After being largely ignored by his rivals during his last outing, the governor requires a strong performance in this debate, scheduled days before this financial quarter’s fundraising deadline, to prevent further slippage in the polls and line his campaign’s coffers.
University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall predicts DeSantis will be “a bigger punching bag” during Wednesday’s debate at the Reagan Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.
“This will probably be the first time that we get to see how he responds to being attacked or counterpunched,” the co-author of Debating The Donald told the Washington Examiner. “It will be a smaller stage this time, six instead of eight, and so a lot more time for all the candidates and nowhere for any of them to hide or kind of stay above the fray like he was able to successfully do [during the first debate last month] in Milwaukee.”
A CNN-University of New Hampshire poll this week found DeSantis is in fifth place behind former President Donald Trump, biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Granite State, with 10% support. On average, DeSantis is in third place behind Trump and Christie, with 45%, 10%, and 9%, respectively, according to RealClearPolitics.
The poll underscores DeSantis’s general campaign struggles and his first-in-the-nation Iowa-focused strategy, where he is second behind Trump. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) has indicated she could endorse DeSantis as he crisscrosses the state amid Trump’s criticism of Florida and Iowa’s six-week abortion bans. Haley is third in the Hawkeye State but second behind Trump in her home state of South Carolina, which hosts another early nominating contest. DeSantis is third in the Palmetto State.
“So far, DeSantis’s efforts to get to the right of Trump have failed to sway New Hampshire conservatives, but they have succeeded in turning off moderates, who are more important here than elsewhere,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.
But although DeSantis’s more conservative politics do not appear to be resonating in more independent New Hampshire, his campaign is hoping he can stop Trump, at least in Iowa, partly by appealing to that state’s evangelical Christians through a mostly pro-DeSantis super PAC-funded ground game. That is after two, in the words of his campaign, “reloads” this summer in which DeSantis sat down for more news media interviews, published more policy papers, and redirected resources and personnel.
“No one is entitled to the nomination, and voters deserve to hear from candidates in person about their records and visions for the future,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo emailed reporters Friday. “Donald Trump’s basement campaign would be a losing strategy against Joe Biden in the general election, just like it will be in the Iowa caucus when he cedes that state to Ron DeSantis as a result of taking Iowans for granted.”
At the same time, an Iowa strategy did not help Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) against Trump in 2016, according to University of Iowa politics professor Tim Hagle.
“It seems that he’s gone down a little bit and that the gap between him and Trump is expanding a little bit and the gap between DeSantis and everybody else is shrinking a little bit,” Hagle said.
“It’s like he’s running Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign strategy but somehow expecting different results,” New Hampshire’s Scala added.
While being mindful of the CNN-UNH poll’s margin of error, Iowa’s Hagle contended the survey “must be certainly worrisome for [DeSantis’s] campaign.”
“Iowa usually isn’t the kingmaker, but the circumstances are such this time that what happens in Iowa is really going to have a significant effect down the road,” he said.
Apparently aware of the importance of the moment and the debate, DeSantis’s campaign and aligned committees have outspent Trump on Meta and Google digital advertisements, $1.8 million to $928,544, becoming the first 2024 candidate to invest more than $1 million on digital spots this year, according to OpenSecrets. Trump, who is not participating in the debate nor has been campaigning regularly, is also behind DeSantis in traditional ad spending and reservations, $38.3 million to $26.1 million, per ad tracking company AdImpact. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) has spent and reserved the most ads at $51.4 million but is not polling well.
Regardless, Trump’s campaign has been persistently putting pressure on DeSantis. In particular, Trump’s camp has seized on comments by Republican strategist Jeff Roe, who leads the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, for providing the governor 60 days to “beat Trump” from Aug. 24.
“We’re almost at the half way point of Roe’s mandated 60 days,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung wrote in an email titled, “KISS OF DEATH COUNTDOWN: 32 Days Left.” “Maybe DeSanctus will spare himself the humiliation of being a total loser and drop out but, then again, it’s been quite entertaining to see someone light themselves on fire everyday.”
DeSantis’s struggles coincide with President Joe Biden and Democrats concentrating more on Trump than his Republican primary opponents as they emphasize Biden’s record on abortion, democracy, and the economy.
“I don’t believe America is a dark, negative nation, a nation of carnage, driven by anger and fear and revenge,” Biden said this week during a fundraiser in New York City. “But my predecessor does, and he may be the nominee again. It looks like he is destined to be the nominee again.”