13 min read

DeSantis hasn’t reset anything yet

The new narrative is that Ron DeSantis has hit the reset button on his campaign. I’m not convinced.
DeSantis hasn’t reset anything yet
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The 2024 elections are 477 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Every once in a while, the Washington press corps latches on to a new favorite word, and suddenly you start to see it everywhere. This week, the word is “reset,” and apparently that’s what Ron DeSantis is doing to his floundering presidential bid.

There it is in Axios and Bloomberg, both of which report that the Florida governor is hitting the “reset button” on his campaign. And in The Hill, which says that the Trump challenger has initiated a “pivot in his campaign strategy.” Ditto Semafor, in a piece headlined “Ron DeSantis runs for president, take two.”

Color me skeptical. Far be it from me to get in the way of a good narrative — especially in the middle of the summer, when political reporters are desperate for any scraps of news they can get (and doubly so for any signs of movement in this frozen-in-place presidential campaign) — but I’m not sure we’ve actually seen much of a reset from DeSantis yet.

Let’s start with what these articles do have: plenty of signs that DeSantis is in desperate need of a campaign pivot. There’s the obligatory mention of the latest GOP primary polls, which show the race going from Trump 43-DeSantis 37 in January to Trump 50-DeSantis 20 today (per FiveThirtyEight’s average).

Then there’s details of DeSantis’ money operation, courtesy of the latest campaign finance reports. DeSantis raised more than any other candidate this fundraising quarter — but a look under the hood reveals more troubling details than that first glance. As NBC News reports, he had spent about 40% of what he raised by the end of the quarter, a worrisome burn rate. An additional 15% of the funds can only be used if he makes it to the general election, while two-thirds of his haul came from donors who have already maxed out to his campaign and legally can’t give him any more.

Throw in a mention of DeSantis’ flip-flop on Ukraine, his anti-LGBT video, a damning anecdote about the campaign (for example, a paid canvasser for his super PAC being caught on a Ring camera video admitting, “I’m a little stoned, so I don’t even care”), and you’re all set.

But the details of the alleged “reset” in these pieces always seem to be a little hazier. The articles tend to be heavy on the evidence that DeSantis is in trouble and light on the ways he’s actually planning to fix it. Take, for example, the most detailed piece in this genre, the one from Bloomberg. Here is the sum total of the changes DeSantis is reported to be making in the piece:

  • He has laid off fewer than 10 staffers and shifted them over to his super PAC.
  • He will be giving an interview to CNN.
  • He will focus his travel on the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina).
  • He will be unveiling policy proposals.
  • His wife will be campaigning for him.
  • He has started to take questions from voters at events.

Those all seem like... relatively normal things you’d expect a presidential campaign would be doing? Frankly, the admission that DeSantis wasn’t doing some of them already may be more notable than the fact that he’s started to do them now — and likely calls into question the wisdom of his senior campaign team.

After all, several media outlets have referred to his campaign layoffs as a “staff shakeup,” but DeSantis has yet to part ways with any top names in his orbit, like campaign manager Gennera Peck, rapid response director Christina Pushaw, or super PAC chief Jeff Roe. It is certainly not a good sign that he’s already handing out pink slips, but until any major heads roll, the firings should be seen less as a staff shakeup or strategy shift than a necessary move to cut out bloat in some departments. (The recent fundraising reports showed that DeSantis employed a larger staff — 92 people — than any other candidate.)

How could DeSantis actually initiate a reset? When you’re at 20% in the polls, you’re probably in a more dire state than anything adding a Q&A to your campaign stops can fix. More fundamental changesshifts to the very message that undergirds his campaign — are probably needed.

One reminder of this came yesterday via Rolling Stone, which reported (emphasis mine):

Six different Republican operatives, campaign officials, and pollsters described or shared with Rolling Stone internal data and surveys they’d conducted or reviewed last and this year... Across the board in the surveys, Covid-related policy — including vaccines and vaccine mandates — did not rank as an item of high concern for voters... Since the middle of last year, Covid-related policy did not show up in conservatives’ top 10, or top 15, issues in any form, leading various campaigns and consultants to declare it, for the most part, unuseful.

That’s not a good sign for DeSantis, who has made Covid-era policies a cornerstone of his campaign.

If he does begin looking for a new message to replace his Covid-infused stump speech, DeSantis could do worse than to listen to the advice posed to the GOP field by National Review’s Jim Geraghty: be bold.

Geraghty writes:

The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle is about five weeks away, and there’s a strange, inverted dynamic at work in the GOP field. Usually, the frontrunner runs a cautious campaign, while the underdogs and longshots take bigger risks, attempting to stand out, gain ground, and peel away supporters from the frontrunner. But so far, it feels like the opposite is happening, with a lot of the longshots running generic, predictable, cookie-cutter campaigns, while Donald Trump is his usual erratic, unpredictable, winging-it self.

