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Is Ron DeSantis's Campaign Already Over?
The Florida Governor has very little in common with the small handful of candidates who have bounced back from epic flops
Ron DeSantis is having another tough week. In preparation for this post, I tried to calculate how many consecutive weeks in 2023 his campaign had been in a downward spiral. The answer is basically all of them. The DeSantis effort peaked in November of 2022 when he won a historically large reelection in Florida. Concurrently, a slew of candidates endorsed by Donald Trump went down in flames. DeSantis got another boost a few weeks later when Trump made the bizarre — but on brand — decision to dine with Kanye West and a Nazi. For a moment, DeSantis was leading in the polls. Big-money donors and experienced operatives were begging the Florida governor to enter the race.
Since his peak, DeSantis has steadily dropped in the polls, become a national joke for his awkward encounters with voters, and given the worst campaign announcement in history. In the I&I/TIPP poll, DeSantis lost five points in the last month and is now down 39 points to Trump.
Campaigns can be stories of redemption. For every flop there is a “Comeback Kid.” Many candidates in history had near-death experiences on their way to accepting the nomination at their party’s convention. Barack Obama was written off for dead so often that we keep a running tally, later compiled into book form after Obama won reelection. President Biden spent his primary campaign in the doldrums — taking heat from activists and reporters. He even lost the first three states before a massive turnaround.
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Could the same thing happen to DeSantis? Is there a comeback in his future or has DeSantis already become a zombie candidate — dead but still running?
Never say never. After 2016, humility became a necessary ingredient for political analysis. However, recent history and DeSantis’ performance debate suggest that he is a dead man walking.
When you see candidates staying in the race long after their goose is cooked, blame John McCain. In 2008, McCain entered the GOP primary as the frontrunner. A self-styled “Maverick” with huge appeal among independent voters, McCain remade himself as a Republican favorite by becoming a fulsome backer of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. McCain had the support of the establishment, big donors, and the most talented operatives in the party. But in the early days of that campaign, he fell flat on his face. By July of 2007, the Arizona senator was behind in the polls and out of money. He fired most of his campaign staff, abandoned Iowa, and focused all of his attention on New Hampshire. McCain mounted a comeback and won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida before locking up the nomination on Super Tuesday.
On paper, the parallels between McCain and DeSantis are eerie. DeSantis hit a similar skid at a similar time, but I am skeptical that he can mount the same comeback. Candidate quality matters. John McCain was an incredibly talented politician. As regular readers of Message Box know, I hold DeSantis’s political skills in very low esteem. Last month I wrote:
Ron DeSantis’s biggest problem is not Donald Trump, the pro-Trump MAGA media, or the growing field of candidates splitting the non-Trump vote. DeSantis’s biggest problem is that he is Ron DeSantis. To win the Presidency, you must be able to woo people during one-on-one dinners and in VFW halls in places like Iowa and be deft enough to navigate the brutal levels of media scrutiny. DeSantis can do none of the above. His speeches are boring and poorly delivered... every time he appears in public, the Florida Governor makes a gaffe that distracts from his intended message.
DeSantis will likely improve as a candidate. He can only go up from here. But will he improve enough to pull off a nearly unprecedented comeback? In his entire career, he has never demonstrated that such ability exists in him somewhere.
No Money, No Media
There are two types of campaign shake-ups. The first is a blood sacrifice to appease donors and try to shift the press narrative about the campaign. The second is a cost-cutting move in response to lax fundraising. The DeSantis campaign’s recent shakeup is the latter. They fired a dozen mid-level staffers in an attempt to offload more functions to the Super PAC, which can raise unlimited money from DeSantis’s deep pocketed (but narrow) donor base.
The DeSantis campaign is in financial trouble. They spend more and raise less than expected. In the most recent fundraising quarter, DeSantis raised $19.7 million, but 85% of that money came from contributions larger than $200. People are limited on how much they can contribute to campaigns so an overdependence on large donors is a sign of weakness for the future. DeSantis also spent 40 percent of his money in the first three months mostly on extravagant travel arrangements like private jets. His campaign is spending money like a frontrunner but raising money like an also-ran.
Money is not everything in politics. The candidate who raises the most money doesn’t always win. There are two forms of political messaging — paid media (TV/digital ads) and free media (TV/podcast interviews, tweets, etc.). If you can’t afford paid media, you better be damn good at free media if you want to have a chance to bounce back.
As governor, DeSantis picked the right fights to generate press coverage. In terms of media scrutiny, being governor and running for president is like the difference between T-ball and the major leagues. Thus far, DeSantis has demonstrated very little ability as a presidential candidate to utilize the media to drive a message.
Look at this interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, which DeSantis billed as a major moment for the campaign:
DeSantis was fine in this interview. He didn’t screw up. But candidates running out of money and down 40 points in the polls must excel at every opportunity to pull off the impossible.
DeSantis has a media problem bigger than his own middling performance. Over the last few years, Fox News made DeSantis into a MAGA star with glowing coverage of his culture war fights in Florida. After his big reelection victory, Fox treated DeSantis like the heir apparent to the MAGA throne, which undoubtedly contributed to his spike in the polls late last year. But what Rupert giveth, Rupert can taketh away. Rolling Stone recently reported:
In recent weeks, the Murdochs have grown increasingly displeased with the DeSantis campaign’s perceived stumbles, lackluster polling, and inability to swiftly dethrone Trump, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. They have also seriously questioned whether the governor is capable of defeating Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
Billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch in particular has been voicing his doubts and frustrations in private discussions and calls, at times wondering if a DeSantis “comeback” is possible at this point.
Can DeSantis come back? Anything is possible. Maybe Trump will finally collapse under the weight of his own criminality and chaos. But DeSantis seems to have more in common with the highly touted candidates who collapsed early and never returned than the small handful who came back to win.