that he knew the media was "focused" on DeSantis but warned much could change in the next six months.
"I can tell you in almost every race I've ever seen, the guy that comes out the box first that everybody's talking about two years out is almost never the nominee," he said.
DeSantis is in a stronger position than Christie was
When Democratic strategist David Axelrod wrote a now-famous presidential memo to Obama, who was then a US Senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of timing in politics.
"History is replete with potential candidates for presidency who waited too long rather than examples of people who ran too soon," he wrote.
But there are some key differences between Christie and DeSantis, even in terms of the timing piece, Duhaime said. When Christie was having his moment, he was early into his governorship, and Republican Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was getting a good deal of support from donors.
"He legitimately didn't feel like he was ready - not necessarily to run but ready to do the job" of president after being governor for a short time, Duhaime said of Christie. In contrast, DeSantis would be in his fifth year as governor if he chooses to run next year.
"That's a huge difference in my opinion in terms of that moment," DuHaime said.
Plus, he added, Obama's reelection seemed like a surer bet whereas polling from the New York Times shows most voters don't want President Joe Biden, 80, to run again - in large part because of his age. DeSantis, in contrast, is 44.
DeSantis' age gives him other options to stay relevant even if he loses the perch of the governor's mansion. He could run for Senate or - should a Republican win the White House in 2024 - serve in the administration.
The GOP strategist, who concluded DeSantis should run in 2024, said "the country needs" the governor because of his competence and leadership in Florida.
"There are moments," they said. "There was a moment for Christie in 2012 and there is a moment for Ron DeSantis in 2024. So so if I were advising him, I would say that it is it is less about the personal journey and more about answering the call for your country."