Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (TFP Photo)

Can Florida Gov. DeSantis Make A Comeback Before The First Votes Are Cast?

It’s unclear whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2024 presidential campaign will be able to make a comeback just months before the first votes of the primary season are cast, numerous national and key early nominating state operatives told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. By Mary Lou Masters

It’s unclear whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2024 presidential campaign will be able to make a comeback just months before the first votes of the primary season are cast, numerous national and key early nominating state operatives told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

After a tumultuous six months on the campaign trail, fielding attacks largely from former President Donald Trump and now former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, DeSantis’ support in national and state polls has continued to drop.

Political operatives, including several in the key early-nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire, argued that the only chance DeSantis has to change the trajectory of his campaign is to come in a strong second or win the Jan. 15 Iowa caucus, which many doubted.

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“I don’t think a lot has changed for him in the last month. He appears to be just spinning his wheels right now. Any momentum he ever had is gone, and the momentum that may exist for a candidate is clearly with Nikki Haley. So, he’s stuck. He’s in a tough position because what he’s doing isn’t working,” Mike Dennehy, GOP strategist in New Hampshire, told the DCNF. “His debate performances are fine, but they’re not inspiring. I don’t want to say that his campaign is over, but the opportunities to resuscitate his campaign are very limited.”

On Monday, DeSantis secured the endorsement from Iowa’s GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, which is notable as the governor pledged to stay neutral in the primary, angering Trump in July.

Many political operatives stressed the importance of Reynolds’ endorsement, but questioned whether it will dramatically shift DeSantis’ campaign in the state.

“It’s not over until it’s over. The endorsement of Gov. Reynolds, which I think it’s indisputable her endorsement was the most highly coveted in Iowa, it’s a big deal. And it should serve as a shot in the arm to Gov. DeSantis and his campaign,” Jimmy Centers, an Iowa Republican political operative, told the DCNF.

Mike McKenna, GOP consultant and president of MWR strategies, believes a win in Iowa could give him the momentum needed to secure an endorsement from New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, but cautioned that such a win is a longshot.

“I think there’s a real chance that Trump wins Iowa and that’s it, everybody’s dead,” said McKenna. “Either Iowa’s gonna be the start of the campaign or it’s gonna be the end of the campaign.”

Centers echoed McKenna’s sentiment, arguing that DeSantis or any other candidate believing they can beat the former president in Iowa is “incredibly unrealistic,” and they should be aiming for a “strong second place” with a double digit margin lead on the third place contender.

A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll released Oct. 30 found that Haley jumped 10 points in Iowa, while DeSantis dropped by 3 points. While the former president led with 43%, DeSantis and Haley were tied for second with 16% support.

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“On the ground, you could feel that and you could see that. People were beginning to move in droves to Nikki Haley’s camp. They had left Gov. DeSantis’ camp, they had Sen. Tim Scott’s camp and they are moving towards Nikki Haley. It remains to be seen now If Gov. Reynolds’ endorsement brings people back to Gov. DeSantis,” said Centers.

DeSantis’ campaign is largely focusing its efforts on Iowa, where the governor has visited nearly all 99 counties, has a significant ground game operation and has made a $2.4 million ad buy, according to a Nov. 6 memo provided to the DCNF upon request for comment. The memo also notes that the candidate who is polling ahead at this point in the race historically isn’t who wins the caucus.

“Iowa represents his best opportunity. It’s where they’ve invested a lot of time and energy. It’s where I think he lines up to the best with the audience. They’ve got, I think, a terrific infrastructure. The super PAC and campaign have put a lot of time and effort into that, as has Gov. DeSantis and Casey DeSantis, as well,” Iowa Republican consultant David Kochel told the DCNF. “That kind of commitment — I think Iowans will respond to a campaign like that.”

New Hampshire state operatives less optimistic on DeSantis’ ability to make a comeback, arguing the governor would likely need a strong showing in Iowa coupled with Sununu’s endorsement to change the trajectory.

“How do you break through? Clearly their ads aren’t working, they spent a lot of money on ads. So it’s almost like the more people get to know about him, the less they like him,” Dave Carney, Republican political consultant based in New Hampshire, told the DCNF. “So I don’t know what the issue is, but no, I don’t see Haley tripping, fumbling, falling, and Sununu jumping behind on the bandwagon for DeSantis and pushing it up the fucking hill. What else is there?”

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DeSantis’ campaign believes the governor has the ability to appeal to voters in New Hampshire because he attracts both the “Tea Party/Populist” and “Evangelical” wings of the Republican Party, according to the memo.

