Inside the Sputtering Campaign of Ron DeSantis (2023)

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michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Today, in the 2024 Republican race for president, no campaign began with higher expectations than that of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. So why is his campaign now stumbling so badly? My colleague, Shane Goldmacher explains.

It’s Monday, August 21.

Shane?

shane goldmacher

Hi, Michael.

michael barbaro

It is really nice to sit across from you. So thank you for coming in.

shane goldmacher

Thanks for having me in.

michael barbaro

We are here, you and I, to perform a kind of mid-campaign autopsy on the Republican presidential candidacy of Ron DeSantis and to talk through why it is that campaign has been going so poorly, knowing of course, that things can change, that it’s still early. Nobody’s voted yet anywhere. But that even with all those caveats, his campaign is in a pretty bad way.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, I mean, I would say autopsy’s maybe a strong word. The candidacy of Ron DeSantis is very much still alive. He’s very much still Donald Trump’s leading opponent. But what you are right about is the depths of the challenges that he’s been facing, both internal and external challenges.

Externally, he’s struggling. He’s struggling to connect with voters. He’s struggling to have his message meet voters where they are. And internally, he’s struggling with his campaign finances and his campaign staff. He’s gone through a series of shakeups. And he’s only a couple of months into this race.

michael barbaro

Right, and campaigns are all about projecting strength. And this campaign, especially with all of its very public shakeups, is not projecting strength and winningness, but instead, a kind of internal conflict. But that wasn’t how things started for DeSantis. So I want to go back and ask how it is we got to this seemingly pretty low point for the campaign.

shane goldmacher

I think strength is a really good place to start when you think about Ron DeSantis and to think about the place of strength he was in last November right after the midterms.

archived recording 1

Ballots are still being counted in some states, but already, a loser has been declared in the midterm election. The pundits say it was Donald Trump.

archived recording 2

We’re already seeing some Republicans distancing themselves from him and even blaming his endorsement for key losses this time around.

shane goldmacher

You’ll remember that Republicans in races across the country, in House races, in Senate races, in governors races, Republicans who were backed by Donald Trump, they lost races that the party had expected to win. This was supposed to be a red wave. And in most of the country, it wasn’t.

archived recording 3

There was a red wave last night. But it started in Florida and it ended in Florida.

shane goldmacher

But Florida was an exception to that.

archived recording 4

A disaster for Donald Trump and a triumph for his number one rival, Ron DeSantis.

shane goldmacher

Florida, a traditional purple state, a swing state. Ron DeSantis, he dominated.

archived recording 5

These are margins that you do not often see in a state like Florida.

shane goldmacher

He won in a landslide, 19 percentage points. They picked up house seats in Florida.

archived recording 5

This race here could be the perfect springboard into a presidential campaign.

shane goldmacher

And so what that gave Ron DeSantis was a real contrast with Donald Trump.

archived recording (ron desantis)

We saw freedom and our very way of life in so many other jurisdictions in this country wither on the vine.

shane goldmacher

That I’m a Republican who can win. That I can form a message that we can sell to the rest of the country.

archived recording (ron desantis)

Florida held the line.

shane goldmacher

Even if it’s a conservative, hardline message, that I can do it in a way that can win. And so you saw the beginnings of the buzz around Ron DeSantis as a potential presidential candidate. That he could be Trump, but electable and a Republican who can win while pursuing a hardline conservative agenda.

And amid that buzz, Ron DeSantis has to make a choice. Does he jump into the race then when the iron is hot? Or does he wait and continue to add to those conservative achievements and build out a policy portfolio as the basis of a 2024 campaign?

michael barbaro

And the reason, of course, to jump in is, as you just said, Trump is extraordinarily vulnerable.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, politics is often about timing. And you see just a week later, it’s Donald Trump who actually gets into the presidential race. And there wasn’t really a lot of excitement at that moment for Donald Trump. There was this real sense across the Republican Party that maybe this was a moment to move on. Maybe he had served his purpose for the party, shifted the party. But he was no longer going to help them the future.

