BEDFORD, N.H. — Some moderate Republican voters here recoiled at ads that Ron DeSantis’s allies started running last month broadcasting the Florida governor’s vows to use deadly force at the southern border.
“I don’t like the fact that we’re going to start murdering people,” said Becki Kuhns, 71, who is eager for an alternative to Donald Trump and brought up the commercials unprompted.
Down the road at a cigar bar in Nashua, where regulars talk politics and watch debates together, a different DeSantis problem came into focus: Trump supporters were unmoved by DeSantis’s pitch that he’d deliver the former president’s agenda more effectively.
The people he’s targeting “belong to Trump,” said Howard Ray, 43, who went to a DeSantis event but wasn’t persuaded. “He comes across kind of hard right.”
He added: “Those types of people are in Trump’s camp, and they’re not moving.”
DeSantis began the year widely viewed as the Republican with the best chance to build a winning coalition against the former president — the Trump alternative who could entice Trump critics yet was also in many ways a continuation of Trump’s “America First” platform. But DeSantis’s support has dramatically shrunk since then, eroding on both ends of the party spectrum, interviews with dozens of early state voters, as well as pollsters and strategists, show.
The GOP minority that disapproves of Trump — and that favored DeSantis before he and most other candidates announced — has splintered to other hopefuls. Boosted by them and by independents, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has surpassed DeSantis in New Hampshire and, in one poll released Monday, pulled even with the Florida governor in Iowa — where DeSantis has poured his resources.
At the same time, DeSantis has struggled among Trump supporters, losing ground with those who approve of the former president, who has used his four criminal indictments to re-energize a base that once looked readier to move on from him. And DeSantis has struggled on both ends to make personal appeals that resonate, with a stiffer presentation than freewheeling Trump.
Now, DeSantis is left in a perilous position with just over two months until the first nominating contest, mired in a second tier of candidates well behind Trump.
“He’s done good for the state of Florida, but it doesn’t seem to resonate for the rest of the country,” said Glen Pesquera, 69, who votes Republican and says he’s still “listening” to everyone, as he made his way out of a Manchester, N.H., diner that proudly advertises all its visits from 2024 candidates.
Despite his appeals to the Trump base, DeSantis has at times tried to offer something for everyone, eliciting sometimes discordant descriptions of his candidacy from voters.
To some in Iowa and New Hampshire he was a “fresh voice” and a “true conservative” unlike Trump. To others he was “America First” or, to those who disdained him, a “Trump wannabe.” They said he stood for “freedom” and “families” and fighting wokeness in schools, with his record in Florida sometimes defining him despite his months-long efforts to talk in national terms.
DeSantis’s average support in national polls of the GOP primary dropped from more than 30 percent in March to 24 percent in May, when he officially joined the race, to 14 percent today.
Faced with that slide, DeSantis’s team has focused most of its attention on Iowa, where it hopes intensive campaigning and a sophisticated ground operation will turn the tide against Trump. They note that a pro-Trump super PAC is resuming ad spending there against DeSantis — after earlier signaling that it was focused on the general election — and that polls show a growing share of voters considering candidates besides Trump, who holds a large polling lead.
But Haley, rather than DeSantis, has been gaining there, with a highly-anticipated Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll on Monday showing both Haley and DeSantis at 16 percent and Trump in the lead at 43. In a sign of Haley’s rise, a pro-DeSantis super PAC has started to air ads against her.
Advisers and allies argue that Haley appeals to the anti-Trump wing for stances that alienate the rest of the GOP and that DeSantis is still the only candidate who can bridge those camps — with most of his voters migrating to Trump if he drops out. Anti-Trump voters will eventually coalesce behind whoever can beat the former president, they say.
“The reality is this party is going to nominate somebody … that has a record of delivering on America First principles,” DeSantis said last week in New Hampshire, embracing that core identity even as he underlined moderate-friendly themes like “economic vitality.”
Speaking to voters at a bar in Creston, Iowa, this month, DeSantis said he would enact Trump’s ideas and take them further. He said he would “clean house” at the Justice Department, push to end the war in Ukraine and finish the wall at the southern border. He said that he would “make Mexico pay for it” by charging fees on remittances and that if drug traffickers tried to break through, they would wind up “stone cold dead.”
As DeSantis launched his campaign in May, adviser Ryan Tyson laid out the strategy to wealthy fundraisers who gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. “Trump without the crazy,” was how supporters saw him, Tyson said.
The “Never Trump” voters in the party were saying DeSantis was too much like Trump, he added, but they made up about 20 percent of the GOP. Tyson was more focused on what he called “soft” Trump voters. “These voters here in this segment are gonna collapse to the governor,” he predicted.
Trump has instead consolidated support, surging back from a low point after last year’s midterm elections, when many Republicans blamed him for their losses and took note of DeSantis’s landslide reelection victory. Indictments on a slew of criminal charges, starting in March, galvanized the base and rallied the party back to Trump’s side, all as the former president attacked DeSantis. “I am your retribution,” Trump has told voters.
Some DeSantis allies debate whether he should have announced earlier, to capitalize on his post-midterms momentum. Maybe, they say, he should have hit Trump hard from the start. They lament certain comments — like DeSantis’s dismissive statement about a “territorial dispute” in Ukraine — as unforced errors. But mostly they view Trump’s resurgence as a force beyond DeSantis’s control.
“To this day he has a very high favorable rating among those favorable to Trump,” said Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School Poll. “They’re just not voting for him.”
Dennis Martin, for instance, worries that Trump’s indictments will be a distraction and even says, “I don’t like Trump as a person.” The 57-year-old from a suburb of Des Moines is considering Trump, DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who has also embraced the Trump agenda.
But Martin is also outraged at the charges against Trump, thinks he did “a hell of a job as president” and says he’s leaning slightly toward supporting Trump again.
