Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been “brutally honest” about his tepid polling, said donors who attended his campaign fundraisers this week and heard questions about his strategy for overtaking former President Donald Trump.
They said he remains confident about the campaign strategy and his path to the White House, despite that in both national and most state polls, DeSantis has trailed Trump by double digits.
The polls and the strategy
A St. Anselm poll of New Hampshire voters in late June showed Trump with a 28-point lead on DeSantis, with 47% of registered state voters picking him and only 19% picking DeSantis.from early June showed Trump with a formidable lead, at 61% with likely Republican primary voters, and DeSantis with 23%. A
Attendees at fundraisers on Tuesday in Wisconsin and Illinois say DeSantis acknowledged the polling gap but made a case the race is a “two-man” contest between him and Trump and argued he’s best positioned to win in the general election against President Joe Biden.
“He didn’t try to spin from it,” said one donor at a fundraiser on Tuesday. “He said, ‘Yeah, we’re (polling) in the 20[s]. It’s a good spot to be right now, this early. It’s about the states that matter,” one attendee recalled DeSantis saying Tuesday.
“His analysis is straightforward, which is, look, this is July, and nobody really is paying attention right now,” another attendee said.
“When you see the polls bump up for Trump after he’s indicted, that’s not a rejection of [DeSantis], that’s a sign of people being very unhappy with how the Democratic Party conducts itself when it’s in power,” this attendee added.
In a Truth Social post on Thursday, Trump gloated about the polls: “DeSanctimonious Polls are getting worse & worse as the public gets to know him. The Democrats would have a field day with Ron. He’s cold as ICE, and only hurting the Republican Party. We have a 49 Point Lead, and should be getting even better than that!!!”
While nearly all polls in Iowa show Trump with a healthy lead over DeSantis, “Never Back Down,” a super PAC backing DeSantis, says it has internal polling in Iowa that shows DeSantis consistently leads Trump in net favorability, according to a person familiar with the data.
In a campaign memo obtained by NBC News, DeSantis’ campaign wrote that “early state voters are only softly committed to the candidates they select on a ballot question this far out – including many Trump supporters” and that voters in their focus groups in the early primary states show they don’t plan on making up their mind until they meet candidates or see them debate.
The same memo argued that Trump and DeSantis “remain the only viable option” for two-thirds of the GOP primary electorate, and that “while [South Carolina Senator] Tim Scott has earned a serious look at this stage, his bio is lacking the fight that our electorate is looking for.”
“It should come as no surprise that our campaign will focus relentlessly on the early states while also building out an infrastructure to go the distance — and thanks to our generous supporters, we have the resources to do it all,” DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in response to a question about the memo.
The memo mentioned a tactic similar to the one that fundraiser attendees say DeSantis has been sharing: throwing a lot of resources into the first two primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
One DeSantis bundler who didn’t attend the fundraising events this week called for more intimate, “retail politicking” in Iowa and said bluntly, “Without a win in Iowa, there is no New Hampshire.”
Other donors who attended DeSantis campaign fundraisers seemed unworried about his distant second place in polling. It’s still early, they said.
“I wish he was higher, but I’m not surprised that he isn’t. So I’m not overly concerned about it at this point. If this was October I might be,” said Ernest Angelo, the former mayor of Midland, Texas, who hosted DeSantis for a fundraiser in early June. “This is a very unusual [race]. If this were the normal campaign situation, where he had six or eight people running for the nomination, I think he’d be running away with it without a doubt, but the Trump factor complicates it.”
Bob Grand, an influential Indianapolis Republican and attorney who hosted DeSantis for a fundraiser on Wednesday, said the governor’s record in Florida was the main point in remarks to about 130 attendees in Indianapolis.
“He’s been in the race over a month and a half – I mean come on, give people a break here,” Grand said. “He’s having some good success with obviously these swings he’s doing and raising money.”
