Leaks, Loyalists And One Big Loss: Insiders Describe What Doomed DeSantis From The Start

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Awkward would be one way to describe the atmosphere at ground zero of the DeSantis campaign’s launch in a ritzy event space at the Four Seasons in Miami on May 24, 2023.

Major donors and campaign officials had gathered to eat, drink and be merry during their next president’s big announcement. Except, when the time came, there was no announcement, no big speech, no DeSantis.

“Everyone was eating and having drinks and chatting and trying to listen into the Twitter spaces. And the tech problems were there, and so in the room, it was definitely awkward,” one former DeSantis campaign staffer who was in the room told the Daily Caller.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we’re back. Oh, no, we’re not. Did we miss everything he said?’ There was a little bit of confusion,” the staffer continued.

They were watching live as their White House hopeful spoke behind a blank screen for an audience that could have mistaken the announcement for a mid-2000’s “can you hear me now?” Verizon commercial. Live streaming only audio – no video – to a virtual room of a few hundred thousand people, DeSantis and Elon Musk jumped on billionaire David Sacks’ Twitter account, not DeSantis’ or the highly-followed Musk’s. The initial attempt to go live from Musk’s account had been abandoned due to technical glitches and overloaded servers that derailed the event.

“Everyone’s kind of like, ‘Oh this is kind of weird. Why? Is this really the number one choice that we had?’” the staffer said.

That same night, DeSantis later appeared on Fox News for a traditional cable television hit, the kind of media outreach that has long been the backbone of successful 21st-century campaigns.

“They also stayed in the room and watched when Governor DeSantis went on Fox News, and that was received much better, and obviously went better because it was broadcast media. There were no glitches or anything like that,” the staffer said.

While the Fox News hit appeared to have smoothed things over with the donors, the campaign staff quickly went into spin mode for the public.

“We broke the internet,” team DeSantis tweeted after the twitter launch. Merchandise based on the talking point followed.

“It is recoverable. But it is a reminder that some things should be under full control of the candidate, particularly the launch day,” radio host Erick Erickson said.

Now, eight months later, it is evident that the campaign was not recoverable. The governor ended his run for the White House days after the Iowa caucuses, using the same platform that delivered his failure to launch. (RELATED: GOP Megadonor Pinpoints Exact Moment DeSantis’ Campaign Became Doomed)

In the aftermath of the highly anticipated campaign, political pundits and media personalities have rushed to do an autopsy to determine what went wrong. The Daily Caller talked to more than a dozen former staffers of both the campaign and the DeSantis-affiliated PAC Never Back Down about their experiences. The staffers weighed in on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely about what went wrong for DeSantis 2024.

They painted a picture of a campaign that was micromanaged yet lacked direction, put its faith in the wrong soldiers to carry out the orders of an awkward leader and misjudged its place in the political media ecosystem.

They came from different parts of the DeSantis orbit and had varying diagnoses for the campaign’s cause of death. But none of them had to look much further than the very beginning to know that the Florida governor’s race was doomed.

“Just look at the launch. It doesn’t matter if you have the best ideas in the world when the official campaign and the launch fails,” a former campaign official told the Daily Caller.

The campaign instantly lacked structure, former campaign staffers said. So much so that with about 24 hours until the launch, most of DeSantis’ team apparently hadn’t been looped in on the plans.

“Most of the folks in the campaign found out that we were going to be launching the presidential run via Twitter space the next day, the day before. We found out from the NBC News report, that that was how we were going to be launching the campaign, just to give you an example of how absurd it was,” a former campaign staffer told the Daily Caller.

One source suggested to the Caller that NBC News reporter Dasha Burns, who landed a number of exclusive stories during the campaign, was “best friends” with Never Back Down communications director Erin Perrine.

A source close to Perrine pushed back on that characterization of her relationship with Burns: “Erin has professional relationships with members of the press like every communications professional in the country.”

“For weeks, months, we were down there [in Florida] and it was, ‘he may run, he may run’ which is fine. That’s all good. That’s how these things go,” a campaign source said. “But then they have the launch and we all learn through the media how it’s going to happen. And [the campaign] tried to do damage control and give us more information within hours before, you know, all of this is set to happen.”

