Rebooting Ron DeSantis’s Campaign


Admitting you’ve made mistakes is tough for anyone. For a hard-charging, hyperscrutinized political candidate who presents himself as infallible, it can be as excruciating as a root canal without anesthesia.

But Ron DeSantis clearly has hit the point where his presidential quest is crying out for a serious course correction. I know it. You know it. Anxious Republican strategists and donors know it. And Team DeSantis knows it, no matter what kind of happy talk the candidate was spewing in his interview with CNN last week. (Tip: If you find yourself babbling about being one of the few folks who knows how to define “woke,” you are not nailing your message.)

If things were going well for Mr. DeSantis — if he were catching fire as the less erratic, unindicted alternative to Donald Trump — there’s not a snowball’s chance he would have set foot in CNN. But as things stand, consorting with nonconservative media outlets, which he until recently avoided like a pack of rabid raccoons, is part of a bigger overhaul.

Team Trump intends to have some fun with this. “Some reboots were never going to be successful, like ‘Dynasty,’ ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ or even ‘MacGyver,’” the campaign mocked in a statement last week. “And now we can add Ron DeSantis’s 2024 campaign to the list of failures.”

But campaign reboots are nothing to be ashamed of. Honest! They are a common, even healthy, part of the process. Handled properly, they give candidates the chance to show off their decisiveness, tenacity, adaptability, unflappability — you name it.

Not all overhauls are created equal, of course. Ronald Reagan’s in the 1980 presidential race? Golden. Jeb Bush’s in 2016? Oof. And plenty have fallen somewhere in between: John Kerry 2004, John McCain 2008, Hillary Clinton 2008. As the DeSantis campaign starts down this path, it has an abundance of recent cases to consult for potential tips, tricks and red flags.

While every floundering candidacy is floundering in its own way, there are a few foundational moves common to presidential campaign reboots:

1. Slash spending, which typically involves cutting campaign staff and salaries.

2. Shake up the leadership team.

3. Shift the focus toward more grass roots stumping in the early voting states.

Spending issues are almost a political rite of passage. So many campaigns get carried away early on with high-priced advisers or an overabundance of staff members, especially with front-runners eager to project an aura of inevitability.

The DeSantis campaign is still doing solidly with fund-raising, but there have been warning signs (especially in the small-donor department) that have it cutting staff and rethinking priorities. (Even more Iowa!) This is obviously no fun and may presage even less fun to come. But it is better to start making these adjustments before things get really ugly. During the summer of 2007, the struggling McCain campaign found itself nearly broke, prompting massive layoffs and pay cuts and causing general upheaval as the high-level finger-pointing spiraled.

Money matters aside, a campaign’s top leadership not infrequently requires tweaking — or tossing. The candidate needs to lock down savvy people he trusts and will listen to, even as he jettisons the troublemakers. When making such assessments, there is little room for sentimentality. Sometimes even (maybe especially) longtime friends and advisers need to be … repurposed … particularly if the chain of command has become confused and internal bickering is taking its toll. This can lead to even more tumult. When Mr. McCain cut loose a couple of his top advisers in 2007, several senior staff members followed them out the door.

But a failure to deal with such a situation can leave the whole enterprise feeling increasingly dysfunctional, as was often the case with Hillary’s 2008 campaign. So much infighting and backbiting. So many competing power centers. This is when a candidate really needs to step up and impose order.

In many cases, a reboot may call for pushing out a new narrative. Postdownsizing, Team McCain sought to reassure donors and supporters with a plan to get lean and mean and start “Living off the land.” The candidate doubled down on wooing New Hampshire (Iowa’s social conservatives were never a natural fit for him), playing up his bus tours and broadly aiming to recapture the underdog, maverick spirit of his 2000 presidential run. John Kerry, way down in the polls behind Howard Dean in 2003, wanted to create a comeback-kid narrative by notching back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire; he lent money to his campaign and basically lived in Iowa for weeks to help execute his one-two punch.

It’s hard to say how a DeSantis variation of something like this would work. He plans to start talking less about his record leading the state “where woke goes to die” and double down on an “us against the world” theme, according to NBC. This latter bit sounds very Trumpian, maybe a tad too much so, considering Mr. Trump himself is still running with a version of that line. DeSantis’s heavy investment in Iowa, along with his chummy relationship with the state’s governor, could bring Kerry-like benefits. Then again, multiple candidates are campaigning hard there and could wind up splitting the non-Trump vote.

The harsh reality of reboots is that some presidential hopefuls are just too out of step with the political moment to rescue. Mr. Bush strode into the 2016 race as the man to beat. But Republicans were in no mood for his policy-heavy, mellow style of politics. (Mr. Trump’s “low energy” insult was brutally resonant.) By the fall of 2015, Team Jeb was slashing staff and hoping for the debates to help him win free media. No one cared.

To be sure, Mr. DeSantis has proved himself willing to get much nastier and more reactionary than did Mr. Bush in appealing to his base’s basest instincts. (That Trump-trashing anti-L.G.B.T.Q. video his campaign shared on social media — at once homophobic and homoerotic — was certainly something special.) No way anyone is going to catch Gov. Pudding Fingers being squishy on a culture-war hot topic like trans rights or immigration.

Yet the governor does carry a whiff of out-of-touch wonkiness. He can’t help but get all right-wing jargony at times — “accreditation cartels”? Really? — and his bungled, Twitter-based campaign announcement was clearly designed more to impress the online bros than the working-class voters he needs to woo away from Mr. Trump. Someone really should be working with him to fix this.

In the end, of course, it may be that Mr. DeSantis is on track to crash into that highest and hardest of reboot hurdles: likability.

This was, fundamentally, what kept the presidency just out of Mrs. Clinton’s reach. Even beyond the Republican haters, too many voters found her off-putting. She was not a natural retail politician. She struck people as standoffish and inauthentic. Time and again, her advisers tried to address this, but to no avail. Presidential contests have a lot to do with vibes, and she never quite managed to radiate the ones needed to go all the way.

Mr. DeSantis seems to be in a dangerously similar spot. He is famously awkward on the campaign trail — and with people in general. He stinks at the whole backslapping, glad-handing thing. He has trouble making eye contact. He presents as brusque, impatient, uninterested. He’s got the obnoxious parts of Trumpism down, without the carnival barker fun.

This doesn’t mean his presidential dreams are doomed. But it does suggest that a key element of his reboot should be figuring out how not to come across as a stilted, smug jerk who doesn’t care about voters.

Hey, no one said this would be easy.

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