Supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) plan to buy at least $25 million in television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire between Labor Day and Halloween, hoping to reverse his summer slide in the polls after what they view as a strong first debate performance this week.
Senior officials for Never Back Down, the super PAC funding most of the DeSantis effort, briefed donors on the broad outlines the aggressive advertising investments during a Wednesday buffet lunch at a Milwaukee hotel before the debate. The first $13 million in television registrations should be placed as early as Friday, with subsequent purchases planned for New Hampshire.
Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of Never Back Down, said Friday that the total television buy could rise over the coming months, as the group continues to study the results of tests in voter reaction from the first three rounds of advertising starting in April. “After preseason dominance and a complete debate victory by Gov. DeSantis, we are now running aggressively into the political season while others are playing catch-up,” Davison said in a statement to The Washington Post.
DeSantis supporters are hoping the debate this week in Milwaukee reverses the steady decline in Republican primary support that has dogged DeSantis since he entered the race. The DeSantis campaign said it raised more than $1 million in the 24 hours after the debate, a number first reported by ABC News. About 20 donors made fundraising calls with DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, from Milwaukee on Thursday.
A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found 29 percent of Republican voters who watched the debate said DeSantis performed best, slightly beating businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who was declared the winner by 26 percent. At the donor briefing before the debate in Milwaukee, senior Never Back Down officials cited a recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa Republicans to make a bullish case for the Florida governor’s prospects in the crucial first nominating state.
The poll found former president Donald Trump was the first choice of 42 percent of likely caucus-goers, more than double the 19 percent who support DeSantis. But the same poll found 52 percent of caucus-goers had not made up their minds, including 34 percent of Trump supporters. The poll also showed Trump and DeSantis were tied in favorability in the state, with two-thirds of caucus-goers expressing positive views of them.
Businessman Roy Bailey, a former national chair for Trump who is now a donor to DeSantis, said the presentation Wednesday left the DeSantis donor community with confidence that his effort is moving in the right direction. About 60 people were at the lunch to hear from Never Back Down strategist Jeff Roe and others, according to a person present who was not authorized to speak publicly about the event.
“Jeff Roe just laid out a brilliant plan that is not only impressive but really believable and now we just got to go execute,” Bailey said. “These are start-up businesses. They are not a perfect science. In any start-up business, you never know just what to expect so you have to retrofit it to be perfect.”
The first months of the DeSantis effort have not been smooth, with substantial layoffs at the campaign, attempts to reset his message and tensions between the campaign and Never Back Down, which is paying for most of the effort to elect the governor despite federal rules that bar coordinating strategy directly with the candidate.
DeSantis has the support of 14 percent of Republican primary voters in the latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls, down from 30 percent in late March before he formally entered the race. Never Back Down has spent $18.7 million on advertising through Friday, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact. By contrast, MAGA Inc., a super PAC supporting Trump has spent $22.6 million, while the campaign of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and an affiliated super PAC have spent $13 million.
Never Back Down also plans to continue growing its paid field operation in early primary states over the coming months. As of this month, the group has hired 13 advisers and directors for states that plan to hold contests in March after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The unusually large role Never Back Down has in the DeSantis campaign was on full display this week in Iowa, where the PAC is hosting events for the candidate.
On Thursday evening, as Trump was in Georgia being booked on his fourth indictment, DeSantis joined the PAC for a starkly contrasting scene in a visit to the movie-famous Field of Dreams with his family. DeSantis was brief when a reporter asked his thoughts on the split-screen unfolding with Trump’s booking on Georgia charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
“Well I’m glad I’m at the Field of Dreams. I’m happy to be here,” he said. Many political observers, along with some DeSantis supporters, concluded the governor neither hurt nor helped himself at the debate, where rivals such as first-time candidate Ramaswamy grabbed more attention with heated clashes.
And Trump supporters zeroed in on the governor’s hesitance when moderators asked candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump even if he is convicted of a crime. DeSantis, who had objected to another show-of-hands question, later said he waited because of his opposition to “doing the hand-raise.”
Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said in a statement Friday that the debate was “the beginning of the end” for the DeSantis campaign and that “the memorable scene that will live on forever” is when DeSantis “stood staring at Vivek Ramaswamy to see if he should raise his hand. No amount of Super PAC puppet master money, or staff reboots, can save DeSantis’ sinking ship.”
But DeSantis advisers argued he did what he needed by getting his message out and staying above the fighting. “Donald Trump is an existential threat to the Republican Party for years to come, and if we want a clear choice, one that has integrity, that answer is sitting right in front of us,” said Jay Zeidman, a DeSantis donor who participated in the donor calls Thursday.