The Washington Post's Philip Bump made an astute observation last week about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign: It didn't launch so much as start.
In fact, DeSantis' spectacularly glitchy Twitter send off almost a month ago appears to have presaged his post-launch inertia. DeSantis has flatlined since that fateful May 24 announcement, when he stood at 20.6% in FiveThirtyEight's national aggregate compared to 20.8% now.
Meanwhile, the GOP's twice-indicted, twice-impeached front-runner continues to dominate the field at 53.5% today.
Prior to launching, the DeSantis campaign pointed to the candidate's polling strength in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where he was even leading Donald Trump in some surveys. Several months later, however, recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire have shown Trump dominating both states, with new entrants such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie starting to get some nascent traction.
Civiqs national tracking shows DeSantis' favorability rating absolutely collapsing over the last half dozen months since coming off a decisive reelection win last year. In mid-December, DeSantis' favorables/unfavorables started off roughly even at 46%-47%; today, he's 20 points underwater: 35% favorable-55% unfavorable. Among Republicans, the Florida governor has dropped about 15 points in the same timeframe to 75% favorable, but independents have really soured on DeSantis, from roughly even favorables at 45% in early March to a 20-point deficit today, 34%-54%.
In this month's Daily Kos/Civiqs poll, Trump also topped DeSantis by roughly 20 points in a variety of measures, including candidate choice (47% Trump-27% DeSantis), better chance of beating Biden (44% Trump-26% DeSantis), agree with more on today's issues (42% Trump-19% DeSantis), better represents people like you (38% Trump-22% DeSantis).
But early states still have the ability to upend national narratives, which is why DeSantis backers are deploying a $100 million door-knocking operation in 18 states in an attempt to ensure their candidate not only gets a strong early start, but has the infrastructure to compete for the long haul.
Muscular organizing is certainly how Barack Obama put himself on the map in 2008, notching an early win in Iowa against national front-runner Hillary Clinton and ultimately defeating her for the Democratic nomination.
But Obama's Iowa success had two distinct advantages that are already flashing red for DeSantis. First, Obama didn't just beat expectations in the first-in-the-nation caucus, he blew them out of the water—besting both of his chief rivals, Clinton and John Edwards, by roughly 8 points.
The key to gaining traction in the early states is beating expectations. A better-than-expected showing in Iowa—even a third-place finish in 2016 for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance—can get people talking and boost a candidate. But DeSantis is already losing the expectations game. After a lot of early hype, his much-anticipated launch landed with a thud, making him look more vulnerable than formidable.
Second, Obama's army of door-knockers in Iowa were volunteers fueled by a passion for the candidate. The DeSantis operation, funded by the Never Back Down super PAC, is being fueled by a massive and expensive outlay in cash to hire some 2,600 mercenaries. Targeting the marathon rather than the early-state sprint is a scattershot approach that could easily burn through cash faster than it can be replenished, and none of those hired guns will stay on for free if the funding dries up.
In the meantime, Trump is still blotting out the sun on the right with his wall-to-wall indictment coverage and continued strength in the Republican field. Christie is the only GOP challenger who has found a way to command at least some attention in the race, and that's mostly because he's the only Trump rival willing to directly challenge the front-runner while candidates like DeSantis put their fingers to the wind.
The whole scene has left Republicans donors who hoped DeSantis would be their savior scrambling for alternatives. DeSantis' underwhelm has helped give Christie's candidacy life, for instance. Some donors have reportedly been trying to persuade Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who had previously ruled out a bid, to consider getting into the race.
When Kemp was pressed on the topic recently by CBS News' Robert Costa, he didn't entirely shut the door on the possibility.
"I'm just staying focused on the state of Georgia," he said, "and I'll let folks like you speculate all you want on that."
But for now, Republican voters at the national level still favor having a potential criminal as their nominee.
“They have voted for him twice. They have defended him at Thanksgiving dinner tables,” Sarah Longwell, host of “The Focus Group” podcast, told CNN. “They have made their accommodations. They have made their rationalizations.”
Donors, she noted, no longer dictate outcomes.
“I think the people (running for the presidency) who appeal to Republican donors are no longer the same people who appeal to Republican voters,” Longwell added.
Donald Trump is facing even more legal jeopardy and the sharks in the Republican Party seem to sense there is some blood in the water. Chris Christie has made his campaign all about going directly at Trump, and Ron DeSantis seems to be closer and closer to becoming completely isolated from the field.