Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign is attempting to change course after a turbulent two months, and a sharp drop in the polls, but GOP operatives and polling analysts aren’t sure whether the new strategy will work.
The Florida governor’s campaign has shed staff to streamline operations, re-focused on grassroots events and has vowed to make more media appearances, according to sources familiar and multiple reports. Some pollsters and Republican operatives argue DeSantis’ new strategy will be effective, while others aren’t convinced a campaign reset can surmount former President Donald Trump’s massive lead in the primary.
“I think a reset now gives Governor DeSantis a chance to reassert himself as the strongest alternative to former President Trump,” Jon McHenry, a GOP polling analyst and vice president at North Star Opinion Research, told the DCNF. “Gov. DeSantis moving to make himself more available to the media and voters is a great first step.”
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However, DeSantis faces strong headwinds after a series of mishaps, coinciding with a drop in the polls since his late May presidential announcement.
Following a rocky launch on Twitter that was full of technical glitches, the governor’s campaign has burned through cash and laid off a large portion of its staff. DeSantis, as well as campaign aides, have also gotten into numerous public spats with fellow Republicans and have attracted criticism in their own right, with the campaign firing one staffer for reportedly creating a video featuring a Nazi symbol.
The campaign is aiming to right the ship, and plans to capitalize on DeSantis’ personal story as a family man and veteran, focusing on his vision for foreign policy and the economy and deemphasizing social issues. DeSantis’ reset aims to cut unnecessary campaign spending, include more media appearances and make the governor more accessible to key early primary state voters.
Though DeSantis out-raised the entire GOP primary field during the second quarter of 2023, his campaign ended the first fundraising period since its late May launch with less cash on hand then Trump and South Carolina Sen. Scott. An outside adviser to the DeSantis campaign, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign’s strategy, told the DCNF that going forward, the campaign will be using its funds more efficiently.
“We ended up having a really bloated organization that is completely not necessary. Our burn rate was way too high for setting record amounts of fundraising in the first quarter, and we were just burning through money,” the adviser told the DCNF. “It’s going to make us a leaner, meaner organization, that every dollar that we save — on payroll and event expenses and travel — is going to be spent getting voters in front of, and getting votes for, Ron DeSantis in early primary states.”
DeSantis’ campaign cut a total of 38 staffers following the departure of two advisers, Dave Abrams and Tucker Obenshain, and a “top-to-bottom review of our organization,” according to campaign manager Generra Peck. The campaign also fired a prominent staffer, Nate Hochman, after he came under fire for creating a video that featured pro-Nazi imagery.
McHenry argued the campaign’s “staff was too big,” which indicated to contributors that DeSantis wasn’t being responsible with their funds. DeSantis also needs to promote his record in Florida without simply “owning the libs,” said McHenry.
“At some point he’s going to have to draw some distinctions with Trump and talk about how he’s really led when President Trump followed Washington,” said McHenry. “It’s not enough to be ‘Trump without the baggage,’ you have to be a better choice and have a vision for the country’s future.”
DeSantis is expected to focus his campaign more on foreign policy and the economy as opposed to the “culture wars” and his record in Florida. The governor will also headline smaller events, like town halls and meeting voters in their living rooms, and DeSantis will engage in retail politics to better introduce himself on a “personal level.”
Jamie Miller, former executive director of the Florida Republican Party, believes a new strategy will work for DeSantis, and he pointed to former GOP Nominee John McCain’s campaign reset during the late summer before the 2008 primary.
“He has time. He has the financial resources. He’s still a top tier person. He has not made a major blunder. He’s made a series of minor ones,” Miller said of DeSantis.
Never Back Down, a political action committee (PAC) supporting DeSantis’ White House bid, will continue its focus on grassroots organizing, Chief Operating Officer Kristin Davison told the DCNF.
“We remain focused on growing our efforts and amplifying his message in the early primary states,” said Davison. “Our team has already knocked 1 million doors nationwide, and will continue knocking doors, collecting caucus commitments, hosting events for Governor DeSantis to attend as a special guest, and getting the governor’s story and message to voters, which will make the difference between DeSantis and the rest of the GOP field over the next several months.”
The gap between the former president and DeSantis has continued to grow since making his candidacy official, coinciding with several social media spats.
The governor recently clashed with Scott and Florida GOP Rep. Byron Donalds over Florida’s new African American History standards, which had drawn criticism for purporting to teach students that slaves “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Scott and Donalds criticized DeSantis for promoting the curriculum, with Scott arguing “there is no silver lining in slavery” and Donalds encouraging the Florida’s Department of Education to amend the standards’ language.
Prior to his presidential announcement, DeSantis polled closer to, and sometimes higher than, the former president, but has since plummeted. Moreover, DeSantis’ highly-anticipated entrance into the Republican primary field came with a glitchy campaign launch on Twitter, which was delayed due to technical difficulties.
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The RealClearPolitics (RCP) average for a 2024 national Republican primary, based on polls conducted between July 5 and July 25, indicates the former president is leading DeSantis 52.4% to 18.4%, followed by conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy at 5.4%, former Vice President Mike Pence at 5.2% and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at 3.7%.
Trump is also ahead of DeSantis in all four key early primary states — in Iowa by 27 points, in New Hampshire by 30 points, in Nevada by 30 points and in South Carolina, the former president leads both Haley and DeSantis, who garnered 14% and 13% support, respectively.
“No matter how much the media and D.C. elites try to destroy Ron DeSantis, they can’t change the fact that this is a two-man race for the nomination,” DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo told the DCNF. “Ron DeSantis is ready to prove the doubters wrong yet again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback as we transition into the next phase of winning this primary and beating Joe Biden.”
‘Snake-Bit From The Get-Go’
However, Ben Torpey, a GOP political consultant based out of Florida, isn’t convinced a reset will be enough for DeSantis to cut into Trump’s massive lead in the polls, and argued the governor’s campaign has been “snake-bit from the get-go,” he told the DCNF.
“With [Trump’s] lead right now, I mean, it’s not over but I think the fat lady is warming up her vocal chords in the back,” Torpey said. “I don’t know how much a reshuffle or reorganizing is really going to help, but it’s better to try something than to keep doing the same thing that’s not working right now.”
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DeSantis remains “a strong second,” but the primary could soon evolve into a “one-man race” if the governor’s campaign reset doesn’t bode well, said Torpey.
Kyle Kondik, polling analyst and managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told the DCNF that the former president “remains extremely strong,” while DeSantis was at his strongest before he announced his campaign.
“It may be the case that Trump is weaker than he seems and that voters will get cold feet about him as the voting nears and the campaign heats up. But there’s not much reason to just assume that will happen, and it’s also not obvious at this point that if Trump voters move to another candidate, DeSantis is guaranteed to inherit those voters,” said Kondik.
Trump did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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