Covering the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 is going to be no picnic for journalists, pundits and prognosticators, what with the leading candidate being constitutionally incapable of telling the truth and his runner-up focused entirely on culture wars and not at all on issues of, you know, policy.
That makes the broadside launched last week by the first (Donald Trump) at the second (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) uncannily interesting. No one is surprised that Trump did launch such an attack — it's how he has always handled his political adversaries. What's interesting is that Trump got DeSantis right.
In a series of March 22 posts on his Truth Social platform, compiled into a single statement by his campaign, Trump took aim at DeSantis' records on COVID, education and crime. DeSantis has come under fire from critics on all those issues. We've focused on his signal failure to protect residents from the pandemic on numerous occasions, for example.
"The fact is, Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One," Trump snarked. "But it is all a Mirage, just look at the facts and figures, they don’t lie—And we don’t want Ron as our President!"
In attacking DeSantis, as it happens, Trump has placed himself in the position of painting his own home state — his official residence is Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach mansion — in the darkest tones.
Let's examine Trump's bill of particulars.
The fact is, Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One. But it is all a Mirage.
Donald Trump, on Ron DeSantis
First, COVID. Florida under DeSantis ranked "Third Worst in the Nation for COVID-19 Deaths (losing 86,294 People), Third Worst for Total Number of Cases, at 7,516,906. Other Republican Governors did MUCH BETTER than Ron," Trump stated. (We're preserving his peculiar capitalization habit.)
This is correct, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only discrepancies derive from the fact that Florida's raw numbers got a hair worse since Trump's campaign compiled the figures, as did those for the country as a whole.
As of March 24, Florida has recorded 87,141 COVID deaths and 7,542,869 total cases. As Trump asserted, Florida ranks third in the nation in raw numbers. California tops the list in both categories, but that's an artifact of its rank as the most populous state, with more than 39 million residents. Florida has a bit more than half California's population.
Translated into death and case rates per population, Florida's record still stinks — it ranks eighth in cases and 12th in deaths. (California ranks 31st in cases and 41st in deaths.)
Trump also asserted that the COVID death rate in DeSantis' Florida is "worse than New York."
Trump was careful to specify that he was talking about state rates. That's because the CDC separates the rate in New York City from the rate in New York other than the city.
Florida's rate is indeed worse than the latter, but better than the New York City rate, which is the worst in the country — probably because New York was struck by COVID in the earliest phase of the pandemic, before doctors had any idea how to treat it and before vaccines became available.
Trump wrote, "Florida ranks #39 in Health & Safety in the Country, #50 in Affordability, and #30 in Education & Childcare." Trump doesn't cite his source for these figures, but we found it on the financial counseling website WalletHub, which posts its sources and methodology. Trump quoted the WalletHub figures accurately, appending the comment, "HARDLY GREATNESS THERE."
Educational statistics are notoriously rubbery, so it's fair to say that Florida's record is seldom cast in such a dark light. By other measures, Florida's record, before DeSantis ascended to the governor's seat in 2019 and since, is basically mediocre.
The state ranked 44th in public spending per K-12 student and 49th in average teacher salaries in 2020-21, according to the National Education Assn., a national teachers union.
DeSantis' school policies during the pandemic were notably distinct from those of many other states. In Florida, schools could reopen starting in fall 2020; in California, by contrast, the vast majority of schools were closed until spring 2021.
When the national test scores in reading and math for fourth- and eighth-graders were released last October, they showed sizable declines in the vast majority of states as a result of the pandemic and suggested that pupils did better with more in-person than remote learning. DeSantis took the opportunity to declare victory, stating that his state’s results “prove that we made the right decision” to keep schools open.
Things aren't that simple, however. As I reported, California and Florida both showed declines in scores from 2019, pre-pandemic, to 2022 in three of the four categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math).
But on the whole, California did better than Florida. In eighth-grade reading, California showed no change since 2019, but Florida students’ proficiency declined by four percentage points. Florida’s results were one percentage point worse than California’s in fourth- and eighth-grade math. California fourth-graders’ reading scores declined by two points, and Florida stayed level.
The overall averages showed California students losing five percentage points since 2019 in math, while Florida students lost six points. In reading, California students lost one point and Florida’s lost two.
That leaves crime, another field subject to great statistical volatility. "Florida ranked Third Worst in Murder, Third Worst in Rape, and Third Worst in Aggravated Assault," Trump wrote.
DeSantis' record was defended by the conservative Washington Examiner, which seems to be carrying water for the Florida governor and questioned Trump's assertion that in 2022, "Jacksonville was ranked as one of the Top 25 Major Crime Cities in the Country, with Tampa and Orlando not doing much better.
The Examiner noted that "by the end of last year, Jacksonville came in as the 27th worst city for murders per 100,000 residents, not in the top 25" and "no city or town in Florida cracked the most recent list of the top 25 “most dangerous places” compiled by U.S. News & World Report.
Put it all together, and Trump provided DeSantis' critics with a road map to analyze the latter's record on some of the topics likely to be top of mind for voters during the upcoming primary season — and during the general election campaign if DeSantis tries to expand his notable popularity within Florida to a campaign across the other 49 states.
Trump hasn't provided the electorate with much to appreciate during the incipient political race, but in attacking DeSantis where he lives, he may have done us a favor.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.