Inside the Secret DeSantis Donor Briefing (Exclusive)

DeSantis pollster sees Trump's support in early primary states as 'soft,' even as the former president holds a big lead nationally


Before he officially entered the presidential race Wednesday, Ron DeSantis was already barraged with constant insults from Donald Trump, attack ads from a political committee backing the former president and a crush of negative national media stories.

But despite the onslaught, the Florida governor remains better-liked by Republican voters than Trump in the four early states that often decide presidential primaries, according to a closed-door presentation made Thursday to fundraisers by the campaign’s chief pollster, Ryan Tyson, whose survey results align with independent pollsters.

The presentation —which provides an unprecedented window into the thinking and messaging of the tight-lipped DeSantis campaign— also shows that these early state primary voters believe DeSantis is more conservative than Trump and that he’s ready to be president, according to three sources who witnessed the presentation and described it to The Messenger on condition of anonymity.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

A DeSantis campaign spokesperson declined comment but did not dispute the numbers furnished to The Messenger.

DeSantis seen as "very conservative" in early primary states

The presentation served as a pro-DeSantis peptalk to educate fundraisers before they dialed donors for dollars Thursday from Miami’s Four Seasons Hotel, where they assembled for the campaign’s first day of official action.

Trump is ahead in the contest, which he emphasizes and presents as evidence that his nomination is a fait accompli. Tyson and the DeSantis campaign acknowledge Trump’s lead, but they and other strategists believe the former president’s support is “soft” beyond about a third of the Republican primary vote that he can consistently rely on. 

“When you look at the primary electorate, it’s clear there’s a willingness to move forward with someone else,” Tyson said. “But the case has to be made that there’s someone worth moving forward with. And that’s what a campaign is for.”

But more candidates in the race, like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott who announced this week as well, likely help Trump more than DeSantis, who wants to make the primary a two-person contest.

Tyson emphasized that the presidential primary is not a single national campaign. Instead, it starts as a series of individual state-based campaigns that start first in Iowa in January, move to New Hampshire, then South Carolina and then Nevada. What matters most at this stage of a primary is momentum, not banking delegates for a convention-floor fight to determine the nominee, which has yet to happen in the modern era.

“We were never playing the national survey game. That’s just chum for the media,” Tyson said, noting the campaign is laser-focused on those first four states. 

“While they’re only 6 percent of the delegates cast, they’re 90 percent of the momentum,” he said during the presentation, where he highlighted four findings the DeSantis campaign is leaning into when it talks to donors.

Here's the DeSantis team's theory of the case:

*Favorability ratings. Though Trump is ahead in each of the early states in horse-race polls, DeSantis is viewed more favorably. In Iowa, 77 percent of Iowa voters view DeSantis favorably and only 13 percent unfavorably. That's a net positive rating of 64 points for DeSantis in Iowa. Trump’s net rating in Iowa is 18 points lower. Compared to Trump, DeSantis’s net favorability is also 13 points higher in South Carolina and 5 points higher in New Hampshire and Nevada.

*Conservative ratings. Because conservative voters dominate Republican primaries, particularly in Iowa, their views have a strong impact on the outcome of the race. The presentation showed that 50 percent of Iowa Republicans saw DeSantis as “very conservative” compared to 41 percent for Trump, a difference of 9 percentage points. In New Hampshire, Republicans DeSantis was more likely to be viewed as “very conservative” in comparison to Trump by 14 points, by 8 points in South Carolina and by 6 points in Nevada.

*Readiness to be president. When asked if they believed DeSantis was ready to be president, Iowa Republicans by a margin of 62 percent to 27 percent said he was, giving him a net positive rating of 35 percent. His rating was +11 percent in New Hampshire; +5 percent in South Carolina and +23 percent in Nevada.

*Second term for Trump. When asked if Trump deserves a second term and if others should wait their turn, Iowa Republicans were nearly split, 47-44. Trump had a similar margin in New Hampshire of 3 percentage points; voters were evenly split in South Carolina but in Nevada he had his best rating, with 56 percent agreeing and only 36 percent disagreeing.

Because of DeSantis’s ongoing feud with Disney World, Tyson also polled the popularity of the entertainment behemoth with early state Republicans and found the company is deeply unpopular. Only 15 percdent of Iowa Republicans had a favorable impression of Disney compared to 59 percent who had an unfavorable view, giving the company a net negative rating of -44 percent. It’s -35 percent in New Hampshire; -26 percent in South Carolina and -45 percent in Nevada.

Trump's pollsters dismiss DeSantis optimism

But Trump’s pollster and the pollster for a supportive political committee, MAGA Inc., accused the DeSantis operation of spinning good poll numbers out of bad. 

“The DeSantis super PAC has spent more than $11 million on TV, more on digital ads, and they have sent out four high-cost glossy mailers to voters in the four early states and done text-messaging, voice calls and door-knocking, and what do they have to show for it? Nothing” Tony Fabrizio, pollster for MAGA Inc., told The Messenger.

“Yes, DeSantis and Trump have similar favorables, but the problem with their argument is that Trump is beating DeSantis by 30 points among voters who view both candidates favorably and Trump is beating DeSantis even more among voters who view them both very favorably.” 

So far, MAGA Inc. has spent more than $15 million on TV ads attacking DeSantis and Trump demeans, insults or chides DeSantis almost daily.

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns, told The Messenger that Tyson’ findings about DeSantis’s likability with Republicans are born out in his own surveys.

“As for favorability, it’s something I’ve keyed into as well. I was curious to see what kind of real significant favorability hit DeSantis has taken, but I’m not really seeing it,” he said. “What they’re saying isn’t wrong. The case to be made for DeSantis is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and the history of primaries is littered with the dead bodies of early frontrunners. Also, the race will swing. You can argue that from history.”

In the primary, he said, “the swing voters are the very conservative voters… the largest group is the people considering both, and they are very conservative. They’re off-the-charts on every culture war issue. So that’s the battleground.”

Andrew Smith, pollster for the University of New Hampshire, at one point found DeSantis leading Trump but his most recent survey shows Trump well ahead. Smith also found DeSantis hanging on to higher favorability ratings even as Trump moved ahead in the head-to-head polling.

He said that will likely change.

“This is like the bicycle races at the Olympics where they spend the first laps jostling for position and then they sprint like hell at the end. That’s pretty much what a primary is like: it’s about positioning,” Smith said. “You have to put yourself in position with money, name recognition, good favorable ratings because you haven’t done something stupid and staff on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire. And it sounds as if DeSantis has done that.”

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