Ron DeSantis’ challenge: Build a GOP coalition against Trump

Here’s what DeSantis’ Twitter campaign launch tells us about his presidential strategy.
Gov. Ron DeSantis will need to walk a numerical tightrope. Former President Donald Trump leads DeSantis by an average of more than 30 points in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics.
Gov. Ron DeSantis will need to walk a numerical tightrope. Former President Donald Trump leads DeSantis by an average of more than 30 points in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 27, 2023

MIAMI — When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his candidacy for president Wednesday, confirming years of speculation, he made a speech to the Twitter-verse that hit on themes most Republicans would get behind: He would build a border wall, end inflation and, most importantly, he would beat President Joe Biden in November 2024.

But DeSantis followed that standard campaign rhetoric with a wide-ranging discussion that touched on a number of more niche issues. Along with billionaire Elon Musk and a supporting cast of other sympathetic conservatives, DeSantis delved into the concerns of a certain kind of plugged-in Republican: tech censorship and cryptocurrency regulation.

“As president, we’ll protect the ability to do things like bitcoin,” DeSantis said at one point.

The scattered nature of his audio-only Twitter launch event highlighted a broader challenge for DeSantis as he moves forward with his presidential campaign: How can he piece together a winning coalition of Republican voters? Young and old, white collar and blue, Never Trump and Ultra MAGA — DeSantis will likely need support from a group of voters with wide-ranging priorities to best former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.

He’ll also need to walk a numerical tightrope. Trump leads DeSantis by an average of more than 30 points in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics. Three pollsters interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times estimated that at least one-third of GOP primary voters are unshakable supporters of Trump. DeSantis has essentially no shot at attracting that bloc, they said.

“That’s an awfully big base to start with in a multicandidate field,” said Matthew Shelter, a partner at the Beacon Research political polling firm.

Beacon has found that roughly 40% of GOP voters consider themselves supporters of Trump more than they consider themselves supporters of the Republican Party, Shelter said.

How DeSantis plans to get the other two-thirds

When fundraisers from around the country gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami earlier this week to give DeSantis a jolt of money — he raised $8.2 million in the first 24 hours, according to the campaign — they were first briefed by the governor’s top pollster and other staff about their potential path to victory.

The focus was not on peeling away anyone from Trump’s stronghold. Instead, DeSantis’ camp has been strategizing about how best to capture the rest of the voters.

Evangelical voters are a major part of this strategy. DeSantis’ backers believe they will be swayed by his anti-woke crusades against LGBTQ+ inclusive school lessons, as well as his recent signing of a bill banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

On Monday night, DeSantis spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, billed as “the world’s largest gathering of Christian communicators.”

“The people who are in power now do not like people of faith, and so we have to get this government under control,” DeSantis told them.

DeSantis’ team has also touted its 2022 success winning over female voters — a bloc Trump lost in the 2016 and 2020 general elections. And DeSantis has historically done well with college-educated Republicans.

“You need to get to 50% plus one of Republican voters, and I think that DeSantis has the ability to gain support from every constituency in the Republican Party,” said lobbyist Justin Sayfie, who was one of the people raising money for DeSantis in Miami. “From the Chamber of Commerce types, to the Make America Great Again types, to the anti-woke types to the evangelicals — all those constituencies, Gov. DeSantis can do well with.”

Brad Coker, a longtime Jacksonville-based political pollster, said that DeSantis may be able to build a coalition by winning over staunch conservatives first. If he’s able to outlast the rest of the non-Trump candidates, he’ll be the only alternative available to moderates.

DeSantis’ prospects are better in a one-on-one matchup against Trump, polling suggests, but the Republican field keeps expanding, potentially diluting DeSantis’ support. Last week, South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott entered the race, and former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to announce in the coming weeks.

“How does DeSantis get to moderate Republicans? He’s got to get it to be a two-person race,” Coker said. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that’s the principle DeSantis will use to attract people from the quote ‘center’ of the Republican Party.”

DeSantis already seems to be trying to outflank Trump on red-meat issues like abortion. Earlier this month, Trump called the abortion bill DeSantis signed “harsh.” In response, DeSantis noted that such legislation has the support of “99% of pro-lifers.”

And in a dozen media appearances Thursday, DeSantis continued hitting Trump from the right.

“I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump. This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016,” he told one interviewer.

Finding DeSantis’ base

Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again Inc., said that DeSantis’ Twitter Spaces campaign launch featured more mentions of “DEI” — an acronym for the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives opposed by DeSantis — than inflation, a sign that his campaign is out of touch with regular voters.

“Where is his base?” she said. “He’s polling closer to (former Arkansas Gov.) Asa Hutchinson than Donald Trump at this point in the race, so he has no base.”

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster, wrote in an analysis earlier this month that DeSantis is most likely to appeal to the bloc of Republican voters most concerned about wokeness. These voters view political correctness as a plague on schools and corporations and support candidates who want to fight against it. They’re more likely to be younger, college-educated and nonwhite than other factions of the party, Ruffini wrote.

They’re also more likely to use Twitter — where DeSantis rolled out his presidential campaign.

State Rep. Alex Rizo, the chairperson of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party who fundraised for DeSantis at the Four Seasons, said he “loved” the idea of making the announcement on Twitter.

“As Republicans, we want to start getting younger people who are engaged,” Rizo said. “When it comes to technology, there’s no better way to reach out.”

DeSantis’ campaign is hoping his focus on evangelical voters will pay dividends in Iowa, home to a large number of Christian conservatives. (Trump lost the Iowa caucuses to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016.)

The governor’s early state primary strategy seems geared toward proving to Republicans that he’s a winner. He’s shifted much of his campaign energy toward early primary states, scrapping a rumored event in his hometown of Dunedin for events next week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Nick Iarossi, a key DeSantis fundraiser and longtime ally, said that he noticed an “instant transformation” now that he’s officially in the race, saying DeSantis is excited to compete.

“He was tired of operating with one hand behind his back,” Iarossi said. “The guy I saw (Thursday) night was super personable, high energy … (and) is going to be very effective on the campaign trail.”

Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School Poll — which most recently had Trump leading DeSantis by 21 points — noted that there’s room for DeSantis’ stature in the party to evolve, because he’s less familiar to Republicans across the country.

“Whereas Trump is absolutely universally known, there are still Republicans learning things about DeSantis,” Franklin said.

Still, pollsters say, DeSantis has lots of work to do.

Tim Malloy, a polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University Poll, was blunt about DeSantis’ core of support.

“Whatever DeSantis’ base is right now, it’s not enough,” Malloy said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.