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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Red versus blue or red, white and blue?

The Newsom-DeSantis debate did little more than spotlight America’s divisions.


Graphic by Aliza Kibel

On Nov. 30, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis faced off in what Fox News billed as the ”Great Red vs. Blue State Debate. Moderated by conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, the debate drew 4.75 million viewers. But only one of the men in the debate is running for president, so what was the point?

Hannity claimed that he wanted to highlight “political and philosophical divides in this country.” For DeSantis, this debate was an opportunity to bolster support for his dwindling presidential campaign by touting his conservative policies in front of the largely conservative Fox News viewership. Newsom, on the other hand, has less clearly discernible ambitions. He has expressed unequivocal support for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign and staunchly defended the administration’s policies throughout the debate, leaving the possibility of a 2028 presidential run on the table.

Despite Hannity’s claim that he would be moderating and “not be part of the debate,” the questions were far from fair to Newsom. Hannity’s questions largely ignored areas where California does much better than Florida including a higher median income and longer life expectancy. California has better health outcomes in general with lower rates of cancer death, infant mortality, teen births, accidental deaths and suicide according to the CDC. In addition, California’s GDP per capita last year was 48% higher than Florida’s. Despite DeSantis’ posturing about the negative economic effects of California’s COVID-19 lockdowns, Florida’s real per capita GDP only grew by 13.1% between 2017–22, while California’s GDP grew by 16.6%.

The questions Hannity did ask were also biased. For example, on a question about taxes, Hannity stated that “property taxes are lower in California, but everything else is higher,” despite the fact that the vastly different tax systems make the states difficult to compare. Newsom pointed to the deep inequity in Florida’s tax structure, which was corroborated by PolitiFact, though his point was ignored by DeSantis. In fact, households in the bottom 20% of income paid 10.5% of their income in taxes in California compared to 12.7% in Florida and households in the top 1% in California paid 12.4% of their income in taxes while wealthy Floridians paid only 2.3%. On the issue of guns, Hannity brought up stats on how in 2019, when both governors took office, California had more mass shootings than Florida despite having the most restrictive gun laws of any state. This framing, meant to show that gun control doesn’t work, completely ignores the fact that California has almost twice the population of Florida and that mass shootings represent just a fraction of gun deaths in America. While Newsom’s claim that Florida has a 66% higher gun death rate than California was a bit off, the actual percentage of 57% isn’t much better.  

The debate frequently devolved into absurdity. In multiple instances, DeSantis pulled printouts from his jacket. One was a page from a sexually explicit graphic novel, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, which he unfoundedly claimed is taught to children in California, in response to a question about parental rights. Later, he brandished a map plotting “the human feces that are found on the streets of San Francisco.” As the Sacramento Bee explained, the data was collected from a dated app called SnapCrap between 2011–19 — not exactly a fresh source. Newsom also wasn’t free of laughable moments. In a question about what he liked about Florida — which he turned into a closing statement — Newsom stated, “we all want to be protected, respected and connected,” a rhyme almost as tacky as the debate’s title.

While Biden and his policies were brought up consistently throughout the debate, with Newsom acting as his proxy and DeSantis making a case against him, what was clearly missing was any discussion of former President Donald Trump. By this point, it is increasingly apparent that Trump will be the Republican nominee against Biden in 2024, which made the fact that Biden’s policies were contrasted with DeSantis’ Florida record in this debate seem almost silly.

So, who won the debate? Post-debate fact checking from trusted sources such as PolitiFact and the New York Times found that both candidates misrepresented each other and the facts at different points in the debate. Following the debate, Fox News proclaimed that DeSantis “absolutely destroyed” Newsom who “embarrassed himself” by disputing “indisputable facts.” On the other side of the aisle, the Daily Beast declared that “Newsom Demolished DeSantis Using the One Thing Republicans Hate” — facts. This response from the two camps exemplifies what this debate really showed: Americans are living in two different realities.

In his final answer, Newsom spouted another cliché — “it’s not about red versus blue, it’s red, white and blue.” After watching this debate, I didn’t come away with new information about either of the governors, their policies or their potential to be president. All the debate did was highlight the fundamental and insurmountable division between conservative and liberal political ideologies in America. If we can’t agree on which facts to start with, how can we find solutions to the problems we face as a nation?