Heading to breakfast in nearby Ankeny, David Melssen said he’d been following DeSantis’s response to the war between Hamas and Israel. “Great man. He sent an airplane to bring back Americans,” he said immediately when a reporter mentioned DeSantis’s name.
Asked if he could vote for DeSantis, he said: “Yeah, if Trump decides that Ron DeSantis is the guy to back.”
While DeSantis has started making his case against Trump more directly, polls and studies from a range of groups have found that GOP voters are remarkably resistant to critiques of the former president. One DeSantis-aligned strategist said they were flabbergasted when criticisms of Trump’s coronavirus response fell flat in focus groups and sometimes backfired on DeSantis.
Many voters were furious about lockdowns, mandates and former White House coronavirus adviser Anthony S. Fauci but were “simply unwilling to attach any of that blame on Trump,” said the strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe nonpublic findings. This person said the indictments appeared to make Trump even more immune to criticism.
Trump has also forged a more personal connection with many Republican voters who say they view the former president as a vessel for anger at the country’s “elite.” DeSantis has spent far more time than Trump has mingling with voters on the trail this year but has struggled to shake criticisms that he’s stiff or rehearsed.
“Trump’s deal is, he’s working for us,” said Bryan Richardson, a 54-year-old from Ankeny, who called DeSantis his second choice.
Hopeful DeSantis allies point to how his pitch has resonated with some longtime Trump supporters, such as Joe Thomas, 38. Thomas likes DeSantis’s opposition to “identity politics” in schools; says Trump failed to “drain the swamp”; and hopes DeSantis’s support will grow as more “normie” voters — less dialed into politics — tune into the race.
Trump has benefited from an advantage in earned media — the term campaigns use for television, online and print news coverage — as voters get “a steady diet of two things: Biden sucks, they’re coming after Trump,” said one DeSantis adviser, who added that the former president’s edge has shrunk.
“This nomination won’t be won with a silver bullet, but instead with a three yards and a cloud of dust approach,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement, adding that “no one will outcampaign or outorganize” the Florida governor.
The same positions that have aligned DeSantis with the GOP base have alienated many centrists who were initially drawn to him. They point to the six-week abortion ban he signed in Florida; his combative tone; his fight with Disney over classroom restrictions on discussion of LGBTQ issues; and his declaration that the United States had no vital interest in a “territorial dispute” in Ukraine, which unnerved top donors.
In March, one Marquette Law School Poll found, DeSantis was winning about 45 percent of registered Republicans who view Trump unfavorably — even more than his 32 percent support among those with a favorable view of Trump. In late September, he was in the teens with both groups.
Jennifer Hodgdon, an independent who plans vote in the Republican primary, said DeSantis has aligned himself too closely with the Trump core of the party to appeal to her.
“I think he’s going for a base that is probably Trump’s base, even though he’s trying to not be Trump,” Hodgdon said. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work out for him.”
One voter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy and went to a DeSantis town hall in New Hampshire said the governor had every credential he could want in a candidate — but lamented in a recent interview that he was “divisive” like Trump and said that he felt drawn, later on, to Haley’s tone and appeal for consensus on abortion. Kevin Donohue, an independent who plans to vote in the New Hampshire primary, said he was drawn to DeSantis’s military service — he’s also a veteran — but worried the governor was “an intimidator rather than a solver.”
DeSantis operatives say it’s unsurprising that voters interested in a Trump alternative would shop around as the race heats up, and they point to candidates who’ve popped and then deflated. Many moderate voters who have policy differences with DeSantis said those differences aren’t dealbreakers if he’s the best bet against Trump.
But DeSantis’s decline with that group has opened the door for Haley to vie for the role of primary Trump alternative — particularly in New Hampshire, where Haley has focused her efforts and where moderate Republicans and undeclared voters could play an especially large role.
CNN polls of Republican primary voters there found that DeSantis’s support dropped across many subgroups from midsummer to September but took a particular dive with self-described “moderates” — from 26 to 6 percent. Haley, whose approach to abortion and support for Ukraine aid have helped her appeal to centrists, benefited from an opposite trend.
At recent Haley events in Iowa, including a multicandidate gathering, many voters said that they were leaning toward Haley after narrowing their shortlists to her and DeSantis, often citing the former U.N. ambassador’s foreign policy experience.
Throughout this year, DeSantis has tried to thread the needle on some divisive issues as he navigates clashing wings of the party, at times appearing eager to satisfy one, only to later nod to another.
He’s embraced strict abortion bans at the state level but often sidesteps questions about his support for national restrictions. He’s touted the election police force he created in Florida as Trump and other Republicans made false claims of rampant fraud, but he’s also admitted, when pressed, that Trump lost the 2020 election.
At the first GOP debate, when the moderators asked who was opposed to more U.S. funding for Ukraine, DeSantis raised his hand. But he didn’t rule out some funding, telling the debate audience that U.S. support should be “contingent” on other countries ramping up theirs.
Some donors who revolted over DeSantis’s Ukraine comments in the spring are eyeing Haley as a better fit.
At the same time, any move to assuage conservatives more hawkish on foreign affairs can stoke suspicion from the party’s “America First” flank.
Shortly after the first debate, at a packed Pizza Ranch in Garner, Iowa, one voter told DeSantis that he was troubled by his comments on foreign policy. It seems like “you’re in favor of sending more of my money over to the corrupt nation of Ukraine,” he said. DeSantis tried to clarify: He’d called for Europeans to take charge and was focused on American problems like the southern border with Mexico.
The same day, a reporter asked if DeSantis would “cut off other aid to Ukraine if Europe doesn’t step up their commitment.”
“Europe needs to step up their commitments,” DeSantis said.
Dylan Wells contributed to this report.