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Once the leading alternative to Trump, turnover in the DeSantis team spells trouble

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with fairgoers at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jeff Roberson
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with fairgoers at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been largely considered one of the most viable opponents to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

In many polls, he's been second to the former president — albeit a far second. But his campaign has struggled since the very beginning. And it hasn't gotten any smoother in recent weeks.

The campaign's tone was initially set by adisastrous announcement on Twitter live that was marked by various technical issues.

Since then, the campaign has garnered attention for ongoing personnel turnover.

Whit Ayres — president of North Star Opinion Research, a center-right public opinion research firm — has worked on various high-profile campaigns. He says some of the disorder in the DeSantis team could just be the growing pains of running a national campaign for the first time.

"Our first presidential candidate was fond of saying that going from a statewide race to a presidential contest was like going from eighth grade basketball to the NBA finals," Ayres quipped.

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to multiple requests from NPR for comment.

A history of campaign turnover

Ayres — who was a pollster for DeSantis in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign — says the issues with his presidential campaign likely stem from the fact that most of his team hasn't worked with him before.

"Ron DeSantis has run five different campaigns — three for Congress, two for governor — and he has had five completely different campaign teams for those five races," he said.

"We worked on his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, a tough, hard fought race, and he'll have nothing to do with anyone associated with that victory," Ayers explained.

Ayres says that includes the campaign manager, financial consultant, general consultant, media firm and the pollster — him.

"So, he is dealing with a team that has never been through a close, hard fought race with him before," Ayres said. "That creates some real trust issues if you've never been through a political war with the people you're working with today. So, it's tough. Politics at any level is a team sport, but it's especially a team sport at the presidential level."

It was reported earlier this month that DeSantisreplaced the top of his team — his campaign manager. The month before, Politicoreported that about 10 campaign staffers were laid off.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist with Firehouse Strategies, says no successful presidential campaign has that much turnover in such a short period of time.

"Successful campaigns have a team on day one that has worked together, that has experience in national politics and who has the trust of the candidate," he explained.

Conant — who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016 — says a campaign that hits a reset button two or three or four times in the middle of the summer isn't doing so because things are going well.

"It's really hard to change the trajectory of a presidential campaign in the middle of a presidential campaign simply because you're concentrating so much on incoming fire," he said.

"And when people smell blood in the water, it just attracts more sharks."

There's a lot of campaign trail left

But it's still pretty early, which means things could turn around.

Ayres says DeSantis does have some challenges working with people, but he's also very bright and has a good conservative record to run on.

"We can all get better at anything we work at and he is plenty capable enough of getting better at some of the issues that have tripped him up so far," he predicted. "We'll see if he gets better in time to make a real run at the presidency."

Ayres says there is a wide-open lane for any Republicans running for president. He explains that even though a third of the party will stand with Trump no matter what, there is still a huge chunk of Republican voters who are open to someone with less baggage.

Conant says he thinks about half the Republican voting base is open to an alternative. He says if any candidate is going to "beat Trump or even seriously challenge Trump" they will have to consolidate the voters who are willing to entertain another option.

"And nobody has been able to do that," he said. "I think six months ago it looked like Ron DeSantis was on the cusp of potentially doing it, but he's only gone in the wrong, wrong direction since then."

Conant says if DeSantis wants to go back to being a serious contender, he's going to have to prove he's a better candidate than his campaign has shown so far.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.

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