Was Ron DeSantis lacklustre campaign doomed from the start?

Ex-GOP strategist believes the governor’s mix of awkwardness and nastiness will end his campaign, while a pollster says nothing can be predicted when it comes to the Iowa caucuses where it comes down to what happens in the room on the night, Gustaf Kilander reports

Tuesday 09 January 2024 20:19 GMT
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<p>Was the DeSantis campaign doomed to fail? </p>

Was the DeSantis campaign doomed to fail?

Ron DeSantis entered the Republican primary this spring as the preeminent challenger to former President Donald Trump and as the heir apparent taking on the old guard.

The Florida governor was “Trump without the baggage,” a far-right fighter ready to rumble with the “radical left” and govern more productively than the chaotic reality TV star, blustering real estate mogul and grievance-filled showman.

In a race against the oldest president in US history, being born in the late 1970s instead of the mid-1940s would also be helpful. Part of the thinking was that Mr DeSantis could win the White House by simply standing next to President Joe Biden on the debate stage and not looking old.

But was his floundering campaign always inevitable? Was Mr DeSantis always too awkward to be president?

Former GOP strategist and Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson certainly thinks so.

‘The most overpriced stock in American politics’

Newsom forces DeSantis to deny he follows science

“I said as early as in the spring of 2021 that Ron DeSantis was the most overpriced stock in American politics,” he tells The Independent. “He didn’t win in Florida by some magical gift of his own, he inherited the best Republican machine in the country – it elected him, he didn’t win – he was hustled in there on the backs of 30 years of Republican dominance in the state and an infinite amount of money.”

Calling Mr DeSantis “the opposite of political charisma”, Mr Wilson adds that “the initial idea of Ron DeSantis being a great campaigner was rapidly put to the test and discovered to be a lie”.

Mr Wilson says the governor is “without a question, the worst-performing, best-funded primary candidate I’ve seen in a long time”.

Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, disagrees.

“I think the fundamental factor is Trump’s strengths,” he tells The Independent. “It’s not as though Trump calling him ‘DeSanctimonious’ has destroyed him, or there’s any particular hit that’s hurt him, it’s just that Trump is just incredibly strong among Republican voters and became even more so after the first indictment, and has kind of dominated the attention space.”

Mr Lowry notes that the DeSantis campaign “overspent” and “overemphasized cultural issues at the beginning although not for crazy reasons”.

“But they adjusted and widened out their message. He just hasn’t proven to be an electric campaigner,” he adds, noting the difficulty of “running against the greatest showman on Earth”.

“He’s in a bad place now,” Mr Lowry says, adding that “there’s a potential path… but he basically has to win Iowa. And he’s not close to being there at the moment”.

‘His numbers there aren’t moving in a good direction’

Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis (L) and California Governor Gavin Newsom (R) appear on screen from the press room during a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Georgia, on November 30, 2023

Mr De Santis’s support in Iowa is actually on the decline, Ann Selzer, a prominent pollster in the Hawkeye State.

“His numbers there aren’t moving in a good direction,” she says. But she cautioned that the result is still up to the voters.

“I have been active in enough caucuses – I’ve seen everything happen. So I cannot say whether this will or will not result in success for DeSantis”.

There has been reporting on how the pandemic, Mr Trump’s dominance, and the increasing use of social media, have led to less campaign activity.

“There are not a lot of yard signs. I will say the only two yard signs I’ve seen were for DeSantis, but there’s just no visibility out there,” Ms Selzer adds. “Those are the things that in the olden days used to be a gauge of how active the campaign is. They’re not setting up their headquarters for phone banking, because volunteers can do that remotely.”

“It’s just very hard to see except if you tag along with him and go to his events, and get a sense of the crowd size. And that’s what likely caucusgoers are doing,” she says. “That is meaningful – if he’s not able to gather very many people at the Pizza Ranch it’s possible for likely caucusgoers to say he just doesn’t have the stuff.”

Des Moines Register politics reporter Katie Akin has been to countless Desantis events in Iowa this campaign season.

She notes that Mr DeSantis’s tour of Iowa’s all 99 counties, known as the “full Grassley” – named after the 90-year-old senator – is set to finish Saturday 2 December.

A split campaign with ‘a lot staff’

Newsom tells DeSantis he is trailing Trump in his own state

After driving all over the state to cover the governor, she noticed that he does have a large footprint.

“He has a lot of staff. I don’t know exactly how many, but he definitely has a lot of people,” she tells The Independent, adding that, unlike with most other campaigns, she interacts with two separate groups – the campaign and the Never Back Down Super PAC.

Both the campaign and the PAC have been beset by infighting and high staff turnover – most recently the head of Never Back Down – 2022 Nevada GOP Senate nominee Adam Laxalt – did just that when he backed down and left the PAC late last month.

Mr DeSantis has often been seen as combative with the press, taking a card from Mr Trump’s playbook.

But on the trail, Ms Akin says he’s “not too hard to get hold of … I wouldn’t say he’s been particularly aggressive”.

“He’s pretty good at staying on message, which doesn’t always make for the answer that you’re hoping to hear from him,” she adds.

‘Hillary Clinton looks like Ronald Reagan compared to Ron DeSantis’

Part of that may be what some see as his robotic nature and reliance on talking points.

