There was a time when the polling gap between Ron DeSantis and the rest of the field was far wider than the one separating the Florida governor from the frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential race, former President Donald Trump.
In fact, nine months ago, Mr. DeSantis appeared poised to be the GOP’s standard-bearer in challenging Democrat President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5, 2024, general election.
His relative youth in context to the octogenarian incumbent—as well as compared to Mr. Trump, who would turn 80 in a second term—and landslide reelection in a formerly purple state, the highlight of an otherwise disappointing 2022 midterms for Republicans nationwide, spurred his December-January surge in polling that put Mr. DeSantis within percentage points of Mr. Trump in what was shaping up as a two-candidate race.
During Mr. Trump’s post-midterm swoon—after many of his endorsed MAGA candidates were defeated in November’s election—Mr. DeSantis entered national Republicans’ consciousness with an elevator pitch based on his youth, his competency, and his discipline as a conservative governor with a winning record who could end the party’s “culture of losing” under the former president.
Fast-forward to July 25 and Mr. DeSantis is fighting a perception that he peaked before formally entering the race in May. Trailing consistently 20–30 percentage points behind Mr. Trump, he is now seeing tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) edging closer in polling, aiming to supplant him as “the other guy” in an election that, with the first primaries still six months away, does not appear to be competitive at this stage.
‘Anti-Woke’ Theme Misdirected
Campaign observers cite numerous ways Mr. DeSantis’s campaign stalled, but many say he failed to move beyond that initial elevator pitch and, instead, focused on running to the right of Mr. Trump across a range of social issues as a “culture warrior” that has cooled support from moderate, suburban voters, damaging his claim that he is more “electable” in a general election than Mr. Trump, most notably with a widely mocked anti-LGBTQ social media campaign video targeting the former president.
Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has also suffered from a perception that compared to Mr. Trump’s stage performances, he is awkward in meets-and-greets, not good at backslapping, glad-handing, making eye contact, and prickly with the press on the campaign trail.
And his campaign faced another challenge.
“Two words: Donald Trump,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and founding partner at Washington-based Firehouse Strategies in a July 24 discussion on On Point, a podcast posted on more than 300 radio station websites nationwide.
Around the same time that Mr. DeSantis formally entered the race, Mr. Trump was being served the first of two indictments thus far accrued with two more likely within weeks.
“As soon as Trump got indicted, DeSantis started to sink despite the fact they were spending large amounts of money in mail and on television here in New Hampshire. So in the background on everything that happens, Trump is standing right there,” said Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on its “New Hampshire Live” radio show.
For Mr. Trump, “bad fortune legally, but good fortune politically to dominate the headlines all over the summer,” said Mr. Conant, who was communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign and Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign. “When Trump dominates the headlines, it’s very hard to gain ground on him. And Donald Trump has been on the front page of every newspaper more often than not.”
As the indictments were coming down, when not attacking the “deep state” he says is “weaponizing” the justice system against him, Mr. Trump aggressively attacked Mr. DeSantis as a phony ungrateful for the former president’s 2018 endorsement that propelled him to Florida’s Governor’s Mansion and reminding voters that as a congressional representative, he supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare programs.
And right before he formally joined the race, the Florida Legislature finished a 2023 legislative session nationally praised and scorned for adoptions of a six-week abortion ban, constitutional carry, dramatic increase in school choice, non-unanimous death penalty, and bans on transgender surgeries for minors, among other measures.
Rather than getting a boost in the polls, Mr. DeSantis has stagnated since the state Legislature adjourned, handing him his policy wins that may have played well among conservatives, but further alienate the moderates the party needs to win in a general election. Even Mr. Trump has criticized some of the bills that Mr. DeSantis touts.
Revamps Have Revived Campaigns
This has prompted further criticism of a campaign that regales prospective voters with his 2020 COVID-19 policies and clashes with the federal government—where he first gained national prominence—more than his vision for the future, where his elevator pitch seemed so promising, and also appears provincial to some with his campaign touting his “Florida Blueprint,” making the word “Florida” the most oft-mentioned single word in his stump speeches.
