Ron DeSantis' battle plan against Donald J. Trump was always ambitious.
This spring, the main super PAC backing DeSantis engineered an expensive organizing operation, including a massive voter outreach effort with an army of trained and paid door-knockers, that would attempt to reach every potential DeSantis voter several times. times at the beginning of the year. nominating states.
Seven months later, after tens of millions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of doors knocked on, one of the most expensive ground games in modern political history shows little sign of generating the momentum it hoped to achieve.
DeSantis' poll numbers have barely changed. His super PAC, Never Back Down, is falling apart. And Trump's hold on Republican primary voters appears as unbreakable as ever. As time runs out before the January 15 Iowa caucuses, DeSantis, Florida's governor, appears to be in danger of losing the extraordinary gamble he made by outsourcing his field operation to a super PAC, a gamble which is testing both the limits of campaign finance law and the power of money to influence voter sentiment.
Never Back Down has spent at least $30 million on its effort to reach voters in person through door-to-door visits and canvassing in early primary states, according to a person with knowledge of its efforts, a figure that does not include dozens of additional millions in television advertising. The organization has more than 100 full-time paid pollsters in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, along with 37,000 volunteers.
That running game has increasingly become a life-or-death struggle in Iowa, where a long-shot victory could redeem the effort. Never Back Down has knocked on doors more than 801,000 times (including repeat visits) in Iowa, according to another person familiar with its work, a staggering number in a state of only 3.2 million people. The group has knocked on the doors of some potential DeSantis voters four times, and a fifth attempt is planned before the caucuses, the person said.
“I know they are doing the right thing,” said Will Rogers, a Republican political organizer in Iowa, who said Never Back Down had been on his doorstep several times. But, he added, “it just doesn't seem to be moving the needle at all.”
Interviews with more than three dozen voters, local officials and political strategists in Iowa and beyond revealed that, even setting aside internal turmoil in Never Back Down, the immense, coordinated effort to identify and mobilize voters for DeSantis has had problems from the beginning. .
Some voters have been swayed by the super PAC's outreach, but many remain unconvinced. Some said the door knockers were indifferent or rude, while others said Never Back Down's full-court press didn't feel authentic. And, in a particularly brutal twist, some of the door-knockers openly told Iowans that they themselves were, in fact, Trump supporters.
“From my perspective, it hasn't worked,” said Cris Christenson, a businessman who lives in Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines. Never Back Down has been all over his neighborhood, he said, and has knocked on his door three times.
Christenson said he was “not against DeSantis” and described him as “very bright.” But he is a staunch Trump supporter.
“It all comes down to this: Trump is so wildly popular in the state that DeSantis has no chance,” he said.
Spreading the word
Jess Szymanski, a spokesperson for Never Back Down, said the group had built “the largest and most advanced grassroots and political operation in the history of presidential politics.”
“With every voter we interact with on the ground, we consistently find strong support and new voters who are committed to participating in Governor DeSantis' caucus,” he added. Knocking on doors is considered a particularly useful way not only to persuade and identify his supporters, but above all to mobilize them to attend electoral assemblies or the polls.
The field operation is highly organized: Never Back Down has trained hundreds of people at an internal training camp in Des Moines that agents call “Fort Benning.” There, recruits learn about the biography of Mr. DeSantis and his family, study his policies and his record as Florida governor, and practice door-knocking techniques.
Then, in groups (carrying iPads with special software containing details about potential voters) they fanned out across Iowa and other early nominating states.
In Iowa, these paid callers have been joined by volunteer “precinct captains”: Never Back Down aims to have at least one captain in each of Iowa's more than 1,600 precincts by Jan. 15.
Never Back Down is trying to reach Republicans in rural, heavily conservative areas like northwest Iowa, hoping that evangelical voters will embrace an alternative to the profane Trump.
Quality control issues
Some of the challenges on the ground appear to arise from the size of the operation. The fact that it was run by a super PAC rather than a campaign, and that it relied heavily on hired labor rather than volunteers, may make the outreach seem inauthentic, interviews with some attendees showed. to the caucus.