“I think his message has gotta continue to be, here’s what we did in Florida, and those things that we did in Florida are applicable to the United States,” he added. “This is a state-by-state basis – we got time here to figure this out.”
The money race
DeSantis’ fundraiser in Lake Geneva, Wis., was hosted by Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, Republican mega-donors who gave $500,000 to a PAC backing DeSantis’ 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. One attendee estimated about $1 million was raised across the three fundraisers in Illinois and Wisconsin Tuesday.
DeSantis will be holding fundraisers all over the country going into mid-August. On Thursday he’ll be in Aspen, Colo., followed by stops in the coming weeks in Southampton, N.Y.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; Cape Cod and Nantucket, Mass.; Wichita, Kan.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; and Kansas City, Mo., according to two people who received a copy of his fundraising schedule.
Since DeSantisin late May, he’s held fundraising events in Texas, Nevada, California, New York, Pennsylvania and several in his home state of Florida. DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, also headlined fundraisers in Illinois in late June.
DeSantis told donors on Tuesday he’ll focus on his— and military background — in the coming weeks to create an indirect contrast with Trump, according to one fundraising attendee. His wife, Casey DeSantis, launched a voter mobilization program earlier this month focused on mothers and appears frequently in fundraising materials.
First presidential debate
In his fundraisers this week, DeSantis has also discussed the first presidential debate, set for late August. He says he still expects Trump to attend, though Trump has said he won’t. On Wednesday, in between fundraisers in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, DeSantis said on the Howie Carr radio show that “nobody is entitled” to the nomination and that Trump “needs to step up and do” the debate.
“He’s planning on Trump to be there, but he’s prepared if he isn’t. Either way, he’s prepared to fight back on policy and not get tied into the name calling,” one fundraiser attendee said about DeSantis.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump skipped one primary debate and participated in 11.
Asked about recent comments from donors, DeSantis’ campaign remains confident. “You could wallpaper the governor’s residence with the amount of premature political obituaries written about Ron DeSantis,” said Romeo. “Challenging the establishment is never easy — and this campaign to save our nation is going to be a long, hard-fought battle to defeat Joe Biden.”
DeSantis blames “media narratives” when asked about lagging poll numbers
The message from DeSantis to donors in these private fundraising events has overlapped with his responses to media questions about being behind in the polls.
In interviews with conservative outlets, DeSantis blames “media narratives” for his sub-par poll numbers, arguing the media opposes the idea of him as the GOP nominee because he’s the only candidate who can beat President Joe Biden in the general election.
He also dismissed national polls that show him trailing Trump because “we don’t have a national primary” and said his campaign is building infrastructure in the early Republican presidential primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Over the summer, we always anticipated we would be doing a lot of that laborious work that isn’t as newsworthy maybe, but ultimately that’s what leads to a winning campaign,” he said on the “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Radio Show” Monday. “We’re excited about the progress. We understand that there’s a lot more work to do.”
“There’s two candidates that can win the nomination, Trump and me. And I would say that I’m the only one that could win both the nomination and the general election,” DeSantis said on a Wisconsin podcast on Tuesday.
DeSantis’ campaign says he raised $20 million in his first six weeks as a candidate, with $8.2 million of that coming in the first 24 hours since his campaign launch. Abacking DeSantis also says it has raised $130 million since its launch in March. This includes a $82.5 million transfer from the coffers of DeSantis’ state political committee.
By comparison, Trump raised $35 million in the second fundraising quarter through his official campaign and leadership political action committee, Save America.
The super PAC has invested $100 million in its door-knocking program for the governor, and says it has 7,000 Iowans committed to caucusing for DeSantis on January 15, 2024.
“With six months until the first caucus, Gov. DeSantis is better positioned than any other candidate to go the distance, secure the Republican nomination, and send Joe Biden back to his basement,” said PAC spokesperson David Vasquez. “We are light years ahead of every other political operation, including Trump.”
The full campaign finance reports for money raised from April through June are due on Saturday, July 15.