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6 problems that may have contributed to DeSantis’ campaign failure

Donald Trump was far from the Florida governor’s only challenge.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a Jan. 13 rally at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a Jan. 13 rally at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 22|Updated Jan. 26

Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race Sunday, ending his power struggle with former President Donald Trump for the right flank of the Republican Party in the race for the 2024 nomination.

But Trump’s dominance over the GOP electorate was far from DeSantis’ only problem. The Florida governor’s campaign was plagued by a series of challenges, some of its own making.

Here are six problems that may have contributed to the failure of DeSantis’ campaign:

Muddling his brand

Coming off his landslide reelection victory in 2022, DeSantis had crafted an image of himself as a more electable personification of Trump politics, someone who could swing blue counties, like Miami-Dade, for Republicans.

Then he ran to the right of Trump — hard.

DeSantis and his team criticized Trump for not being hardline enough on abortion and immigration. DeSantis’ embrace of a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy prompted even some of his longtime supporters to pause. His team also created a video criticizing Trump for what it said was his support of LGBTQ-friendly policies, then tried to pass the video off as one created by a supporter, according to the New York Times.

“I think he’s trying really hard to be all things to all people,” said Ron Forsell, a 34-year-old prosecutor from Waukee, Iowa, who supports former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley for the GOP nomination. “What has happened is he’s too ... establishment for the Trump people and too Trump for the establishment people.”

Betting big on Iowa

Although DeSantis’ campaign started the race with an ambitious plan to spread his messaging nationally, shrinking resources quickly forced his team to consolidate its efforts. DeSantis went all-in on Iowa, with super PACs supporting him spending nearly 15 times more money on that state than all other states combined, according to public campaign finance filings that put an early Iowa spending estimate at more than $43 million.

That choice meant that DeSantis was betting his candidacy on an ability to create momentum from the Hawkeye State. But when that didn’t pan out, it left DeSantis with fewer resources and shakier foundations in the states ahead.

Spending too much

Just two months after DeSantis’ campaign launched, it had to lay off 38 people, more than a third of its staff. The campaign was burning through money at a fast clip, setting off early alarm bells to some donors.

It also meant fewer resources were available to use in primary states like South Carolina.

Hesitating to criticize Trump

Early in the race, DeSantis was hesitant to criticize Trump, even as polls showed the former president had a huge margin of support.

It took months for that to change. By October, DeSantis was hitting Trump on everything from his campaign expenditures to his age. But it may have been too late. By then, Trump had taken full advantage, painting DeSantis as disloyal and panning him constantly to counteract his momentum.

Former Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, who was one of DeSantis’ first high-profile supporters in his 2018 race for governor, flew up to Iowa to speak at a caucus meeting for DeSantis. Oliva said DeSantis could not have created more contrast between himself and the former president without straying from his values.

He said he heard from a lot of Iowans who like DeSantis, but not enough to choose him over Trump. The criminal indictments against Trump, Oliva said, reenergized his supporters enormously.

“Obviously, there are a lot of people still supporting the president and a lot of those same voters really like Ron,” Oliva said, “but their first selection is the president.”

An inexperienced team

Neither of the people DeSantis chose to run his campaign had experience being in charge of a presidential operation.

Generra Peck, his first campaign manager, ran DeSantis’ successful 2022 reelection bid for governor, which was against a much weaker opponent than Trump. DeSantis replaced her in August with James Uthmeier, the chief of staff of the governor’s office.

DeSantis’ 2018 campaign for governor was run by a veteran strategist with a track record of major campaign victories: Susie Wiles. But DeSantis and Wiles had a major falling out after that race, and she is now working on Trump’s 2024 bid.

The day before DeSantis announced he was suspending his campaign, a user on the social media site X posted that DeSantis had cleared his campaign website of upcoming events.

Wiles posted a brief but biting response: “Bye, bye.”

Constant pivots

DeSantis emphasized cultural issues at the beginning of his campaign, focusing on issues like his response to the pandemic and restrictions on lessons about sexual identity in school. He later rolled out policy proposals on the economy and energy, but at times pivoted back to his persona as a culture warrior.

Toward the end of 2023, his team resurrected clips of him berating journalists at Florida news conferences that it had used for his 2022 reelection campaign. (Earlier this month, DeSantis expressed regret at the way he initially stayed away from mainstream media interviews in favor of only conservative outlets.)

None of it would end up sticking in the way DeSantis needed.