They described being discouraged or bewildered by DeSantis activists who came from as far away as California. Douglas Jensen, a 38-year-old potential caucusgoer from rural northwest Iowa who hasn't decided which candidate to support, recalled being surprised when a “very enthusiastic” man from Georgia told him about DeSantis at the house. of the.
Loren and Tina DeVries said they had knocked on doors from different campaigns to stop by their home in Bettendorf. Some were locals: Ms. DeVries, 54, even personally knew the young woman who knocked on her door to personally defend Vivek Ramaswamy.
But the couple didn't recognize DeSantis' knockers and recalled that they hadn't been very enthusiastic in their speech.
“I'm not sure if the people who have come are just there to check a box or to have a persuasive conversation,” said DeVries, 53. “They're not really selling.”
She still liked Mr. DeSantis, but Mrs. DeVries remained undecided.
Many other voters have also reported lackadaisical efforts, repeated fruitless calls and poor attitudes on the part of door knockers. Over the summer, a paid surveyor for Never Back Down in South Carolina was fired after he was caught making lewd comments about a homeowner, The Washington Post reported.
The super PAC has fired employees and volunteers who failed to meet door-knocking goals and other engagement measures, according to people who worked with the group.
Fierce competition and a looming favorite
Other campaigns are trying to cash in. The political network founded by the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity Action, which endorsed Nikki Haley last month, aims to knock on 100,000 doors in Iowa before the caucuses. The group hopes that a more accurate message, spread by a small group of well-trained volunteers and paid staff, will be enough to overcome the avalanche of Never Back Down outreach.
Tyler Raygor, AFP state director, said the fact that DeSantis had stalled in state polls despite a massive polling effort cast doubt on the effectiveness of his messengers.
“It just begs the question: 'Who are you going to have at the doors?' How well are you training them?'” Mr. Raygor said.
Trump's campaign has also put down roots in Iowa, although its efforts have focused more on training its 1,800 caucus captains and pressuring them to persuade their friends and neighbors to side with Trump. Still, the campaign has reached several hundred thousand voters in Iowa through mailers and door-knocking, according to a person familiar with the efforts.
In fact, it seems possible that no matter how much we knock on doors, we won't be able to overcome DeSantis' biggest challenge: he is not Donald Trump.
Jeanette Hudson, 82, of Pella, Iowa, said she and her husband, both loyal Trump supporters, had been visited at their home by a “nice young woman” who asked them if they were going to caucus for DeSantis. Mrs. Hudson said she didn't.
The woman smiled, thanked them and left.
Persuade the unconvinced
David Polyansky, DeSantis' deputy campaign manager, said door-knocking was intended to boost turnout on caucus night, not boost poll numbers.
“It gives you the opportunity to not only identify who might be a DeSantis supporter, but also to get them on board and make sure they're going to be there on the 15th,” he said, arguing that it was too early to judge. the effectiveness of Never Back Down's door-knocking operation.
In New Hampshire, the way DeSantis won the support of Hilary Kilcullen, 76, a physician's assistant in Concord, is a model Never Back Down hopes to emulate.
Kilcullen, a Republican, said a young man had knocked on her door to tell her about DeSantis. The pollster, who had flown in from Miami, told Kilcullen that she could trust DeSantis in the event of a terrorist attack or other disaster.
The conversation did not turn Kilcullen, who had grown tired of Trump, into a DeSantis supporter. But she valued the personal touch.
“Nowadays, when everything has gone digital and virtual, I was impressed,” Ms. Kilcullen said. “If DeSantis was able to capture the attention of this passionate young man, that means something.”
Then, after hearing Mr. DeSantis speak in person this month at a town hall event, and being impressed by his command of politics, she decided he had earned her vote.
But others have not yet been convinced.
An undecided participant in Iowa, Edith Hull, a 73-year-old retired Ottumwa farmer, said she recently had a positive experience with a DeSantis knocker.
“He was a really nice young man,” she said. “And he didn't pressure me or anything.” When he left, he gave her a large sign to hang on his doorknob and reminded her to participate in the caucus.
When asked if she felt differently about DeSantis afterward, she said, “Pretty much the same.”
The report was contributed by Ann Hinga Klein of Des Moines and West Des Moines, Iowa, Cindy Hadish of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Leah McBride Mensching of Mason City, Iowa.
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