If I were in charge of raising money to support the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), I would probably not remind my donors of previous times I’d unsuccessfully tried to get a candidate past Donald Trump. But, then, I am not Jeff Roe.
“We’re going to go spend this money right now, betting that our donors won’t let us down,” Roe said during a meeting of potential contributors before the Republican primary debate held last week. “And I’ve been let down by donors a lot. And I’ve already lost once to Trump and we can’t do it again.”
Well, you can and, at this point, are.
After running Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) campaign in 2016, Roe is now the head of a super PAC called Never Back Down. It is in that role that he made the comment above, according to the New York Times, part of an effort to pry another $50 million from DeSantis supporters. While Roe technically is not affiliated with the campaign — which is to say that legally he cannot be, since super PACs aren’t bound by contribution limits — Roe is effectively DeSantis’s campaign manager. That’s because the DeSantis campaign is outsourcing an unusual amount of its efforts to the super PAC, meaning that Roe is playing a central role in how DeSantis is presented to voters and how that presentation is paid for.
Now, look. Raising money for campaigns is always tricky. You need to convince people that their funding is critical, that you’re not winning but could be if you just spent a little bit more in the right places. You need to make them think you know what those places are, and that they are the only missing piece of the equation.
That’s why Roe’s reminder about the Cruz campaign doesn’t seem super useful. Were I a very wealthy person sitting in that room, considering writing a check with a lot of zeros for Roe to spend, I’d think to myself: Oh, right, I’ve seen this movie already.
Of course, that potential donor doesn’t need to have an eight-year-long memory to be skeptical that DeSantis is a few million away from momentum. You only really need to look back eight months.
According to the FiveThirtyEight average of national polling, DeSantis was only about 6 points behind Donald Trump at the start of the year. Even by mid-March, DeSantis was still within single digits. Then Trump got indicted in Manhattan and his support surged. When DeSantis formally announced his candidacy in late May — after Never Back Down had already spent large sums promoting his not-yet-a-campaign — he was trailing Trump by more than 30 points. The campaign announcement improved his position only slightly and briefly; today, DeSantis is down by 36 points.
Roe was talking to those donors right before last week’s debate. He mocked the other candidates and talked about how the upcoming period was critical for DeSantis. And then DeSantis got onstage and was outshined by his competition.
There was business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who generated the most curiosity on Google. In a poll taken after the debate, those who watched determined that DeSantis and Ramaswamy were essentially tied as a the best performers. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was a distant third, but internal polling from Trump’s team showed her gaining more ground after the debate than others.
In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s polling reflects that. Relative to the day of the debate, Aug. 23, Haley is up 2 points in national polling, while Trump is down about 2 points. Ramaswamy had been gaining, but that stopped. DeSantis stayed flat — as the Trump poll also indicates.
On other metrics, DeSantis was similarly unable to move the needle. He’s gotten a few more mentions on Fox News than Haley or Ramaswamy, but not many. He got a third more mentions in the week after the debate than the week prior; Haley got three times the number. And she wasn’t benefiting from being in the news for her handling of a mass shooting or a hurricane in her state.
There’s a similar pattern for Google searches: Trump dominates, DeSantis is where he was while a competitor (here, Ramaswamy) surpasses him.
The people to whom Roe was making his appeal in that room before the debate couldn’t have known that the governor would see no new traction, of course. But they could have guessed it. For eight months, DeSantis and his allies have been trying to position him to surpass Trump and, for eight months, he’s gone the other direction. The closest he came was after the 2022 midterms when he could argue that Trump was dooming the party to electoral losses. But that’s a hard argument to maintain when you’re the one who’s losing.
And it’s an even harder argument to counteract when you remind people how you already lost to Trump once before.