Is it possible to quickly “restart” a struggling presidential campaign? Experts must hope so, because otherwise our advisory tact becomes somewhat irrelevant. But thinking back on recent primary candidacies that have seemed to decline and then recover, from John Kerry in 2004 to John McCain in 2008 to Joe Biden in 2020, it’s hard to identify bright strategic pivots. Instead, what you see are candidates with fundamental strengths who hung around until events conspired to make those strengths more relevant, their opponents’ weaknesses more obvious, and their campaigns suddenly triumphant.

For Ron DeSantis, currently engaged in a campaign reset after months of stagnant polling, there is no way to sell these case studies to his anxious donors. “Don’t worry, we’re going to stay and hope things break for us at the last minute” isn’t exactly an inspiring rallying cry, especially for a candidate who briefly seemed poised to become the first in 2024, but is now trailing 20 or 30 points behind Donald Trump.

And it’s pretty easy to list things DeSantis could have done differently. Some of them, like talking less about the fast-departing Covid era and looking for a fight with the mainstream media, are quite obvious that the campaign is already trying to adapt. Other possibilities still seem to elude his team – above all, the benefits of getting out of the movement-conservative box a little more, making big promises on economic as well as social policy, and avoiding a repeat of the ideologically self-limiting campaign of Ted Cruz in 2016.

But any benefit from these changes is likely to be incremental rather than dramatic. Meanwhile, the restoration that is so often urged on DeSantis — the idea that he should try after Trump’s unfitness for high office — is a theory supported by precisely zero electoral evidence.

The reality is that if there was any obvious path to rising in the polls at this stage of the campaign, another Republican candidate would likely discover it. Like Nick Catoggio of The Dispatchno big fan of DeSantis, pointed out a week ago, amid all the talk about his faltering campaign, the Florida governor’s support “exceeds the combined share of every candidate who trails him, a field that includes a sitting senator, two former governors, and the most recent former vice president of the United States.”

Trump-friendly Vivek Ramaswamy, often portrayed as the breakout figure in the non-DeSantis camp, is just shy of 5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The most directly anti-Trump figure, Chris Christie, stands at 2 percent. Sun donor favorite Tim Scott is at 3 percent.

Those numbers make DeSantis’ stagnant 20 percent look pretty good, and his pro-Trump positioning a much stronger play than the alternatives.

Yes, it’s not as strong as it looked during Trump’s post-midterm swoon. But the argument I made then – that Trump is much more likely to lose in a fade than in a knockout – is not negated by the fact that he hasn’t faded yet. Quite the opposite: It is Trump’s recovery and resilience amid multiple impeachments that suggests the futility of a Christie-style attack, leaving DeSantis’ more veiled strategy with a narrowing but still visible path.

That path looks like this: First, in Iowa, DeSantis needs some of the very conservative voters who temporarily withdrew from Trump after the midterms to withdraw again. Then in New Hampshire, he needs the momentum of an Iowa victory to reconcile the moderates of the party to the need to rally to him, instead of staying with Scott or Christie or Nikki Haley. Take that combination out, and he’s well positioned for South Carolina, Florida and beyond.

There is no reason to expect things to happen this way. We’ve seen many times how Trump’s supporters always seem to want to get back at him, and how Trump’s skeptics always seem unable to unite effectively. We haven’t seen enough power from DeSantis-the-candidate to expect him to break those patterns.

But sitting at 20 percent for a long time and then riding an early primary victory to consolidation is a conceivable scenario, at least, and one that tracks with recent examples of campaigns that first disappointed and ultimately surged. While all the other scenarios for defeating Trump, whether involving current challengers or some late-entry white knight, seem like wishful thinking by Republicans unwilling to settle for DeSantis.

Perhaps this will change in the debate season, whose arrangements are more likely to reset DeSantis’ campaign than any move his team is making now, giving his rivals their best chance to shake his hold on second place.

But pending those matchups, the disappointment with DeSantis doesn’t change the fact that the guy stagnating in second is more likely to finish first than all the distant others.

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