Trump vs. DeSantis: How their policy positions stack up in a potential 2024 face-off

The two political figures hold the same positions across many issues, but where they differ could make a difference in a race for the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump introduces Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a homecoming campaign rally at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida.

U.S. President Donald Trump introduces Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a homecoming campaign rally at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

ANALYSIS | The founding father of Trumpism and its most astute disciple seem to be on an unavoidable collision course. They agree on many political issues, but where they diverge could have a significant effect in a possible 2024 Republican primary.

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are leading in the polls as top contenders for the White House in 2024, and one may very well be the Republican nominee. Thrust into state prominence after receiving Trump’s endorsement and into the national spotlight over his first term as governor, DeSantis’ policy focus in the Sunshine State has shown streaks of Trumpism, the political ideology of America’s 45th President, defined by Dictionary.com as “an anti-establishment blend of economic populism, reactionary nationalism and strong militarism.” 

DeSantis, however, has pushed further in some cases and has key differences in areas that might make him more appealing to independent voters in 2024. To be sure, the governor – as he campaigns for a second term – has insisted for months he isn’t thinking beyond 2022, calling it “nonsense” even as he further develops a national profile by campaigning for GOP candidates in other states. In any event, here’s how the two politicians stack up side by side on 10 major policy areas. 

Immigration

When Donald Trump decided in 2015 to run for president, immigration was his first red-meat issue, with his quest to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border. In the White House, he sought to stem immigration, both legal and undocumented. His support of legislation like the RAISE act cut the number of legal immigrants into the country by half. He also implemented a policy, just now being phased out, that required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases were processed. And he also championed budget increases for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

DeSantis has backed stricter enforcement of federal immigration law in the state. He supported legislation mandating law enforcement agencies in Florida that oversee county detention facilities to work with ICE to enforce immigration laws. DeSantis also signed a bill that bars Florida government agencies from doing business with transportation companies that bring undoccumented immigrants to the state. He also sent Florida law enforcement to the Texas border in 2021 to help with border security. Recently, the governor has backed a policy to bus undocumented immigrants in Florida to other parts of the country, but has not done so yet because “Biden has not sent anyone to us since we got that (policy change).”

LGTBQ Issues

It took one measure pushed by DeSantis – the Parental Rights in Education law – to antagonize his LGBTQ critics so much that they dubbed the measure “Don’t Say Gay,” a nickname that continues to polarize Florida politics. The governor’s been the target of lawsuits from advocacy groups, followed by a spike in hate speech against them online. Other efforts have similarly antagonized the LGBTQ community: A prohibition on trans athletes in school sports. An attempt to make Florida schools ignore federal protections for trans kids. A pursuit ending Medicaid coverage for what’s known as gender-affirming care.

Trump had his own controversies when it came to LGTBQ policies, as when he banned trans people from serving in the military. But his administration did not prioritize those moves the way DeSantis has. Trump’s administration also made an international push for the decriminalization of homosexuality in countries where it’s illegal, but his statements about it suggest it wasn’t a priority for him.

Foreign affairs

Trump marked a significant shift in the GOP’s foreign policy priorities, favoring an non-interventionist approach. The former president helped cut the deal with the Taliban to pull out of Afghanistan, which in part was carried out by President Joe Biden to end the longest war in American history. DeSantis criticized Biden for how the withdrawal took place, but said that he thought it was time for the conflict to be ended.

DeSantis and Trump are not currently in a position to do much about Russia’s Ukraine invasion and have spoken little about it. What they have said differs greatly from each other. DeSantis publicly applauded the Ukraine’s soldiers and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also attacked Biden’s response, encouraging harsher sanctions on Russia. Trump, on the other hand, suggested that Ukraine should have struck a deal with Putin and given up some of their territory or agreed not to join NATO to avoid the war. He also called Putin’s framing of his military strategy “genius” and “very savvy.”

Energy and the environment

The two Republicans both have resisted using the term global warming, but their philosophy and actions taken involving the environment and energy are different. Trump’s administration rolled back over 100 environmental regulations during his presidency. He pulled the U.S. out of the international Paris climate agreement. He pushed for increased domestic fossil fuel production, approving controversial projects like the Keystone XL pipeline while not supporting renewable energy.

DeSantis has argued that the term “global warming” has been used as a pretext for unnecessary left-wing policies, but his administration has sided with environmentalists on some issues. He approved $276 million in 2021 to help combat sea level rise. And this past legislative session, he vetoed a bill promoted by Florida Power & Light that would have removed net metering, billing that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. That earned him praise from solar advocates. He has also backed Everglades protection, which netted him an endorsement from the Everglades Trust this month.

