Donuts for Iowa lawmakers. A 99-county pastor recruitment plan. An in-house marketing department outpacing competitors on Facebook.
Seven weeks after launch, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign is entering a new phase of its online outreach and ground game – all of it fueled by his $20 million fundraising quarter, the largest haul of any first-time Republican White House hopeful in more than a decade.
“We’re not built on sugar highs,” Generra Peck, DeSantis’s campaign manager, told The Messenger. “We’re built on muscle that remains even amid the inevitable ups and downs that happen in the course of the campaign.”
At its center: the campaign’s in-house marketing team that has created and algorithmically message-tested 14,000 ads and related variations on Facebook and other social media platforms to curry supporters and convert them into donors and voters. The operation displays a level of “sophistication” that other campaigns currently aren’t showing, one independent Republican digital guru told The Messenger.
DeSantis, who has so far limited most interviews to conservative press, is preparing for more sit-downs soon with more mainstream media outlets with which he has had a strained relationship. He’s also planning more policy proposals, including on the economy and inflation, a top concern of voters.
Krispy Kreme diplomacy
Starting Friday, DeSantis is intensifying his Iowa campaign with a packed calendar of eight events across the state. In his prior two visits as a presidential candidate, DeSantis made five total stops.
DeSantis now counts five paid Iowa staff and 39 Iowa legislative endorsements, including a state senator who flipped Thursday from frontrunner Donald Trump. In total, across the country, DeSantis has 261 endorsements from state legislators – and he has an army of support from the independent Never Back Down super PAC, which reported an additional $130 million fundraising quarter that ended June 30.
The Iowa blitz underscores the crucial importance of the state in the Republican primary calendar because of Trump’s strong position after his two criminal indictments. Of all the dozen Republican candidates, DeSantis is consistently in second place behind the former president, well ahead of the others who frequently poll in the single digits.
Early on, DeSantis’s team targeted Iowa as place where his organizational efforts and social conservatism would play well in the caucuses. But this week his campaign became more emboldened as Trump ratcheted up his criticisms of Iowa’s popular Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds because he felt she was too close to DeSantis.
“That was a dumb move. People are like, ‘what are you doing that for?’” said the Rev. Michael DeMastus, a pastor of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ who for now is neutral in the race. “To be blunt, most evangelicals see this as a two-man race between Trump and DeSantis.”
On Tuesday, Reynolds gaveled in a special session of the Iowa Legislature to pass legislation banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy – a policy she’s pursued for five years. DeSantis’s campaign showed up in the state Capitol and engaged in Krispy Kreme diplomacy by handing out donuts and coffee to lawmakers, underscoring DeSantis’s support for similar legislation he had signed. DeMastus noted that Trump bothered evangelical voters when, in a May 15 interview with The Messenger, he called a six-week abortion ban that DeSantis signed “too harsh.”
“That’s a law we support,” DeMastus said. “Trump met earlier with us pastors but then declared to the media that he has the evangelical support in Iowa. Frankly, it’s not a true statement. Just because you do a one-and-done check-the-box meeting with pastors doesn’t mean we all support you. It doesn’t work that way. In Iowa, retail politics – handshakes, looking us in the eye – matters. I’m not sure how much work Trump recognizes how much work he has to do here in Iowa, even though there is a support base of support for him.”
DeSantis plans to meet with a group of about 30 pastors and their wives in Indianola, Iowa this weekend during his visit to the state. His campaign wants to have a pastor-surrogate in each of the state’s 99 counties as well as a campaign chair in each. He plans to visit all 99 counties as part of what’s known as “the full Grassley,” named in honor of the state’s senior Republican senator, Chuck Grassley.
The DeSantis team acknowledges Trump is ahead in Iowa and the early states, even in its own internal surveys conducted by DeSantis’s chief pollster and adviser, Ryan Tyson.
In a survey of 500 likely Republican primary voters in Iowa completed this week, Trump leads DeSantis 37%-21%, with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in third at 11%; all other candidates running well behind in Iowa. Trump’s internal polling showed him with a bigger lead last month.
In a head-to-head matchup, Trump and DeSantis are virtually tied at 43%-42% in the DeSantis campaign poll. His campaign says this shows that the numerous other candidates in the race have little shot of winning but a big role in sapping votes from DeSantis to help Trump win.
Polls of Iowa are scarce, despite the fact that it plays a crucial role in primary season. Most polling in the race is of national Republicans, even though there isn’t a national primary, and sample sizes are usually smaller than 500 people.
The only independent public pollster to survey the race in Iowa recently, Adam Geller, found DeSantis receiving the same number as Tyson’s poll earlier this month: 21%. But Geller found Trump increasing his ballot share in a month to 44%. So Trump had a 23 percentage point lead instead of 16 points in the DeSantis poll by Tyson.
“The difference between 16 and 23 is close enough, depending on sample sizes, questions, dates, everything. I mean, that’s polling,” Geller said. “Sure, it’s early. But for DeSantis, he’s running out of time because in my polling, he’s losing to Trump among voters who like him. How do you win if the people who like you are voting for the other guy?”
