Ron DeSantis is trying to reassure donors and activists that his campaign only looks stalled.
A confidential campaign memo obtained by NBC News lays out what the Florida governor’s presidential campaign sees as its path forward: focusing on the early states, refusing to give up on New Hampshire, not yet investing in Super Tuesday battlegrounds, zeroing in on DeSantis’ biography and sowing doubts about his competitors — particularly Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
“While Super Tuesday is critically important, we will not dedicate resources to Super Tuesday that slow our momentum in New Hampshire,” the memo states. “We expect to revisit this investment in the Fall.”
The document, dated July 6, is labeled a “confidential friends and family update” and makes it clear that it’s “not for distribution.” Its details about the campaign’s strategy are far more in-depth than what has been shared publicly.
As DeSantis’ ability to surpass former President Donald Trump as leader of the Republican Party is now an open question among the GOP faithful, the memo is an effort by the governor’s top aides to reach out to donors to provide more clarity on their path forward.
Across the DeSantis political universe, there is a heightened awareness of the importance of the early states and the reality that he will burn out without strong performances there. It means that even as the group has a plan in place now, the strategy is subject to change.
“From my understanding, if we don’t see a bump in the polls, we are basically going to shut down the idea of a national operation,” a DeSantis-aligned operative said.
Team DeSantis is arguing that Trump’s support is pliable. Its pitch is made even as public polling shows Trump up almost 25 percentage points in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and almost 20 percentage points in South Carolina — seen as make-or-break places if DeSantis is to regain his footing in the race.
“Early state voters are only softly committed to the candidates they select on a ballot question this far out -- including many Trump supporters,” the memo said. “Our focus group participants in the early states even say they do not plan on making up their mind until they meet the candidates or watch them debate.”
New Hampshire has long been seen as challenging terrain for DeSantis’ brand of fiery culture war-driven rhetoric and his abrasive campaign style, but the campaign insists in the memo that “it will not cede New Hampshire.”
“It should come as no surprise that our campaign will focus relentlessly on the early states while also building out an infrastructure to go the distance — and thanks to our generous supporters, we have the resources to do it all. We’re ready to win this marathon,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo told NBC News.
The memo comes at a moment when DeSantis’ political orbit for the first time has to respond to being seriously punched in the mouth. DeSantis quickly rose through the national political ranks to be dubbed “America’s governor” by many conservatives, and he won his re-election bid by almost 20 percentage points. But now, Trump continues to pummel him, leaving his political team playing defense to prevent a donor exodus.
Meanwhile, Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC that committed to spend $100 million on a nationwide ground effort to boost the governor, says it is committing to both the early-state strategy and investing heavily in contests in March — including the 14-state Super Tuesday primaries March 5.
While the campaign is focused on the early states, Never Back Down is preparing to insert 80 freshly trained field operatives into California, according to Kristin Davison, the group’s chief operating officer. That’s in addition to political aides already hired in the first four states on the calendar — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — and 17 states that hold March primaries, according to the group. Canvassers have knocked on almost 700,000 doors in six states — a set that includes the first four contests, Texas and North Carolina, super PAC officials said.
One official with Never Back Down said it is executing its long-standing plan to ramp up in later primaries while complementing the campaign’s work in early states.
But if DeSantis doesn’t perform well in the first contests, the rest will not matter.
“If you want to beat Trump, you have to run the table in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” a veteran presidential campaign operative who is sympathetic to DeSantis said.
Another Republican consultant familiar with the group’s thinking said that California in particular is a focus. Not only does it have 169 delegates, the most of any Super Tuesday state, but there also has been polling going back to April that made them think there was an opportunity to secure big gains in the state.
The person likened the Never Back Down strategy as volume dials on a radio.
“California is different. I think on the level of the first four states, the dial has always been turned up to the max,” the person said. “The dial on the Super Tuesday states may have been turned down a bit, with the exception of California. I think both the super PAC and campaign view it as very important.”
The person said the shift needs to happen because it’s clear to activists and donors that the current operation is not working. DeSantis needs to signal to them that he recognizes this fact — before any future poll shows him falling from second place nationally or in an early state, the person said.
The memo acknowledges Scott to be a potential rising threat, hinting to donors that he’ll be facing some added scrutiny from DeSantis allies in the coming weeks. It also dismisses the competition from businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“While Tim Scott has earned a serious look at this stage, his bio is lacking the fight that our electorate is looking for in the next President,” the memo says. “We expect Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead. We’ve found low to no interest in Vivek, Burgum, and Nikki while far too many voters will not consider Pence and Christie for them to feel remotely viable."
It comes as Politico reported that some wealthy donors who were looking to DeSantis as a Trump alternative are now eyeing Scott instead.
The document also outlines the message DeSantis’ team plans to deliver to voters through both paid and earned media in the coming months. The campaign suggests it has found the most success when presenting him as a dad and a veteran to voters, and it’s planning an effort to amplify his biography.
DeSantis plans to shift focus away from immigration and the border to a focus on solutions for the economy coming in July and August, along with foreign policy and China in August.
“More to come in the Fall of 2023....including woke military, the deep state, school choice and beyond,” the memo adds.
The first GOP presidential debate is expected to also dominate August. DeSantis has said he’ll be at the event, even though Trump has indicated that he will likely skip it.
For some veteran Republicans, the attempts to resurrect a campaign that has been taking on water since the day it launched in late May might already be too late.
“There needs to be a shake-up inside and outside -- today,” said a GOP operative who has worked on presidential campaigns and is not aligned with a candidate at this time.