michael barbaro

So the thinking at this key moment, if you’re DeSantis and his advisors, is seize the moment. Emerge as, declare yourself to be the heir apparent to Trump. Win the hearts and minds of Republican voters who are tired of losing. You have just won. Show everybody what a winner you are, enter the race.

shane goldmacher

That’s one possibility. And that’s the path not taken. Instead, the decision was from the DeSantis team, no, they weren’t going to go then. They were going to go later. And they’re going to use policy as the way to break through against Donald Trump. And the way they’re going to use policy is to push through a conservative agenda in the state legislature that he has almost complete control over in the first half of the year. And that that will form the foundation of his 2024 candidacy. And a direct confrontation with Donald Trump, that that could wait.

michael barbaro

Right, and there would seem to be a real logic to that, not running, and instead passing all these laws in Florida that would let him hold up his state and his governance of it as a conservative laboratory and a kind of promise of what a DeSantis presidency would look like across the whole country, which is useful in a Republican primary, where the voters tend to be hard right.

There would, however, seem to be one clear downside, which is that it opens up a pretty big vacuum in the national media and in the campaign that Trump could then exploit. And nobody exploits vacuums better than Donald Trump. So they had to understand that was a risk.

shane goldmacher

I think you have to think about it from Ron DeSantis’s perspective, which is for the years that he’d become a national figure as Florida’s governor, he really didn’t have to see the national stage because he was creating his own political weather. That he would get coverage on Fox News and other friendly conservative outlets for basically whatever he was doing. That he could roll out a book, and that he would get coverage. That he could make an announcement, and he would get coverage.

And so I don’t think he thought of it as ceding the stage as much as building a foundation that he could use to eventually challenge Donald Trump from an even firmer place than he would have right after the midterms. But that isn’t what happens. As Donald Trump has done for years with the Republican Party, he begins to dominate the weather. And it really starts when he’s indicted in New York for crimes related to hush money payments made in his 2016 presidential campaign.

michael barbaro

Trump fundraises off of that, raising millions of dollars as I recall. And DeSantis, who’s not yet a candidate, doesn’t really seem to know what to do about it. I remember an episode we did in which we talked about DeSantis’s kind of confusing response. He suggested that the indictment was a little tawdry. But then he went on to defend Trump against the indictment, kind of bends the knee a bit to Trump. And suddenly, the decision not to be a stated rival in the race seems not necessarily like a brilliant one.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, you see the Republican Party rally behind Donald Trump. And because Ron DeSantis was not in the race, because there was no leading alternative to Trump yet formally in the race, Trump was the person to rally behind. And there wasn’t a person to say, oh, maybe we should get behind this guy instead.

michael barbaro

But then eventually, DeSantis does finally enter the campaign.

shane goldmacher

I mean, for those who could hear him on Twitter, he entered the campaign.

michael barbaro

Remind us what happened. It was kind of a thing.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, so he got into the race in late May with an event on Twitter.

michael barbaro

Yeah, I tried to log into it.

shane goldmacher

They decided to try to do something unique.

archived recording 6

All right, I think we’re broadcasting.

shane goldmacher

And not do a traditional speech for his first event not do a video rollout immediately. So very excited to have Governor DeSantis — and they tried to do this Twitter Live Spaces.

archived recording 6

All right, sorry about that. We’ve got so many people here that I think we are kind of melting the servers.

shane goldmacher

And it was sort of a technical disaster.

archived recording 7

Yeah, that was insane, sorry.

shane goldmacher

It cut in and out. There were long pauses in the audio.

archived recording 7

— to freedom, put his money where his mouth is, upset the narrative

shane goldmacher

And for Ron DeSantis —

archived recording 6

Governor DeSantis, are you there? Can you hear us? I think you’re —

archived recording (ron desantis)

I’m here.

archived recording 6

I know, I think you broke the internet there. We had —

shane goldmacher

It stepped on the message he was trying to launch on that first day. [MUSIC PLAYING]

michael barbaro

And it sounds kind of small. And we’re having a little bit of fun with this idea that a campaign launch is a technical failure. But campaign announcements have always, in politics, been seen as kind of metaphors for campaigns, how well choreographed they are, how well planned they are. What’s the speech? How big is the audience? How big is the flag behind the podium? And here, where every decision was in control of the candidate, decisions were made that resulted in something kind of embarrassing and sloppy.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, I mean, I would call it symbolic, but not significant. But if the Twitter launch wasn’t particularly significant, he does run into some significant problems pretty quickly.

michael barbaro

Which are what?

shane goldmacher

It’s money. So he raised $20 million in only a short number of weeks. In fact, he raised more than any other candidate running in that second quarter.

michael barbaro

So what’s the problem?

shane goldmacher

The problem is sort of threefold. The first is what kind of money he was raising, which is big money, money from larger donors who you can’t go to over and over again. So he tapped them once. And he can never go back to them. There’s limits in federal campaigns to how much money you can raise.

michael barbaro

So basically, fat cats.

shane goldmacher

Fat cats — fat cats who can give only a certain amount. He hit that amount, and he can’t get money from them again. So they’ve been tapped out. The second problem with his money is that a lot of it was from such big donors that he exceeded the amount he can spend in the primary. And he banked a bunch of money he can only spend in the general election if he becomes the nominee. So that top line says $20 million, well, not really $20 million you can actually spend. It turns out it was closer to $15 million that he could actually spend.

michael barbaro

Let me just make sure I understand that. Because of the nature of who he was raising money from and the dollar amounts they were contributing, a bunch of that money cannot be used in the primary under the rules. It gets bounced over, carried over to the general election, which means a lot of is kind of walled away.

shane goldmacher

It’s totally walled away. Can only get $3,300 from a donor that you can use in the primary. So he was raising from a lot of people, $6,600. So half that money, he can’t spend it. Shows up in the bank account. But it’s got a little color coding. It says, you know what? This money, you can’t use this until at least next year. And if you’re not the nominee, you’ve got to give it back.

michael barbaro

Really interesting. OK, what’s the third issue?

shane goldmacher

The third issue is his spending. Ron DeSantis was spending a pretty big chunk of the money he was bringing in. He was spending on private planes. He was spending on a fancy launch that accompanied that Twitter rollout, which was at the Four Seasons in Miami. And he’s spending in ways that were unsustainable.

michael barbaro

So too much spending and from donors who give too much, too quickly.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, what he was missing is the small donors, the small donors who are increasingly the lifeblood of national campaigns. The people who give $20 a month. Sometimes they check a box to give it every month. And it really becomes this sustainable source of money for campaigns. This is what Trump has built, a small dollar machine. And when we got the first disclosures for Ron DeSantis’s campaign, it’s very much not what he has built, which was top heavy and had only less than, I think, 15 percent of all of his money came from people who gave less than $200.

michael barbaro

And it would seem that not getting small donors is not just, of course, a financial dilemma, but a reflection of the fact that as a candidate, DeSantis is not winning the hearts and minds of working class and middle class Republican voters.

shane goldmacher

Or the grassroots of the party, the people who are inspired enough to give. Now, money doesn’t necessarily mean you’re winning. Having the most donors doesn’t equal you’re the best candidate. But it’s one of those ways that you can measure enthusiasm. And what it shows is that he didn’t have that level of enthusiasm, certainly, to be competitive with Donald Trump.

michael barbaro

So what is this heavy spending, things like planes, fancy events, and the absence of these small dollar donations, what does it all together lead to?

shane goldmacher

It leads to a really turbulent period for the DeSantis campaign. They make cutbacks to his staff in mid-July. Around 10 people are let go. Not too much longer, another 25 or so people are let go. At this point, you’re looking at something like 40 percent of his entire campaign staff have been removed in a cost cutting way.

michael barbaro

That’s a pretty traumatic thing for a candidacy that’s only been alive for a few months.

shane goldmacher

It’s a very traumatic thing. Then after that comes a third round, which is his campaign manager. And his campaign manager is replaced.

And so now, you have this really unusual situation of a new candidate, just a few months into his run, who’s faced three successive resets. And suddenly, Ron DeSantis is at risk of being a candidate who’s being defined by his own campaign’s upheaval.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Shane, what do you come to understand is really going on behind all these upheavals and kind of failure to launch? And how much of it do you understand to be about these strategic problems like overspending? And how much of it is about just a political strategy that’s not working, not meeting voters and donors where they are?

shane goldmacher

I mean, I cover politics, Michael. And so I pay a lot of attention to how campaigns work, and how they operate, how they’ll fund themselves, and how they’ll reach voters. Voters aren’t paying attention to any of these things. They don’t know who the campaign manager is. They don’t care that you’ve cut back your staff.

But in the middle of all of these cutbacks, The New York Times did our first poll of the 2024 presidential cycle. And I think that poll showed the other side of what’s happening with the DeSantis candidacy, which is not the struggles to get their books in shape and to have the right sized campaign staff, it’s a more fundamental question, which is, is the message that Ron DeSantis is selling connecting with Republican voters?

michael barbaro

And what does that poll tell us?

shane goldmacher

I mean, the poll doesn’t have a lot of good news for Ron DeSantis. It showed him losing in a landslide to Donald Trump. And I think the specifics of the poll were even worse than that top line. And the specifics undercut some of the core things that he’s made his candidacy about.

michael barbaro

Explain that.

shane goldmacher

Well, some things we’ve already talked about, like that he could be the electable Republican in 2024. When primary voters were asked, well, who do you think is better described as able to beat Joe Biden, they chose Donald Trump by a 2 to 1 margin. And it’s a twofold problem on the electability question in the poll. Because it’s not just that Republican voters saw Trump is more electable in the survey, it’s that Republican voters weren’t that into electability in the first place.

That when given a choice between would you elect a candidate who mostly agrees with you on the issues or somebody who you think is better able to beat Joe Biden, more Republicans were saying, actually, I want somebody who agrees with me on the issues. So just the basic idea that winning would be the most important thing wasn’t something that was top of mind for Republican voters in our poll at the end of July.

michael barbaro

Shane, how should we understand that? Because as we’ve talked about earlier, the midterm losses of Trump backed candidates, not to mention the fact that Trump lost the 2020 election, not to mention the fact that Trump has now been indicted several times, all of those seem to provide a real opening for DeSantis in particular to come into this race and say I can win and electability should matter.

shane goldmacher

I mean, that was the thinking. But what we see is that it’s been a real struggle to get that to be the top issue. That Trump being indicted has rallied Republicans behind him. He’s still seen as the party’s leader. And then there’s been this surprise factor, which has nothing to do with Republicans at all, which is President Biden.

Which is that Republicans are seeing clips of President Biden packaged on Fox News and other outlets. And just if they’re watching his speeches, and that he’s tripping over his words. In one case, he’s literally tripping on stage. And it has made this argument that Joe Biden is some all powerful force that we must pick the most electable person, it’s made it a tougher sell.

michael barbaro

That’s really interesting.

shane goldmacher

That Joe Biden is seen as so beatable that look, anyone can beat him. And so what, yeah, Trump has different things that he’s not as good at, or maybe he lost, and maybe they don’t even think that he lost, but that somehow Biden himself, his own perceived weakness has made the electability argument a tougher sell.

michael barbaro

Got it. I’m really curious about the other plank that DeSantis based his campaign on, which was the conservative wins that he racked up in Florida. And the argument that in addition to electability, he’s been able to pass a deeply conservative agenda. Does our poll touch on that at all?

shane goldmacher

The poll didn’t go through his particular achievements in Tallahassee. But what it did cover are some of the issues that Ron DeSantis has based his candidacy on, issues like a six-week abortion ban, which is one thing that he did pass in Florida, and talking about whether you want to prioritize taking on corporations or not, which is something else that Ron DeSantis is very closely aligned with.

And here’s the tricky thing again for Ron DeSantis in this poll and why it had so little good news for him. It showed that no matter which side of these issues you were on, you preferred Donald Trump. And this was pretty remarkable.

The six-week abortion ban, which Trump has been critical of, which he has said is too harsh, if you think this law is bad, you want a Donald Trump. If you think this law is good, you also wanted Donald Trump. If you think that should go after global corporations, you wanted Donald Trump. If you think you shouldn’t be going after global corporations, you also wanted Donald Trump.

It really showed a tough pathway for Ron DeSantis that his issues weren’t resonating. And even among the voters who cared about the particular issues he’s focused on, he wasn’t winning those voters either.

michael barbaro

So this poll seems to be kind of a red alert moment for DeSantis on top of whatever financial problems he’s having with his candidacy. Because as you’ve pretty well established, it doesn’t really leave him with much of an argument for being in the race.

shane goldmacher

Well, this is just the national poll. But we did another poll that week that was about Iowa. And that poll had a little bit more hope for Ron DeSantis. At the top lines, it showed a closer race. He was losing to Donald Trump by a big margin. But it was 44 percent to 20 percent, versus the 37-point gap that he had nationally.

And the poll showed that there was a little more traction for the question of who do you see as better able to beat Joe Biden in a head-to-head match-up. Do you think that it’s Donald Trump or do you think it’s Ron DeSantis? In Iowa, Trump was ahead, but a much narrower margin, by about 9 points compared to the 30 percentage points that he led by nationally. And that’s why you’re starting to see a real shift in the DeSantis campaign itself.

They’ve almost downsized their ambitions from being a completely national campaign to challenge Trump everywhere to being an Iowa-based campaign.

And the reason Ron DeSantis is focusing on Iowa is that Iowa is the first state that votes in the 2024 primary. And for years, it’s had an outsized impact on shaping the race, not necessarily picking the nominee, but shaping whether this is going to be a contest at all. So it’s the place where Ron DeSantis could potentially take a chunk out of Trump and show that the former president isn’t so inevitable in 2024.

archived recording (ron desantis)

Particularly Iowans, they appreciate when you show up, particularly in some of the smaller communities because sometimes, people who overlook that. So we’re going everywhere.

shane goldmacher

He’s made the promise that he’s going to visit all 99 of Iowa’s counties, many of which are very small.

archived recording (ron desantis)

Hello, good morning.

archived recording 8

Good morning.

shane goldmacher

And doing things like a bus tour, stopping at gas stations, doing little town halls and meet and greets.

archived recording (ron desantis)

Yesterday, we’re playing catch, the county fair, Clayton County fair, right next to bunch of corn.

shane goldmacher

He’s got little anecdotes about his son. And he took his son to play catch in Iowa. And his son says, is this heaven? And he says, no, son, this is Iowa. He’s leaning into the Iowa campaign in a way that Ron DeSantis was not a few months ago.

archived recording (ron desantis)

God bless the great state of Iowa. God bless these United States. Let’s go onto victory. Thank you, and God bless you all.

michael barbaro

And you were just there on the ground in Iowa. So I’m curious how you found Republicans thinking about Ron DeSantis, and talking about him, and how open they are to this electability argument that’s so central to his candidacy.

shane goldmacher

So I spent a few days in the Des Moines area.

shane goldmacher

Yeah, I’m hoping to talk to a Republican caucus goers.

shane goldmacher

Went to the state fair, which draws a big cross-section of Iowans from across the state. It’s a big event. And —

shane goldmacher

What do you make of the DeSantis argument that the party needs somebody more electable? That Trump lost and —

speaker 1

I think that’s common sense. We want someone who’s electable.

shane goldmacher

It was a really interesting experience talking to a lot of Republican voters because what I heard was a receptiveness to this electability argument, more than, frankly, I expected.

speaker 2

Trump got beat once. He can get beat twice. I liked what he did. I liked what he did for the economy, the jobs aspect, China, the whole thing. But I don’t think he can pull it. I might be 1 out of 1,000, but I don’t think he can beat Biden twice.

shane goldmacher

There were people saying that they had concerns about Trump.

speaker 3

I think he’s got too much baggage. It’s too much of a distraction to the democratic process. It’s all about Donald. And I did vote for him. And I backed him tremendously in the first race.

shane goldmacher

What about the rest of the field? So — in most of the polls for most of this year, Ron DeSantis, has been the leading candidate. Has he not —

speaker 3

He’s kind of faded. And I don’t know why. I think he’s a good guy. He’s an —

shane goldmacher

What I also heard was no consolidation behind Ron DeSantis.

speaker 4

I like Tim Scott. I like Mr. Pence back there.

speaker 2

I like Elder. I like Elder. I like Tim Scott. DeSantis, we’ll see.

shane goldmacher

People said, I thought he was going to be the guy. And maybe he’s not the guy. And I don’t know why he’s not the guy. But he’s not the guy for me just yet. Maybe I’ll consider him later.

speaker 3

Seems like he’s got some drag, something dragging him back. And I’m just trying to discover what that is because he hasn’t taken off like I thought he should.

shane goldmacher

Even people who came to see him speak specifically, they just weren’t sold on Ron DeSantis yet. And so what I heard from voters there was this openness to finding somebody who wasn’t Trump because they’re concerned about losing in 2024. But the thing that really felt clear in talking to voter after voter was a lot of these people were just barely beginning their understanding of these candidates. And a lot of them were just interested in learning more.

I mean, the thing about talking to voters, Michael, at this stage of a race is you’re reminded how early it is. And so you may not have closed the deal with people because people have barely started tuning in in most of the country. And I think that’s probably about to change. We have the first debate of the primary season coming up this week. And it’s a pretty critical moment for Ron DeSantis and his best chance yet to make the argument that he’s a Republican who can win and then deliver a conservative agenda in a way that Donald Trump can do neither.

michael barbaro

So is it your sense, despite the roller coaster of a campaign that we’ve observed so far, that electability is still the right strategy for DeSantis? To make the argument to Republican voters, even though it didn’t bear out in the national poll, and it hasn’t entirely borne out in the Iowa poll, that he is the best alternative to Trump?

shane goldmacher

I think for all the Republicans who don’t want Donald Trump to be the nominee, they need electability to work. That there is no campaign that takes out Donald Trump without that because most Republicans in every poll still like Donald Trump. And no one has found a better issue than electability to try to take people away from him who still like him. And it hasn’t worked yet. But I haven’t talked to a Republican who thinks they have some other magic bullet that will work better.

michael barbaro

That understanding, that reality does make you realize that even though we have spent a lot of time in this conversation talking about the dramas and maybe the flaws of the DeSantis campaign, it’s very possible that even if Ron DeSantis had so far run a flawless, superb, upheaval free candidacy, he might be in exactly the same position that he’s in right now.

shane goldmacher

I mean, Ron DeSantis hasn’t solved a problem that no Republican has solved since Donald Trump emerged in the national stage in 2015, which is how to beat Donald Trump. And in that way, Ron DeSantis is just the latest in a long line of candidates who haven’t yet figured out a formula to pull away the party’s base from the president who they still love.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

michael barbaro

Well, Shane, thank you very much.

shane goldmacher

Thank you.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall near the border of Mexico and California on Sunday, delivering high winds and heavy rains that triggered flooding and mudslides. In parts of California, where at least 11 counties are under a state of emergency, the storm dropped a year’s worth of rain in a single day.

And for the first time in the tournament’s history, Spain has won the Women’s World Cup, despite a series of hurdles that once made its victory there improbable. Many of Spain’s best players spent much of the past year on strike. And as a result, were not invited to play in this year’s World Cup. Nevertheless, Spain defeated England 1 to 0.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Today’s episode was produced by Rob Szypko and Nina Feldman with help from Asthaa Chaturvedi. It was edited by Rachel Quester with help from Marc Georges. It contains original music by Marion Lozano, Elisheba Ittoop, and Rowan Niemisto, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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