MANCHESTER, New Hampshire— Less than two months before Republican voters begin casting their primary ballots, it’s clear Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign is broken—and he’s not fixing it either.
During a campaign stop at a stodgy New Hampshire banquet hall last week, DeSantis continued to display the range of tics and verbal crutches that have defined his campaign as an exercise in cringe.
Despite pleas from his supporters and outside observers to stop mentioning his home state so frequently, for instance, the governor of Florida mentioned Florida some 40 times in just under an hour of speaking time.
He repeated the same anecdote he usually relays to New Hampshire crowds about how his two daughters didn’t want to come on his last trip up north, which he took as a prime opportunity to take his 5-year old son, Mason, to see Fenway Park in Boston. The Florida governor also insisted he supported the Boston Red Sox “for all seven years” of his time at Harvard and Yale.
And just like he has during his entire campaign, DeSantis could only attempt indirect, glancing blows at the person he needs to beat to win the GOP presidential nomination—Donald Trump.
“You can go out there half-cocked and shoot your mouth and do all this,” DeSantis said, ostensibly referring to Trump, “but if you’re not actually delivering and winning elections… we have a record of doing that in Florida.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, usually an easily excitable presence, did not sound especially enthused to be introducing his Florida counterpart at the event.
In rushed remarks, Sununu claimed DeSantis is “making a huge surge” and “putting the foot leather down, if you will.” (If the polls are any indication, DeSantis may need more foot leather: He’s sunk into the single digits in New Hampshire, trading places with former unknown Vivek Ramaswamy.)
Perhaps fittingly, a campaign stop that encapsulated DeSantis’ fundamental flaws as a candidate kicked off a week that encapsulated the fundamental flaws of his campaign operation and strategy.
During DeSantis’ New Hampshire swing, NBC News reported that the governor’s official campaign and its most essential ally—the Never Back Down super PAC—have been beset with bitter infighting. The warfare got so bad that a new super PAC with different leaders is being spun off, reportedly with DeSantis’ blessing.
That PAC, according to Republicans familiar with the move, is more closely aligned with DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier, who came in to replace the governor’s first campaign manager in August.
On top of that, Never Back Down—the source of most of DeSantis’ TV ads, and the highest spender among any other campaign or PAC this cycle—has gone dark on the airwaves in New Hampshire and is not expected to air any until the first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 23. If DeSantis performs above expectations in the Jan. 15 Iowa caucus, his cash-strapped campaign would have to bankroll New Hampshire ads, according to Republicans briefed on the DeSantis team’s plans.
While DeSantis’ struggles are hardly new, the most urgent problem for the Florida governor is the lack of progress he’s made in addressing them as the primary campaign hurtles into its home stretch with former President Donald Trump still very much in command.
Still, DeSantis’ team sees their path to victory running through Iowa, where they would look to capitalize on the momentum of a strong caucus showing and turn their steady descent toward irrelevance into a winning streak that would, finally, put Trump on his heels.
Increasingly, however, it seems that if any candidate is to play that role, it will be Nikki Haley, who is beginning to consolidate the non-Trump primary vote and, crucially, donor support. On Tuesday, Haley secured the endorsement of the billionaire Koch brothers’ political network—unlocking a vast pool of financial and organizing resources to power her through the most critical phase of the primary.
Now, the Florida governor is increasingly confronting an idea he often references on the trail: “managed decline.” But in this context, it’s DeSantis’ political future, not U.S. superpower status, requiring the management.
“It feels like there was a little bit of a reboot there late in summer,” Jim Merrill, a longtime GOP presidential campaign strategist based in New Hampshire told The Daily Beast, “but it ended up being more of the same.”
In response to The Daily Beast, the DeSantis campaign pointed out they’ve gone up with TV ads earlier than initially planned in Iowa, and included a response from campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo following the news Haley won the endorsement of the Koch network.
“Congratulations to Donald Trump on securing the Koch endorsement,” Romeo tweeted shortly after the news broke. “Like clockwork, the pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment is lining up behind a moderate who has no mathematical pathway of defeating the former president. Every dollar spent on Nikki Haley’s candidacy should be reported as an in-kind to the Trump campaign.”
Never Back Down PAC did not return a request for comment.
For the duration of the primary, DeSantis’ message has long been some version of “Trump-light,” as University of New Hampshire pollster Andrew Smith put it, “but the Trump supporters basically just said, why should we get Trump-light when we can have full-strength Trump?”
Most amused by that state of affairs is, unsurprisingly, Trumpworld. After the former president spent the early months of his campaign pummeling DeSantis with attacks, he and his team have largely lost interest in attacking him since the late summer.
“I find no amusement in it anymore. It’s sad, I honestly feel kinda bad for some of these folks,” a source close to the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast. “What will be really entertaining is when [after the 2024 election] all of the Never Back Down people and DeSantis will have to sit at Harvard talking about where everything went wrong. This is gonna be even more entertaining, and there might be fists thrown.”
The balkanized culture of the DeSantis operation—siloed among the campaign and supporting PACs—has also been a consistent drag on his candidacy, Republicans say.
“The biggest thing I’ve heard is, it’s a bad culture, there’s no information flow,” a GOP consultant told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to recount conversations with ex-DeSantis staffers. “There are senior-level people over there who just don’t don’t know what’s going on.”
An early DeSantis supporter and presidential campaign veteran in New Hampshire let out a sigh when asked about the campaign culture, which they described as marked by constant squabbles over minor details.
“The DeSantis team?” they asked. “Everything’s a fucking problem.”
In a more encouraging sign for DeSantis, Republicans who interact with him are coming away with positive impressions—just behind closed doors.
One locally influential and undecided Republican said the candidate they saw at a private event was a far cry from the brand label version of DeSantis sold by the PAC and the campaign.
“I think he’s better with a smaller number of people,” the longtime New Hampshire primary operator said, evoking a description of DeSantis eerily reminiscent of the one pushed by allies of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: If only you could see the candidate behind closed doors.
While DeSantis usually makes a passing reference to the importance of having a two-term GOP president in private, the event attendee said the Florida governor detailed a more technocratic vision for how he would govern, looking at both short and long-term impacts.
“He seemed like a new person, to me,” the Republican said, adding they were impressed with how DeSantis handled pressure on a question over abortion in private.
With just weeks left for DeSantis to change the dynamic of his campaign, the governor and his team are trying something new—and risky. On Thursday, he is scheduled to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom on primetime television.
While DeSantis hasn’t gotten the opportunity to debate Trump, there’s hope that a one-on-one match against his California counterpart and archenemy might show a side of him that has so far gone unnoticed.
At his Manchester event last week, DeSantis put up a confident front when asked about the debate, accusing the California governor of running “a shadow campaign” for 2024 in the event President Joe Biden doesn’t end up on the ballot.
But privately, early DeSantis backers in New Hampshire are more than a little worried about the downside of debating Newsom.
“If Ron DeSantis doesn’t find a personality and a way to find a way to articulate thoughts that are not canned answers,” a New Hampshire primary veteran and DeSantis supporter told The Daily Beast, “he could get his ass kicked, and it’ll hurt him. If you’re gonna go after Newsom, you better not miss.”
As much as the Newsom debate offers DeSantis an unconventional chance to shake things up, there’s a limit to how much a one-off event can shift his image among GOP voters.
“You don’t often get a second chance to make a first impression,” Merrill said.