“Hillary Clinton looks like Ronald Reagan compared to Ron DeSantis,” Mr Wilson says. “He’s literally among the worst candidates I have ever seen in any race at any level for human connection.”

“You can give him the best speech writers in the world and he still would deliver it in that robotic, snipping, nasty, totally flat effect,” he adds. “And it’s weird because his wife, Casey, who is going to run for governor of Florida by the way, she’s a former television anchor, so she’s a trained performer. They had a guy giving him speech prep and debate lessons – it clearly did not take.”

Mr Wilson says Mr DeSantis’s awkwardness and lack of charisma aren’t fatal in and of themselves.

Picture taken on September 9, 1999 shows former US President George Bush (L) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the German presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin

Speaking of the 41st president, the strategist says, “George Herbert Walker Bush, who I worked for as a young man, was what I call charmingly awkward. He had a sort of New England preppy aspect. And it was a little goofy, a little silly sometimes, but he still had a certain charm”.

“Richard Nixon was in many ways an awkward man,” Mr Lowry notes. “It’s just hard to do it against Trump.”

President Richard Nixon in the Oval office February 19, 1970 in Washington, D.C

“You can’t get away with it if you’re just awkward, or you’re just weird,” Mr Wilson adds. “Trump is a great performer. I hate him on every conceivable axis, but you have to see that the guy is a showman. He understands how to put on a performance – not everybody can do that in politics, and DeSantis least of all.”

“Bill Clinton was a masterful storyteller and Barack Obama made people feel like he cared about them,” Mr Wilson says.

Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attend the trophy presentation prior to Thursday foursome matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey

Mr Lowry says he “certainly didn’t think” Mr DeSantis’s supposed awkwardness doomed him from the get-go. “That was one of the many hostile narratives about him before he got in.”

But he notes that “there’s clearly some truth to” the narrative that Mr DeSantis isn’t the most personable of candidates. “He’s fine on the stump, but it’s not like Bill Clinton lining up with every person he sees.”

Will the DeSantis campaign end in Iowa?

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attends the Thanksgiving Family Forum

“I think he sticks it out to Florida because he’s arrogant. From what I’m hearing in Tallahassee, his wife doesn’t want him to quit and hand it to Nikki Haley,” Mr Wilson says.

“None of this had to go this way for him. He could have run a different campaign, he could have been a different candidate.

“His people were literally talking about ‘I’m gonna be the secretary of this,” ‘I’m gonna take over in the Commerce Department’ … astounding hubris.

“Politics punishes hubris like no other business I’ve ever seen,” he adds.

Not all Republican voters see this awkwardness and nastiness in the governor.

“He’s had pretty good attendance at his events,” Ms Akin, the Iowa political reporter, says. “If you look at some of the candidates that have polled lower or some of the candidates that are lesser known, at some of these Iowa caucus campaign stops for them, it’ll be like five people. Consistently, DeSantis is bringing out a couple dozen even in small rural areas.”

“Everybody’s perspectives on him are so different based on who they are and what they believe,” she adds. “I’ve talked to people after his events who think he seems very charismatic and charming and I’ve talked to people after who do think he seems a little bit stilted and weird … I really have talked to people who will come away from the same event with opposite opinions of how he seemed on stage.”

‘The key in Iowa is you never say never’

“I think the key in Iowa is you never say never,” Ms Akin says. “Looking back at previous cycles, there have been people who saw a surge in support just in the last couple of weeks before the caucus, even in the last couple of days.”

“Iowa is the least predictable,” Ms Selzer says. “We look at the most the largest number of candidates.”

“Keep in mind that in 2012, [former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum] had polled only as high as maybe five or six per cent poll after poll after poll. In the final poll was the first time he ever hit double digits.”

“Our polling showed him on an upward trajectory – that didn’t happen until the final week ahead of the caucuses,” she says. “And by caucus night, he won.”

In 2016, in the Democratic primary, Ms Clinton was “leading, leading, leading”.

“[Vermont Senator] Bernie Sanders never dipped in our polling and he started at three per cent. And by caucus night, he lost by less than one delegate equivalent. It’s just as it is designed, for things to happen late, and for there to be surprises,” she adds.

But the longtime pollster notes that when Mr Obama was running “you could kind of feel the contagion of a candidate picking up momentum and I can’t say that I feel that for DeSantis”.

Iowa Caucuses - Trump's post-result speech

‘You never know what’s going to happen in Iowa’

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (L) hosts Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during one of her "Fair-Side Chats" at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa

“You never know what’s going to happen in Iowa until it happens,” she says. “I was just looking back at some data from past years – we’ve had people who poll first in November or October … and then they come in third or fourth on caucus night.”

One of Mr DeSantis’s main arguments, Mr Lowry notes, was that “‘I can be Trump, but more successful and I can win’. And I still think he’d be the better general election candidate than Trump, but it’s hard to make the argument when Trump is beating Biden in the polls and beating DeSantis and everyone else by 30 or 40 points in the primary.”

By going hard in Iowa, visiting all 99 counties and getting the endorsements of Governor Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, the leader of a socially conservative group and a serial gubernatorial candidate, Mr Lowry says Mr DeSantis is “playing the only hand he can”.

“He’s done the work. He’s done the trips. He’s done the campaigning, he’s done the full Grassley … but the hour’s late and he needs to show movement,” he says.

The Independent has reached out to the DeSantis campaign for comment.

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