And so, it is no surprise the DeSantis campaign is rebooting because his stagnation in the polls can be best described as a stagnation in messaging that may have been misdirected in the first place toward a MAGA voting base that, by all appearances, appear to be doubling down on Mr. Trump with every “deep state” legal entanglement.
The revamp has drawn mockery from the Trump campaign.
“Some reboots were never going to be successful, like ‘Dynasty,’ ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ or even ‘MacGyver,’” Mr. Trump’s campaign mocked in a statement. “And now we can add Ron DeSantis’s 2024 campaign to the list of failures.”
There are many examples of successful and not-so-successful presidential campaign reboots. Among those that regained their footing and went on to win was Ronald Reagan’s in the 1980 GOP primaries and Joe Biden’s in the 2020 Democratic primary. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s revamp in 2015–2016 is among those that failed to revive a candidacy.
A standard reboot usually includes three steps: corralling expenses and slashing staff; reshuffled leadership; and a shift in focus to more grassroots, smaller events in early primary states.
The DeSantis campaign is doing all three. Since mid-July, it has laid off nearly 40 of its 90 staffers with a second round of cuts announced on July 25 in a statement from campaign manager Generra Peck.
“Following a top-to-bottom review of our organization, we have taken additional, aggressive steps to streamline operations and put Ron DeSantis in the strongest position to win this primary and defeat Joe Biden,” Peck said in a move first reported by Politico. “Governor DeSantis is going to lead the Great American comeback and we’re ready to hit the ground running as we head into an important month of the campaign.”
Appealing to ‘Small Money’ Donors
Despite posting a second-quarter Federal Elections Commission (FEC) report documenting nearly $20.5 million in contributions, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has postponed paying some big bills and faces prospective financial challenges after incurring a high “burn rate” in spending more than $8.25 million in just May and June.
The campaign faces another financial issue: More than two thirds of its contributions come from “big donors” who have hit the FEC’s individual campaign contribution limit and cannot donate to him anymore.
According to Open Secrets, only about 15 percent of Mr. DeSantis’s donations come from “small-dollar donors” in contrast to Mr. Trump’s successful small-dollar network.
Mr. Conant said treading water this early in a campaign is not a death knell but could hurt the DeSantis campaign in garnering and sustaining small-donor-fueled operations.
“I don’t think the polls matter at all right now, except when it comes to fundraising,” he said. “If you’re lagging in the polls, the fundraising gets harder and harder, and as the fundraising gets harder, it becomes harder and harder to, you know, run an effective campaign and you kind of get sucked into this death spiral.”
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, told Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” on July 19 that the DeSantis campaign needs “to shift, they need to be lean. And at the same time, he needs to go bold.”
Many of those laid off by the DeSantis campaign are essentially being transferred to the Never Back Down PAC created to support the governor. Two senior advisers, Dave Abrams and Tucker Obenshain, are now working for pro-DeSantis nonprofit organizations, the campaign said in a statement.
Mr. Abrams, the campaign’s former communications adviser and media director, is, or has, joined Atlanta-based media firm Ascent, which is supporting the DeSantis campaign.
Mr. Obenshain, the campaign’s former external affairs director, will lead an unnamed group that will stage campaign events, with a heavy emphasis on early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
A Big Bus and 99 Iowa Counties
The third leg of the revamp—refocus on smaller grassroots events, forays into “mainstream media”—which Mr. DeSantis steadfastly avoided until his July 18 CNN interview with Jake Tapper—and a recasting of the campaign’s messaging is less certain and more nuanced than the staff realignments and financial belt-tightening.
What that means immediately is a heavy emphasis on Iowa, where Mr. DeSantis is launching a bus tour of all 99 of the state’s counties with significant support from Never Back Down and other nonprofits engaged with the campaign.
“The more people hear and see Gov. DeSantis and his forward-thinking vision to fix Joe Biden’s failures, the better our path to victory,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “Gov. DeSantis will be appearing at events with dozens of organizations celebrating his policy and leadership. The ‘DeSantis is everywhere’ tour has begun.”