“We were surprised as shit. You know, we hated it ahead of time, and then it went 10 times worse than we could have ever imagined. And we were losing our crap. How are we going to explain this? Right?” a former Never Back Down official said. “You know, and the Generra [Peck, DeSantis’ one-time campaign manager] line was ‘we broke the internet’ — actually no, the internet broke us.”

The Caller reached out to Peck to be interviewed for this story multiple times but received no response. Peck started out as the campaign’s manager, but was demoted in August and replaced by James Uthmeier, who had been the chief of staff in the governor’s office. A review of Uthmeier’s job history, including his LinkedIn account, reveals no experience with political campaigns of any kind prior to becoming the campaign manager for DeSantis. Uthmeier did not respond to the Daily Caller’s requests for comment.

The way the campaign would be launched wasn’t the only time reporters in corporate media, which DeSantis claimed to oppose, would find out key developments before his own foot soldiers. (RELATED: ‘Relying On Liberal Media’: DeSantis Blasts Nikki Haley As ‘Fundamentally Out Of Step’ Over ‘Establishment’ Proposals)

In the summer, with their candidate spinning his tires in the polls against former President Donald Trump, the DeSantis campaign underwent a political death rattle as old as time: a campaign reset. With cash dwindling, they laid off dozens of staffers in an attempt to rejuvenate the flailing effort.

Once again, some inside the campaign learned of the major news via media reports, a former staffer with direct knowledge told the Caller: “There were already stories out in the media as we were being asked to leave so they could do the firings.”

Not only was the announcement of the layoffs apparently mishandled, but the campaign tried to recover morale with a staff-wide happy hour just moments later — for the staffers that had managed to keep their jobs, that is.

“They asked those of us that weren’t being laid off to leave the office and then did a mass firing and then brought everyone back later that afternoon and then had like a happy hour,” a former staffer with direct knowledge said. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, morale is really bad. We just fired like 50 people. Let’s do a happy hour.’ It was just weird. It’s very out of touch. There’s a lack of empathy I think, from at least from the original leadership team. That was really consistent throughout my time there.”

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley walks next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Five presidential hopefuls squared off in the third Republican primary debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined again to participate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley walks next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Peck would be demoted from the position of campaign manager several weeks after the layoffs, in August. But otherwise, the senior leadership who had guided the campaign to the point of needing mass layoffs was almost entirely spared.

DeSantis and his wife, Casey, were characterized by multiple sources as micromanagers with difficulty delegating important tasks. The officials they did delegate to often came from the governor’s close-knit Tallahassee circle, and several of the sources who spoke to the Caller suggested that group wasn’t ready for the prime-time pressure of a presidential campaign.

Heading into his White House run, DeSantis had momentum. He had trounced gubernatorial challenger Charlie Crist by nearly 20 points in 2022. DeSantis won all but four counties, locking himself in for another term as Florida’s leader.

Coming off the high of a landslide victory, DeSantis staffed his presidential campaign with what he thought worked, bringing over notable players like Bryan Griffin and Christina Pushaw. While those operatives had proven ruthlessly effective at the state level, most had never played high-level roles in a winning presidential campaign before. (RELATED: ‘They’re Not Gatekeepers Anymore’: Meet The DeSantis Spokeswoman Who’s Putting The Media On Defense)

“After the gubernatorial campaign, they never did a biopsy of what went right, what went wrong from the gubernatorial campaign, and they just kept everyone on and it started adding people on top, which led to a lot of confusion, because you had a Tallahassee contingent, and then you’d have newer people from outside of that group being added on and no one actually knew who they were reporting to,” a former campaign official told the Daily Caller.

“On the campaign side, they had zero experience, that I know of, at least in the early days with national politics, and I think they were definitely too cocky about their Tallahassee experience and assuming that was transferable to the national level,” a former Never Back down official told the Daily Caller.

On the inside it ran like a “fraternity [or] sorority,” rather than a political operation with sound leadership, another campaign staffer remembered.

The operation’s lack of structure led to confusion about the “command hierarchy,” a former staffer told the Daily Caller. They felt as if they were “running blind,” sometimes begging their superiors for days to take a look at work that had been submitted, to no avail.

