How DeSantis imploded in the GOP primary

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) surprise decision to drop out of the GOP presidential primary less than a week after the Iowa caucuses laid bare the challenges he faced in his effort to topple former President Trump. 

The DeSantis campaign and the super PAC supporting him grappled with a wave of bad headlines throughout the primary, including multiple campaign resets, a high cash burn rate and a reshuffling of leadership among both operations.  

Still, the governor’s exit from the race just days before the New Hampshire primary came as a shock to many and has already spurred postmortems as Republicans seek to determine where the once-rising star went wrong.

“The campaign really never offered a rationale for why [GOP voters] should leave Trump and move to DeSantis,” said GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum Brian Seitchik. “If they were gonna run against Trump, they should have taken the fight to Trump directly, and they never really did that.”

The Florida governor announced he was dropping his presidential bid and endorsing Trump in a video released on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, on Sunday afternoon. His decision has transformed the primary into a two-person contest between Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is hoping for a surprise upset in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

DeSantis’s announcement marked a stunning end to a candidacy that was once seen as the best hope for conservatives looking to move on from Trump. The governor was given the rock star treatment at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2022 amid support for his polices at the height of the COVID pandemic. Later that year, his sweeping reelection victory as governor of Florida during the midterms — contrasted with the generally poor performance of Republicans elsewhere in the country, including those backed by Trump — only solidified his star status.

But DeSantis’s 2024 campaign got off to an immediately rocky start. His launch on Twitter Spaces alongside Elon Musk in March 2023 was marred by technical glitches. And he was soon drawing negative headlines for his sometimes-stilted performance on the campaign trail, as well as controversies in his home state of Florida, which included his public feud with Disney and criticism over the state’s handling of an AP African American history course.

The governor never really managed to catch up with Trump in the polls, either, even at the height of his popularity within the party. A polling average of national surveys compiled by Decision Desk HQ and The Hill on Feb. 22, 2023, showed Trump at 47 percent and DeSantis at 29 percent, while Haley polled at 6 percent. That gap only widened in the ensuing months as Trump’s popularity with the GOP base solidified amid multiple indictments.

The current DDHQ/The Hill national polling average finds Trump in first place at 67 percent, Haley in second at 12 percent and DeSantis in third at 11 percent.

DeSantis’s campaign also underwent turmoil, including two rounds of layoffs last July as they burned through cash. DeSantis later changed his campaign manager, while the super PAC supporting him, Never Back Down, became mired in its own difficulties, including changes in leadership, reported infighting within the group, and the departure of several top officials, including former chair Adam Laxalt and top strategist Jeff Roe.

Republican strategists pointed to several of these issues as to why DeSantis struggled to gain traction against Trump.

“I think there’s a whole laundry list of things that went wrong, from, you know, his announcement, his disastrous fight with Disney … the never-ending stories of campaign resets,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign.

Many Republicans argue the campaign’s failure comes down to one basic problem: DeSantis couldn’t articulate why GOP voters should choose him over the former president.

“I think the overarching problem was that he never made an argument for why he would be a better nominee than Donald Trump. You know, his whole campaign was just bragging about what he had done in Florida,” Conant said. “But voters in Iowa didn’t care.” 

Republican strategist Jason Cabel Roe, who worked on campaigns for both Rubio and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), argued the “fault lies with DeSantis himself.” 

“I think his insularity and unwillingness to trust anyone outside of his inner circle of Florida advisers made it very difficult for him to find experienced presidential staff, and I think that was a real impediment to how the campaign itself functioned,” Roe said. 

Supporters of the Florida governor insist Trump was too strong a candidate for DeSantis to overcome, and that it simply wasn’t the right time for the governor to run. 

“We can sit around and Monday-morning-quarterback all we want, but at the end of the day it’s about timing and the mood of the country, and the mood of the country has moved in the last six months,” said Roy Bailey, a DeSantis supporter who worked as a co-chairman for national finance during Trump’s 2020 bid. 

“They don’t want to put up with the weaponization of our government against candidates on either side, and they’re standing up for that, so they’re supporting Trump,” Bailey said. 

Bailey said he was “disappointed” that DeSantis dropped out, but added: “I’ve never been more proud to support a candidate.” 

In a text message, Bailey added that he would be optimistic should Trump and DeSantis form a presidential ticket. 

“A Trump/DeSantis America First ticket would win in November and set us up for 12 years of great governance!!! It would save our country and set us in the right direction for generations,” Bailey said. 

A longtime DeSantis supporter who requested anonymity to speak candidly acknowledged that the campaign could have done things differently. But they argued that it would not have mattered in the end, pointing to Trump’s loyal base. 

The DeSantis supporter said that after speaking at several caucuses in Iowa and comparing notes with others, “what we did find is that Trump supporters were coming up to us and saying, ‘Look, we love your guy. We just don’t think it’s his time. We think we need to rally around President Trump and support him because of all he’s facing for us, and that he should wait till 2028.’” 

“I guess one thing we learned is that he hasn’t damaged his brand with the base — the MAGA base — and look, the guy’s gonna be governor of the third largest state for the next three years,” the supporter added. “He’ll be able to raise a lot of money, he’ll have [a] profile, he’ll have a platform, and if he decides he wants to run in 2028, I think that option will be there.” 

Members of the party outside of DeSantis’s orbit also acknowledge the Florida governor faced tough odds from the start. 

“It was an inevitable fate for DeSantis,” said Ryan Williams, who worked on Romney’s 2012 presidential run. “The Republican Party has not moved on past Donald Trump.”

“This has been known now for the last four years, and nobody was gonna beat him. DeSantis gave it his best shot, but the party wants Donald Trump and there’s nothing that any candidate could do to stop it this cycle.”

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