Mr. DeSantis is confident his “lean and mean” ground game in the early primary states, which will feature less large events and more in small settings, will pay off. “Watch and learn,” he told reporters during a July 14 stump in Iowa.
When it comes to remessaging, Mr. DeSantis is receiving plenty of advice. Most, of course, unsolicited.
Conservative commentator and radio show host Erick Erickson, who has been critical of Mr. Trump in the past and was among Mr. DeSantis’s early proponents, said the governor needs to get back to his initial elevator pitch and talk more about national kitchen table issues and less about Florida.
In a series of July 24 posts on Twitter, Mr. Erickson said some early DeSantis boosters he knows are now eyeing Mr. Scott because they expected the governor to “pivot from anti-woke to other stuff.”
“These people got tired of waiting for a message shift to happy warrior, veteran, pro-America, let’s get people back to work and America back to being awesome for everybody,” he wrote. “They’re getting the upbeat message from Scott and they like it.”
Mr. Erickson said Mr. DeSantis “culture war” campaign is not “winning Trump supporters” while “losing others who had wanted to be with him.”
“These people who wanted more than anti-woke do support the anti-woke stuff DeSantis has done but they are multifaceted and want more than a one dimensional campaign of anti-woke,” he wrote. “They want some optimism and vision in other directions.”
Mr. Conant said voters can perceive a governor as provincial in context with national and foreign affairs and it appears Mr. DeSantis has made “a classic mistake that governors are prone to make” when running for president.
“They tend to focus on what good governors they were. And when you’re running for president in Iowa and you’re trying to woo Iowa voters or New Hampshire voters, they really don’t care what a good governor you were in whichever state you’re from,” he said.
Presidential campaigns are all about the future, he said, and what Republican voters want to know in the context of 2024 is “A, can you beat the Democrat you’re going to be running against, and B, what kind of president are you going to be? What are your policy priorities going to be?” Conant said.
And there’s nothing worse than a boring campaign speech, he said.
“Too much of Governor DeSantis’ campaign so far has been backward-looking, talking about COVID, talking about Disney, talking about his record as governor, and very little about what a DeSantis presidency would actually look like,” Conant said.
“I know this firsthand, just having a great track record as governor is not enough, particularly when you go head-to-head with someone like Donald Trump,” Mr. Walker said. “And so, he needs to kind of light a fire with primary and caucus voters with some really bold ideas that will not only help him in the polls, but ultimately helping with the fundraising at the lower dollar level, which is what you need these days to sustain a campaign.”
The DeSantis campaign appears to be acknowledging those complaints. On July 18, the governor—the only military veteran among the 14 GOP presidential candidates—rolled out his plan for the Pentagon as commander-in-chief. His national economic plan is expected to be laid out soon with his foreign policy proposals in August.
Get After Trump
Mr. Conant, Mr. Walker, and Mr. Erickson are among those who insist Mr. DeSantis still has a better chance than Mr. Trump does to unseat Mr. Biden in November 2024 and that is a theme he should continue to pound away at.
Mr. DeSantis needs to make a better case with moderates and other GOP non-Trump supporters that he would make the more viable candidate and more effective president than the front-runner.
“As we get closer to the debates [first one Aug. 23] and the primaries next year, Ron DeSantis is going to have no choice but to sharpen his attacks on Donald Trump,” Mr. Conant said, noting there is a constituency within the party that wants him “going right back at Trump in the same way Trump is going at him. It is the only way to plausibly get back his position” where he began nine months ago.
DeSantis’s reset with a heavy Iowa focus could gain momentum. Although he trails in polls—Fox Business Network July 23 poll showed Mr. Trump scoring 46 percent and second-place Mr. DeSantis at 16 percent in Iowa—some GOP voters in the state are not happy that the former president attacked their popular Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds last week for “being neutral” in assisting all GOP campaigns, and that he did not to participate in a July 21 Des Moines forum hosted by an influential evangelical group.
“If he’s left standing come the Iowa caucuses,” Conant said, “you shouldn’t count him out.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.