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung mocked the DeSantis campaign’s internal polling by issuing a written statement that also intentionally misspelled the Florida governor’s name, which Trump insists on doing.
“So the DeSanctus campaign is pushing internal polling from unbelievable pollsters— the most favorable and most biased polling they have— showing them DOWN 16 points,” he said. “How moronic can this campaign be? At this point, anything their campaign does should be considered an in-kind contribution to us.”
The debate debate
According to the DeSantis campaign’s surveys, though, the tide could be turning against Trump in Iowa now that 50% of Republicans in the state say Trump shouldn’t be reelected; 40% say he should. In mid-May, the sentiments were flipped: 46% said he should be reelected and 43% said he shouldn’t.
In the DeSantis campaign’s research, and in the telling of early state Republicans operatives who aren’t tied to any of the campaigns, there’s still time because a majority of likely voters aren’t tuned in.
“They’re just not paying attention to this race as much as you think. And the reason the ballot looks like the way that it is, is because Trump’s the only thing that they see,” Tyson said.
“Most voters you talk to would like to see some debates. The debates are going to matter. They always have,” he said. “That’s where Donald Trump actually became a big thing, if you recall, back in 2015. That’s where we’re going to have our chance to do the same thing.”
Trump has indicated he might skip the first debate next month, and the DeSantis campaign is expecting the governor will be a prime target of the other candidates on stage.
DeSantis’s campaign manager, Peck, said the campaign’s polling and publicly available surveys as well demonstrate how resilient DeSantis’s favorability ratings have been amid daily attacks from Trump, more than $22 million in negative advertising from Trump’s super PAC and a constant slew of negative headlines in the mainstream media. The latter includes his glitchy campaign launch on Twitter Spaces to questions about big donors to pundits asking about his struggles in the polls.
Though Republican voters generally know who DeSantis is, she said, they don’t know much about him. But not for long.
“His substance and his character’s only beginning to be known in those early states. And what they know about him, they like,” she said. “What we know from our research that they don’t yet know and is going to appeal to them: Dad, veteran, effective governor, strong conservative leader. Those things are going to be difference-makers.”
Trump for months has cast doubt on DeSantis’s ability to improve his standing, pointing out that the governor’s ballot share in polls has declined since he officially announced his campaign. It’s a sign, critics on the left and right have said, that the more DeSantis campaigns, the less voters like him.
The digital lab
While DeSantis plans to broaden his message in the coming weeks, he has stuck with culture war-related messages because it has been tied to his political brand. And his campaign’s data and research teams show they resonate with supporters and donors online.
In the past month, Facebook’s ad library shows DeSantis and his campaign have posted 2,323 separate creative items. In a distant second are two primary rivals, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (who has 602 pieces up) and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (561). Trump is in eighth in terms of creative pieces on Facebook, with 189.
Eric Wilson, a top Republican digital strategist who isn’t allied with any of the candidates or campaigns, said he was impressed with the “sophistication” of the DeSantis campaign’s research and data, which appeared to be a successor to Trump’s cutting edge 2016 efforts on Facebook that he has since let go.
“They’re doing more ad testing than any other campaign and they’re going to get smarter quicker. It’s impressive that they can generate all this creative [work],” Wilson said. “What it tells me is that their heads are down and they’re working hard and learning and focusing on what matters most and not on the silly season. What we’re judging the campaign on right now is vibes on Twitter.”
Albeit, sometimes those vibes can be problematic, as when the DeSantis campaign shared a bizarre web video on Twitter that was made by another account and that was simultaneously criticized as being both homoerotic and homophobic.
The DeSantis campaign’s paid work on Facebook is more sophisticated and targeted.
The campaign creates multiple online ads simultaneously and uploads all of them to social media platforms, monitoring their engagement and tweaking the colors, pictures and texts of ads. The algorithms of the ads’ platforms automatically promote those that drive the most interactions – especially donations. These posts get prioritized, and the others are discontinued.
The campaign’s ads seek to recruit, retain or excite supporters – and preferably get them to donate as well, knowing that even small-dollar donors are highly likely to vote for the candidate. The posts ask viewers to take surveys – concerning the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance – or asks them to “contribute” before the June 30 deadline, to “Protect Women’s Sports” from transgender athletes or asks “Should We Ban China From Buying Land in America?”
The China land-buying issue, a law DeSantis passed and that has been challenged in court in Florida, had eight separate creative variations targeted to various select audiences, creating nearly 130 unique data points the campaign studied. In the seven weeks since launch, the campaign says it has run nearly 30 separate creative “programs” like this with 256 separate creative variations, and 424 separate pieces of ad copy sent to people in 65 unique communities or audiences.
In fundraising solicitations, the DeSantis campaign has also emphasized that they’re not trying to guilt-trip donors into giving nor are they lying to them the way Trump’s campaign has in the past.
The DeSantis camp also decided not to hire outside firms for digital work but instead to recruit everyone in house so there were no conflicts of interest between vendors pushing for bigger portions of the budget solely to enrich their respective companies.
“We wanted true believers who were here for the right reasons,” said Ethan Eilon, head of the DeSantis digital department. “We wanted to run a shop where the incentives were aligned with the mission.”