Dennehy attributed DeSantis’ lag in support to his “lack of charisma,” and told the DCNF he appears to have struggled with “connecting with voters” in the state.

“If I were a betting man, I would say DeSantis is going to continue to drop, Nikki Haley will continue to rise, the other candidates will drop out of the race and DeSantis would be smart to drop out if he’s lingering at middle single digits for the next month. If he hangs in at this rate without any movement at all, it would be a huge mistake for his future,” said Dennehy.

Haley also gained ground in New Hampshire, jumping ahead of DeSantis for second in an early October Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today survey. The poll found Trump and Haley with 49% and 19% support, followed by DeSantis with 10%.

“In order for you to build off the 10% or 15% where you are now, well some people think the logic is like, ‘well go get those people back’ — very, very difficult,” said Carney. “If you’re going on a date, really like it and then you turn around, you don’t like the guy, what are the chances you’re going to date him again? It’s just very difficult to get people to give you a second first look.”

The RealClearPolitics average shows Trump and DeSantis polling closest with each other in January and February, months before the governor officially launched a campaign, but the former president’s margin steadily grew following his first indictment in March. Trump is now leading DeSantis by roughly 44 points, with the governor bringing in 14.4% and Haley receiving 9%.

“There is no closing the gap,” Mark Weaver, veteran Republican strategist, told the DCNF. “He has to have enough money to keep the basic campaign operation afloat. Then do basic advertising in key states, then turn out as well. So he has to have enough money and volunteers to keep those things happening. If he does, he just treads water, keeps his head above that water line, hoping that something happens in Trump world that requires Republican voters to now look to a viable alternative.”

DeSantis’ campaign brought in $11.2 million during the third fundraising quarter, ending with $12.3 million cash on hand, but only $5 million of that haul can be allocated toward the primary.

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“Nikki Haley is second in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and is the only candidate with upward momentum in polls, fundraising, and support,” Ken Farnaso, spokesperson for the Haley campaign, told the DCNF in a statement. “Poll after poll shows that she is Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s biggest threat and would beat Biden by wide margins. It’s time to start calling this a two-person race, between one man and one woman.”

Alex Stroman, former South Carolina GOP executive director, doesn’t believe Trump will win Iowa or New Hampshire, and told the DCNF that another candidate could have an opportunity to secure the Palmetto state if they win or do well in either of the first two. However, if Trump does win Iowa and New Hampshire, Stroman said “the race is obviously over.”

A Winthrop University survey released in early October found Haley second to Trump 16.6% to 50.5%, with DeSantis following at 12.1%.

“There’s a lot of room, and there’s a lot of soft voters who are leaning Trump, who I think as we get closer to when actually voting — within weeks of voting in Iowa — [begins] that you’ll see a little bit of movement to the polls,” said Stroman.

Nevada is holding both a party caucus and a state primary, however delegates will only be rewarded via the caucus results. Many argue that the Nevada GOP’s leadership chose to keep its decades-long tradition of holding the caucus to benefit Trump after Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a 2021 law mandating a state-run primary.

Republican candidates had to decide which nominating contest to take part in, as the state party barred them from participating in both.

“I was really disappointed to see that DeSantis caved and joined the caucus,” Amy Tarkanian, former chair of the state GOP, told the DCNF. “You can see the writing on the wall, everyone can see it — this is a pro-Trump scheme of a caucus. And so it’s going to be embarrassing for anyone who’s not named Trump that has decided to participate in our caucus. Ron may be able to get one or two delegates out of it. But that’s it, and then he’s gonna get his teeth kicked in.”

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A Tarrance Group survey released in mid-October found Trump leading the crowded field in Nevada with 60% support, followed by DeSantis and conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy tied at 11%, and Haley close behind with 8% support.

Tarkanian believes it would be a “completely different scenario” if DeSantis ran in the primary instead of the caucus because of the “much higher participation rate.” The former state party chair commended Haley and Scott for opting against the caucus, because whomever wins the primary will be able to say they received more votes than Trump did in Nevada, which Tarkanian referred to as a “momentum strategy.”

Never Back Down, the super political action committee supporting DeSantis’ presidential bid, pulled resources from the state after the Nevada GOP decided it would still hold its caucus just two days after the primary, according to NBC News.

“To truly compete for the Republican nomination, you must be willing to aggressively compete for every single delegate – whether you like the rules or not,” the DeSantis campaign memo reads.

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