The culmination of the Newsom-DeSantis bromance is upon us, the mano a mano matchup of two governors who depend on each other to whip up the kind of polarizing frenzy that feeds headlines and advances careers.
They will hold a debate Thursday night on Fox News, moderated by far-right provocateur Sean Hannity, an event that has been hyped so much you’d be forgiven for thinking the stakes were high, that this made-for-television stunt actually matters.
Which, of course, it does not.
“It’s political theater in its most ridiculous form,” Mindy Romero told me. She’s the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. “This doesn’t benefit the voters.”
If we wanted something substantial, something that might change the results of the next election, we’d put Republican hopeful Nikki Haley in the room with Vice President Kamala Harris — two daughters of immigrants (Haley is South Asian, Harris is mixed-race, South Asian and Black) with differing views of America but the shared ability to reach apathetic and disenfranchised voters. But I’ll get to that.
While the spectacle of Newsom and DeSantis going at each other may provide zingers and red-blue outrage, it is unlikely to sway voters because neither man is an actual contender for anything.
DeSantis’ presidential campaign is sinking, and not even platform shoes can keep his head above water. Even in the unlikely circumstance that he humiliated Newsom with an unexpected bout of superior wit and grasp of fact, it wouldn’t make up for his fundraising problems, falling poll numbers or the orange elephant in the room, Donald Trump, who is leaps and bounds ahead of any other Republican contenders when it comes to dedicated voters.
Then there is Newsom, who is absolutely, positively not running for president, though his team has put together a surprisingly successful and smart campaign to position him as a Biden surrogate, ready to step in if needed. And, as I have said before, I appreciate Newsom speaking out, and taking action, on issues including reproductive freedom.
The problem is he’s not needed, this time around, anyway.
And so, we have spectacle without substance when it comes to the Newsom-DeSantis drama. As the first female British prime minister Margaret Thatcher put it in 1965, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
Or as Romero said, “Isn’t that what we always see, two male politicians louder and bolder, taking the spotlight from women of color? I am not surprised by this at all.”
It may not be surprising, but it is concerning to see that spotlight in the wrong place.
The presidential election is going to be close. The votes on the margins will likely decide whether Biden holds the Oval Office or not. Key among those iffy ballots, for both parties, are younger people and voters of color.
Those are votes that Harris and Haley are well-positioned to earn — but also ones that, if left unattended, could cost the race for either side.
If Americans under the age of 45 vote at the same rate as they did in 2020, a recent Brookings Institute poll found, they will account for more than one-third of the electorate.
But young voters are not happy.
Young Republicans have a generational split over access to abortions. Nearly three-fourths of adults under age 30 say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2022 Pew Research poll. The Brookings poll found 47% of Republicans ages 18 to 44 voiced similar opinions.
In the past few weeks, Haley has gained momentum and won critical support in positioning herself as a post-MAGA candidate — even attempting, not always successfully, to find a less strident way to speak about abortion while still supporting bans.
Recently, Haley earned a critical endorsement from the conservative grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity Action, which was co-founded by billionaire Charles Koch and comes with not only money, but the political machine to back it up.
Her rallies are drawing bigger crowds and her poll numbers show that in places where DeSantis’ numbers are slipping, she is gaining.
She’s still nowhere close to being a real challenger to Trump, but she is offering up a path forward for Republicans who want a Trump-lite government, all the conservatism without the overt turn toward authoritarianism. Anything that pulls Republicans away from straight-up fascism should be considered significant, particularly as DeSantis tries to out-Trump Trump with anti-everything policies targeting history, LGBTQ+ communities, Disneyland and more.
For Democrats, the problem with young voters, especially people of color, is apparent around the Biden administration’s response to the fighting in Israel and Gaza. His administration, even with its commitment to climate change, gun control and economic priorities such as canceling student loan debt, seems out of touch.
About 70% of people 18 to 34 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, an NBC News poll found. Many of those young progressives see the Palestinian cause as linked to social justice issues for communities of color in the United States.
Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, said he believes the anger of those young progressives may fade by the 2024 elections, but their apathy may still keep them from voting.
Biden “has kind of a broader, deeper problem with younger voters and certainly this has exacerbated it,” Waxman said.
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which helps organize Black voters, said Harris is critical to countering that apathy, and is “uniquely positioned in many ways because of her identities,” to reach disaffected groups.
Despite endless attacks that Harris faces from Republicans (and even from within her own party), which often use the prospect of a Harris presidency as a kind of threat, “there is a real connection she makes with Black voters,” Shropshire said.
And though she faces a relentless narrative that she is unlikable, as Hillary Clinton did, the idea that she might be kicked off the ticket in favor of someone more palatable such as Newsom is a non-starter — a disastrous misread of voters of color, young, progressive voters and women.
“They’re not going to dump her. They can’t dump her,” Dan Morain told me. He’s the author of the definitive biography on Harris, “Kamala’s Way,” and has chronicled her career since she was a lowly prosecutor.
Instead, Morain, Shropshire and others said the administration needs to better use her identity and skills in the next campaign cycle, leaning into who she is — leaning into who voters are.
“You just look at Harris and what she does, She’s just she is more attuned to younger people than [Biden] ever will be,” Morain said.
And so we have two interesting women, closer to the Oval Office than either Newsom or DeSantis will likely be anytime soon (though I’d give Newsom a shot in 2028).
Haley and Harris are both seasoned, tough survivors who have more in common with most American voters — who are increasingly not white, much to the chagrin of some — but who are stymied by their sex as has been every woman who has ever run for office.
Trump has nicknamed Haley “birdbrain.” Harris’ laugh has been described as a “cackle.”
But Newsom and DeSantis are, as Hannity put it, are “two heavyweights” who are “stepping into a war.”
They definitely have something that Harris and Haley lack, but it’s not a shot at the presidency.