There’s an adage in American politics that voters don’t choose the candidate whose policies they most agree with, but the candidate they’d most want to have a beer with.
This question, known as “the beer test”, tries to measure authenticity, likeability and general charisma. Looking back through American history, the last president nobody would want to be cornered with at a party was Gerald Ford (who was never elected to the office), and before that maybe Calvin Coolidge, who was president during Prohibition so nobody could drink with him anyway.
This test holds up in our time too. Say what you will about Donald Trump, he has a magnetism that carried an entire reality television franchise, and appealed to plenty of middle-America Maga voters who would have been desperate to spend time with him.
This beer test, however, could be a serious problem for Florida governor and possible 2024 Republican presidential contender Ron DeSantis. On paper he’s a fantastic candidate for higher office. DeSantis is young, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, has a wife who looks like a beauty queen, and he spews the same culture-war vitriol as Trump but without the looming criminal investigations that could turn away undecided voters. Although the Republican Party at large suffered less than stellar midterm results, DeSantis won almost 60 per cent of the vote in his Florida gubernatorial re-election against a very moderate Democrat. The problem that lies ahead, however, will be what happens when he presents himself to Americans across the country.
Given the governor’s reputation for fighting the crusade against the woke, one would expect him to deliver a speech with all the conviction of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Instead, DeSantis speaks with the stiffness of a lolly stick. For example, take the governor’s most recent “law and order” speech about drug overdose deaths from the opioid Fentanyl. The speech contains the usual right-wing talking points – blaming China and an “open” border with Mexico for the overdose epidemic – but is delivered with all the animation of a bored teenager annoyed they have to look up from their phone. His deliverance stands in stark contrast to Ronald Reagan, who knew how to interpret a script. And even George W Bush who, for all his linguistic difficulties, was seen by many as affable and would even allow genuine emotion to slip from his mouth.
Not DeSantis. When he goes off script, it’s to woodenly describe more than 50,000 overdose deaths in a single year as “more than, like, than wars we’ve fought in recent years”.
For the moment most Americans recognise DeSantis for his anti-woke antics, but many haven’t seen him live on TV. Unlike presidential debates, gubernatorial ones are not largely viewed by anyone other than die-hards who have already made up their minds. If DeSantis is going to pursue a presidential bid, he will need to schmooze the campaign trail as cameras follow his every move. This could become a problem for a man with a reputation for not making eye contact, standing onstage like a Madame Tussaud wax sculpture, and disliking his own staffers so much that, it was alleged, he could only be lured to campaign meetings with cupcakes.
The next presidential election is still two years away but many Republicans are thought to be rallying behind DeSantis as their candidate. For the moment, however, the only declared GOP contender is Donald Trump, who one recent poll gave a 17-point lead over the Florida governor. The former president has described DeSantis, in his usual playground-bully style, as having a “dull personality”. For once, I have to agree with him.