As the DeSantis campaign slowly died over eight months, many fingers were pointed at the governor’s campaign staff. As DeSantis seemed rigid, pundits questioned which staffer was advising the White House hopeful to be so buttoned up.

But much of the blame fell on the candidate himself, and his wife. One former Never Back Down official, who remains fond of the governor, said the candidate appeared uptight because that’s just who he is.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks across the stage during a commercial break in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The four presidential hopefuls squared off during the fourth Republican primary debate without current frontrunner and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has declined to participate in any of the previous debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks across the stage during a commercial break in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Let’s face it, Ron just hates, and honestly I love the governor — I have nothing bad to say about him — but he does hate people,” the former official said.

“DeSantis had to approve every single fundraising email,” a campaign staffer told the Daily Caller.

“There’s nothing anywhere in the organization, DeSantis or his wife don’t have their fingers on. That includes a tweet, everything,” another campaign official added to the Daily Caller.

One aide described a “bottleneck” created by the need for DeSantis to review all communications, leading the campaign to send out the same social media posts and fundraising emails over and over in the early days of the campaign while they waited for new material to be approved.

“One of the things that was bragged about at the beginning of the campaign was that they had hundreds of thousands of data points … Even with all of these data points they only had what looked like 1-3 form emails going out because DeSantis has to review every single fundraising email before it goes out,” the former staffer said. “So on top of a failed launch on Twitter Spaces they ran with the same messaging for days because of the bottleneck.”

Another former campaign staffer recounted similar frustrations. “It would sometimes take two or three days to get a tweet approved for the people on the digital campaign because it had to go through these extremely arduous bureaucratic structures of approval. Both the governor and the first lady had to look at different tweets before they went live.”

One source familiar with the campaign’s thinking disputed that staff members ever found out about personnel changes from media reports, despite multiple former staffers telling the Caller it was the case. The same source denied there were communications “bottlenecks” despite the Caller hearing multiple firsthand accounts.

Many of DeSantis’ fundraising emails – and much of his campaign messaging – focused on hitting former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, especially down the home stretch toward Iowa. Throughout the governor’s campaign, DeSantis and Haley appeared to be fixated with each other rather than the front-runner, Trump.

Just two days before DeSantis dropped out of the race, his campaign continued to blast out emails criticizing how Haley was interacting with the press. DeSantis even took a shot at Haley in his Twitter address announcing the conclusion of his campaign. (RELATED: We Calculated Exactly How Often Nikki Haley Said ‘DeSantisLies.com’ On Debate Night)

A senior communications official for the DeSantis campaign pushed back on the micromanager allegations, stating that DeSantis didn’t have time to pay such granular attention to things due to the high volume of campaign events he was doing in Iowa.

One of DeSantis’ perceived strengths among Republicans before his launch was his ability to swat down liberal critics and turn the tables on hostile reporters. That’s what makes it so perplexing that a clear strategy decided at the outset of the campaign, by either himself or his staff, was to silo the candidate into friendly, alternative media, avoiding any interactions with “liberal” press.

DeSantis himself admitted in recent weeks this was a massive blunder.

“I came in not really doing as much media,” DeSantis told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I should have just been blanketing. I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything.”

DeSantis did sit for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper nearly two months after announcing his campaign. In what perhaps should have been an early warning sign of things to come, much of the oxygen was sucked out of the interview by repeated updates on Trump’s legal troubles that dominated Tapper’s broadcast. Additional interviews in long-form settings with major outlets remained few and far-between.

Some of the decision-makers around DeSantis apparently knew this was a mistake. “We should have been doing every media opportunity from the get-go. And instead, there was very little media at all and the only media that was done was super friendly, sort of protected hits, right,” a former Never Back Down official told the Daily Caller.

Another Never Back Down official contested the argument that DeSantis didn’t do enough media early on, adding that whenever he was scheduled to be with the PAC, they made sure he spoke to reporters.

“He would do at least one gaggle with reporters a day and that would include, you know, all your mainstream news outlets,” the official told the Daily Caller. “He did media, a lot of media pretty early on, and it only increased from there.”

Still, the former Never Back Down official believed it wasn’t enough.

“And my thing was no, he should be out there constantly. I almost preferred the opposition, right? