Published December 19, 2023
The loss of key staffers and dismal polling figures have left DeSantis in the dust. It’s sink or swim.
he resignation last week of Ron DeSantis’ chief strategist, Jeff Roe, was just the latest in a series of campaign shakeups. These, combined with his stagnant poll numbers, contribute to a sense that his once promising campaign is unraveling. It would be premature, though, to declare that DeSantis’ campaign is effectively dead.
Winning campaigns often go through rough spots before surging toward victory. In 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry dropped to single digits in Iowa polls by December 2003 before recovering to win. The 2008 Republican nominee looked like a busted flush in mid-2007 when money troubles caused him to lay off staff. He, too, recovered to win.
Even GOP idol Ronald Reagan hit a road bump on the way to the 1980 nomination. He shockingly lost the Iowa caucus to George H.W. Bush and fell behind in some polls in New Hampshire. He came back to soundly defeat Bush, but also fired his campaign manager, John Sears, on the eve of the vote. DC insiders thought Sears’ departure was a disaster, but instead it simply freed up Reagan to be his charismatic, conservative self.
That’s what DeSantis backers hope will happen with Roe’s departure. The highly touted consultant had dominated campaign discussions from his perch in charge of the primary DeSantis Super PAC, Never Back Down. Roe was supposed to have been a Iowa caucus whisperer, having guided Ted Cruz to his victory over Donald Trump in 2016. The fact that DeSantis remained mired in second place, well behind Trump, simply grated on DeSantis’ longtime Florida backers to the point where they finally forced Roe’s departure.
DeSantis has certainly disappointed on the campaign trail. He formally entered the race on in late May and was expected to quickly become Trump’s major challenger. Instead, he has dropped in national polls and, more crucially, in Iowa. He trailed Trump by only 12.5 points in that first-in-the-nation state when he entered the race. Today, he trails by 32.
He’s faced some serious headwinds that explain some of his difficulties. Trump has largely focused his ire on him, rarely mentioning the other challengers. Nikki Haley has also blasted DeSantis, too, knowing that she first has to knock him out before she can take on Trump. The result is that both campaigns have spent over $31 million in television ads attacking DeSantis, with Haley alone spending nearly $5 million in Iowa just in the six weeks between October 26 and December 8.
With this barrage against him, the wonder isn’t that DeSantis has dropped since the summer; it’s that his Iowa poll numbers have actually risen slightly since late September.
The question now is whether DeSantis really has been hamstrung by a consultant and strategy that didn’t fit him. He has to make a clean break with Roe’s approach and go for Trump’s jugular in Iowa.
He can do that if he starts making clear contrasts between him and Trump on key issues. Abortion should be front and center given the state’s traditionally strong evangelical Christian voter bloc. Trump has called the six-week abortion bans Iowa governor Kim Reynolds and DeSantis have signed a “terrible mistake”. DeSantis needs to make this point again and again and directly ask evangelicals what they care more about: saving babies or saving Trump.
He should also outflank Trump on his signature issue, immigration. Trump has focused on controlling the supply of illegal immigrants by building the wall on the Mexican border and ramping up enforcement. DeSantis’ efforts on the issue thus far merely mimic Trump’s emphasis. You can’t put your foe on the defensive by simply being “me too”.
DeSantis should instead focus his immigration policy on controlling the demand for illegal workers. Trump has never backed mandatory employer use of the e-Verify system that would quickly check whether a job applicant has the legal right to work in the country. DeSantis should make that his immigration centerpiece and challenge Trump to do the same. Trump has previously criticized E-Verify as making it too hard for employers to find workers and proposed cutting its funding as President. If DeSantis can’t hang Trump on his own immigration record, he doesn’t deserve the nomination.
DeSantis could also make a late recovery with a sterling debate performance. CNN is hosting a debate in Iowa on January 10, just five days before the caucus. It’s likely to be a 1-1 debate with Haley, since Trump has yet to participate in a debate and the others are unlikely to qualify. Debates close to election day have a habit of dramatically shifting a race’s trajectory. DeSantis cannot afford to mess this opportunity up.
Adversity tests character. DeSantis’ campaign turmoil could be a sign that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be president. Or they could be a sign that he does and is finally determined to run his own effort. The next month will show clearly which explanation is correct.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.