There was California Gov. Pete Wilson in September 1995, who, the Associated Press reported at the time, was heading “into the fall with a new plan to cut costs but without veteran strategist George Gorton” as he sought the Republican presidential nomination. He’d drop out soon after.
In June 1999, it was Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) who, according to the Houston Chronicle, “scaled back his [presidential] campaign operation” because of “the difficulties of raising money in a crowded Republican field.” He was out by August.
In June 2003, it was Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) who needed to figure out “how to build on the campaign’s fundraising successes while cutting costs,” as the National Journal wrote. He made it to February of the following year.
It seems as though there’s a candidate like this in every cycle, the one who jumps into the presidential race only to quickly overextend themselves, demanding a scaling-back of staff even before winter. In 2011 it was Jon Huntsman Jr. In 2015, Jeb Bush. In 2019, Kamala D. Harris.
As you are probably aware, none of them went on to win their party’s presidential nomination.
It’s useful to consider this history given reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is similarly overextended in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. After formally beginning his campaign in May, DeSantis has gained no traction in national polling. A memo to donors that leaked last week insisted that his campaign was well-positioned within early primary states, but such memos always say those sorts of things. It was quickly followed by reports that the campaign needed to cut staff as part of a reorganization effort — prompting the comparisons above.
Such comparisons are admittedly facile, particularly since most presidential candidates never win their party’s nomination. Some of the people listed above were never really considered contenders, either; no one was walking into a Las Vegas casino to put $1,000 on the Alexander nomination.
But that’s somewhat besides the point. That a campaign seen as a legitimate contender could overextend so quickly is a bad sign, as Jeb Bush can attest. After all, the job at issue is one predicated on executive management of a large, national organization. Presumably no one comes to the presidency fully ready for the job, but to initiate your bid as the person best suited to manage that system by quickly needing to correct staffing missteps is not ideal.
For rhetorical purposes, I left one name off my initial list: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose 2008 bid needed course correction in October 2007.
“McCain, R-Ariz., spent only $5.5 million, cutting costs to make the most of the meager $5.7 million he raised,” the Arizona Republic reported at the time, “while restructuring his campaign in July, August and September.”
McCain, of course, went on to win the nomination (and got blown out by Barack Obama). But as I wrote last week, McCain also trailed the front-runner at this point in the campaign by less than half as much as former president Donald Trump leads DeSantis according to RealClearPolitics’s averages.
What’s more, McCain’s opponent was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who benefited from good name recognition but soft support. Trump is seeking the nomination from a party whose members have almost all already voted for him for president at least once. He’s also got nearly twice as much support from likely primary voters at this point as Giuliani had then.
Still, we have a small sample size here and making firm predictions based on a dozen previous races is a fool’s errand. So let’s consider the other emerging element of DeSantis’s campaign overhaul, his change in approach.
On Tuesday, he will sit down for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, a rare engagement with nonpartisan media. Over the weekend, DeSantis insisted that he was engaged with traditional media, actually, but that they wanted him to lose because they were scared of him. (This came during an interview on Fox News, naturally.) This theory will presumably be put to the test this week.
It’s worth asking, though, why DeSantis wants to make this shift now. Why, as he reorients his campaign, is he sitting down with CNN?
He or his team will probably claim that they were always going to do this and their campaign is just starting and people aren’t really paying attention, the types of arguments they’ve been using to this point to justify not getting any traction in the polls after formally announcing. (It seems inaccurate to call that announcement a “launch,” given what followed.) But this is obviously something different from what DeSantis has been doing for more than a year as he’s positioned himself for 2024.
At Semafor, Shelby Talcott suggests that DeSantis may be hoping to orchestrate the sort of dispute with Tapper that has repeatedly benefited Trump: fighting a “fake news” journalist for attention and bolstering right-wing bona fides. And, given the past willingness of DeSantis (and his team) to attack traditional media, this is not a bad guess.
But it also possibly marks a recognition that DeSantis’s campaign has strayed from one of its initial value propositions: that he could be the candidate for conservative Republicans who don’t like Trump.
So far, DeSantis has secured a position as the alternative to Trump among Trump voters without carving out a position that significantly escapes Trump’s shadow. (Trump’s gains in recent months have come at DeSantis’s expense.) Is this, then, an effort to solidify support for those — reportedly like Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch — who want a non-Trump nominee? To try to shift back away from the extreme right?
If so, it’s to some extent self-defeating. Joe Biden’s 2020 primary campaign fumbled around for a while but was saved largely by the perception that he was the only candidate who could defeat Trump in the general. Some of DeSantis’s support is based on the hope that he can do the same in the primary — but starting out by tripping over himself directly undercuts that idea. He’d have been more effective at focusing on this line of attack before he had to cut staff, not after.
It’s possible he could still pull off what McCain did in 2008. But it is hard not to assume that the more immediate comparison, for a lot of reasons, is Jeb Bush in 2016.