“It seems the non-Trump candidates are still struggling to figure out what the modern Republican presidential-primary voters want,” Geraghty goes on to write, before noting that several of the GOP contenders (DeSantis included) don’t even have “issues” pages on their websites.

Now, I’m also skeptical that merely pushing out policy proposals (like the one on wokeness in the military DeSantis will release today) will rehabilitate his campaign. In a recent tweet, Bill Scher of Washington Monthly compared such a strategy to Elizabeth Warren’s ill-fated “I have a plan for that” approach in 2020. “Team DeSantis refuses to see the race for what it is,” Scher wrote. “The race is not about who has the best tax plan. The race is: Trump, yes or no.”

Right now, GOP primary voters are answering “yes” emphatically, and DeSantis is saying nothing to convince them otherwise. The boldness Geraghty prescribes is likely necessary to change their answer, but I don’t agree that boldness in policy will cut it. Instead, DeSantis seems to be in need of some boldness in form and presentation, flipping the script from carrying himself as a run-of-the-mill politician. (Elections are dominated by politicians, and yet there are few things worse in presidential politics than coming across as one.)

My emphasis on flash over substance isn’t a statement on Republican primary voters being policy-averse. Really, when has a daring policy proposal ever lit the spark for an underdog presidential campaign to come from behind?

Jimmy Carter in ’76, Bill Clinton in ’92, Barack Obama in ’08, Donald Trump in ’16: yes, part of their appeals during the primaries were policies that separated them from the pack (ironically, for both Obama and Trump, one was opposition to the Iraq war) but more than that, it was a stylistic difference they brought to the stage, a political X-factor they seemed to share but DeSantis does not.

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted amid reset-mania yesterday that many other presidential primary candidates who have tried similar pivots have come up short, from Lamar(!) Alexander in 2000 to Jeb Bush in 2016.

One example Bump notes of a more successful reset was John McCain’s 2008 Republican primary campaign. Bump doesn’t dwell as much on what led to McCain’s 2008 turnaround — but it is a perfect example of a pivot based on stylistic changes.

It was at exactly this point in the ’08 cycle — on July 19, 2007 — that McCain’s rehabilitation began, when his campaign released a memo unveiling its “Living Off the Land” strategy, a plan to act less like a frontrunner and more like an underdog. McCain laid off staffers (close to 100 of them, not just 10), tapped a new campaign manager, and shrank his campaign down to size, running the operation out of his trademark “Straight Talk Express” instead of a shiny HQ.

He purposefully switched the vibe of his campaign from “inevitable” to “bootstrapped” — and it worked. Soon enough, chants of “Mac is back!” were ringing out at his campaign events.

Earned media was another key element in McCain’s turnaround. Part of “living off the land” was taking advantage of every free media opportunity he could, from participating in every debate to saying “yes” to every interview.

DeSantis will take a page from that book today, as he sits down for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, his first appearance on CNN — and first major venture outside of the conservative media bubble — since announcing his campaign.

The CNN interview has been a key part of the DeSantis “reset” narrative, and of the much-heralded shift in “media strategy” he is supposedly making.

But merely sitting down with Jake Tapper won’t be enough to rescue his campaign. During the interview, watch to see if DeSantis debuts any signs of a new message or stylistic evolution — or if he offers the same formulaic talking points that have failed to catch on among GOP voters.

In October 2007, after McCain’s reset had begun to bear fruit, his second campaign chief, Rick Davis, told the New York Times that the pivot had been successful because “the problem wasn’t with the McCain candidacy. It was with the McCain campaign.”

Indeed, for McCain, his stylistic shift was partly a return to form, marking a decision to let loose on the campaign trail and — as the Times put it — show “more of his puckish humor and maverick streak” at campaign events. Even his 2007 decision to bring back the “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus, and invite reporters and bloggers to join him on board, was a throwback to his 2000 effort when he did the same thing. Even the biggest “resets” have to be authentic with who the candidate is, even if it is a side of them they have been hiding; an entire political persona cannot be created out of whole cloth.

It is unclear if the more stilted and standoffish DeSantis has any sort of “puckish” persona to fall back on. If his bid doesn’t show any signs of life soon, the question will have to be asked: perhaps it isn’t the campaign. It’s the candidate.

A breaking news addendum.

Oh no, I almost wrote a piece about the 2024 primary without the required caveats: it’s still early! Things could change! We still have the debates! (And then the caveat to the caveats: Polling edges as large as Trump’s rarely crumble. Even the gap John McCain had to make up in 2007 was half as large as the one DeSantis has to make up now.)  

And then, of course, there’s the other major possible change lurking in the GOP primary waters: Trump could be indicted again. Twice.

We received a fresh reminder of that this morning, as Trump revealed on Truth Social — the go-to social media app for announcing imminent indictments — that he had received a letter from Special Counsel Jack Smith indicating that Trump is a target of the Justice Department’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Target letters are often a sign that prosecutors are nearing criminal charges. According to Trump, the letter gave him “a very short 4 days to the report to the Grand Jury [for an interview], which almost always means an Arrest and Indictment.”