Abortion

Trump, who supported abortion rights before he entered politics, is the person the anti-abortion movement can thank the most for the overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this summer. His three appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court were in the majority that overturned the landmark decision, meaning Trump led to the overturning of national abortion protections that anti-abortion activists have long been hoping for.

While DeSantis has not had such a profound impact and has not supported a full-on Florida abortion ban, he did back Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban, currently the subject of a lawsuit. He also signaled that Florida is likely not done pursuing abortion restrictions after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but has avoided direct answers on what he will do.

Marijuana

While he has said he leans in opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida, citing issues he claimed arose in other states and its smell, the first bill DeSantis signed in office was a repeal of the state’s ban on smoking medical cannabis. That saw him align with John Morgan, the Orlando lawyer and medical marijuana advocate who backed Andrew Gillum for governor, and the now-beleaguered U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was an early supporter of medicinal pot when he was in the Florida House.

Trump is not a pot ally. As a candidate in 2016, he said of medical marijuana, “I’m in favor of it a hundred percent,” and said states should be allowed to determine whether to legalize it for adult use. But his administration angled to remove medical marijuana protections nationally (and failed), and his campaign doubled down that it should remain illegal at the federal level. A leaked recording also caught Trump saying smoking weed makes people dumber. This policy difference could boost DeSantis as 91% of Americans support marijuana legalization for either medical or recreational use, according to Pew Research.

Education

Both politicians’ education policies and priorities are similar, but DeSantis pushed even further than Trump. Near the end of his presidency, Trump targeted “woke” education initiatives and commissioned a report from his 1776 Commission, which embarked on a patriotic telling of American history to counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The commission’s report was heavily criticized by historians, but its goal of changing what is taught in classrooms was unmistakable.

DeSantis has seen that goal through in Florida. Aside from the parental rights law, the passage of his “Stop WOKE” act similarly has influenced what can be discussed in classrooms, already affecting what books may be allowed in school libraries. Aside from that policy, he successfully threw his weight behind school board races in the state, which will likely affect how those laws are implemented in several school districts across the state. Both also are supporters of school choice, with Trump filling his education department with school choice supporters like former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and DeSantis signing legislation to expand school choice in Florida.

Gun control

DeSantis and Trump both have opposed assault weapon bans and stronger background checks, but passed key measures after receiving public pressure following deadly mass shootings. While Trump rolled back some gun regulations starting in the early days of his presidency, his administration also banned bump stocks after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people. 

DeSantis came into office shortly after his predecessor, Rick Scott, signed Florida’s red flag law following the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. DeSantis has previously supported that policy, now also being championed by the Biden administration. But DeSantis is against further gun control legislation. He accused Florida Democrats’ push earlier this year for a special session on gun control as an attempt to target gun rights. And he has supported the enactment of permitless carry in Florida.

Health care

Trump’s main contribution to health care policy was repeatedly trying to repeal or weaken former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He cut subsidies for the program, created off-ramps for other insurances and disincentivized legal non-citizen residents from participating in Medicaid programs.

Since becoming governor, DeSantis has worked to block Medicaid expansion in Florida, this time limiting initiatives promoted by Biden, Obama’s former vice president. Part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan championed by the Biden administration during the pandemic included money to encourage dozens of states to expand Medicaid coverage. DeSantis has firmly resisted that expansion in Florida and turned down the dollars. His administration also has moved to include new limits on what Medicaid can cover, including “gender-affirming care” for transgender youth.

Taxes and spending

Through the early 2000s and during the two terms of the Obama administration, Republicans criticized the additions to the national debt and rising budget deficits. That issue has become less prominent in political discourse in recent years. Trump’s presidency played a role in that. The national debt rose by almost $7.8 trillion during Trump’s time in office, the third largest increase ever and in only four years. The increase in budget deficit that led to the fast-rising debt could be attributed to reduced revenue from his tax cuts and from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased spending.

While Trump piled on debt, DeSantis oversaw a record budget surplus in Florida during the last fiscal year, assisted by an influx of federal funds due to the pandemic. He cut $3.1 billion from next year’s over $100 billion state budget, including projects championed by some of his allies. The total budget was 10% higher than the previous year, indicating an increase in spending that could lead to a deficit in future years if the federal funds dry up or revenue decreases. But Florida’s budget reserves are sitting around $20 billion, providing a safety net if financial hardship comes in the near future.

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