Trump, of course, has already been indicted by New York prosecutors for falsifying business records relating to his hush money payments to a porn star and by Smith for refusing to hand over classified documents after leaving office. Last week, a Georgia grand jury was also sworn in that is expected to decide next month whether to indict Trump for seeking to overturn the state’s 2020 results.

Trump’s previous two indictments only helped fuel his 2024 Republican primary campaign — partially, perhaps, because his rivals were loath to attack him over them (showing some of that caution that Geraghty mentioned.) Another Trump indictment would offer DeSantis another opportunity to try and scramble the 2024 race, although he would likely have to actually use the charges as ammunition against Trump for that to be the case.

More news to know.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders together on Monday. Photo by the White House

Joe Manchin refused to rule out a third-party presidential bid at a No Labels event in New Hampshire on Monday.

House Democrats unveiled a resolution to formally censure George Santos for his many lies to voters.

Nearly 100 million Americans are under heat alerts as temperature records continue to shatter.

An Iowa judge temporarily blocked the state’s new six-week abortion ban from going into effect.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders dropped in on a meeting with young union organizers at the White House.

Several members of the Kennedy family condemned Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for suggesting coronavirus was “ethnically targeted” to spare Jews and Chinese people.

Barack Obama is wading into the war over book bans.

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rebuffed former President Donald Trump’s attempt to shut down the Fulton County district attorney’s investigation of him.

What to watch today.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (left) and Pramila Jayapal. Photo by Lori Shaull

1️⃣ In the Trump case: The first pretrial hearing in the federal case against Donald Trump will take place in Fort Pierce, Florida. During the hearing, attorneys on both sides will discuss the trial schedule and the procedures for handling the classified information that will make up much of the evidence in the case. Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon, who has previously issued rulings favorable to the ex-president, will preside.

2️⃣ On the campaign trail: In addition to DeSantis’ interview on CNN, Trump will participate in a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airing at 9 p.m. ET. It’s the second Trump-Hannity town hall in Iowa in as many months, another sign that Fox’s sympathies appear to be swinging back towards Trump after a dalliance with DeSantis.

3️⃣ At the White House: President Biden will meet with President Isaac Herzog of Israel. Biden’s invitation to Herzog — whose role in Israel is largely symbolic — was initially interpreted as a snub to the more powerful (and more right-wing) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, in a phone call Monday ahead of the Herzog meeting, Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House for the first time since the PM returned to power. The president and prime minister also discussed two areas of disagreement that are sure to come up with Herzog today: Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court, parts of which are set to advance this week.

  • Also: Biden will meet with Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, who has been appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Vatican’s peace mission to end the Russia-Ukraine war. VP Harris will meet with state attorneys general to discuss the fentanyl crisis.

4️⃣ Outside the White House: First Lady Jill Biden will hold official, taxpayer-funded events promoting “Bidenomics” in Augusta, Georgia (joined by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona) and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (joined by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg). Hmm, I wonder what those two states have in common?

5️⃣ In the House: The chamber will vote on a resolution declaring that “the State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state.” The measure is a response to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who referred to Israel as “racist state” on Saturday before walking it back. The resolution, which also condemns antisemitism, could become a point of division for Democrats, who have already been splintered over Israel as some progressives prepare to boycott Herzog’s address to Congress tomorrow.

6️⃣ In the Senate: The chamber will vote to confirm an appellate court nominee and hold the first procedural vote on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual Pentagon policy bill. In a speech on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hailed the Senate NDAA as “strong, bipartisan legislation,” which he called “a stark contrast to the bill that came out of the House.”

Before I go...

Graph by UNAIDS

Here’s some good news: The end of HIV/AIDS could be in sight.

According to a new report from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, there is new evidence that the HIV/AIDS epidemic — one of the deadliest and longest-lasting in world history — could be over by 2030.

The UN agency reports that fewer people contracted HIV in 2022 that at any point since the late 1980s, which the agency attributed to new laws and investments boosting the AIDS response, the spread of effective treatments, and a sharp decrease in infections among young people.

In addition, the report announced that five countries — Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe — have reached the long-sought “95-95-95” target. Per the UN:

That means 95% of the people who are living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 95% of the people who know that they are living with HIV being on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, and 95% of people who are on treatment being virally suppressed.

16 additional countries are close to reaching “95-95-95” as well, eight of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

What to watch: The UN report repeatedly gives credit to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an American program established by George W. Bush that has been estimated to save more than 25 millon lives. Funding for PEPFAR is set to lapse in September; per Politico, the fight over abortion has created challenges for the program’s hopes of being reauthorized.

Speaking of good public health news: No more Americans are dying each day than normal, the New York Times reports, the first time that has consistently been true since Covid. The “excess deaths” metric — which sometimes reached 40% more deaths than normal at the virus’ worst — was closely watched by public health experts throughout the pandemic.

Graph by the New York Times

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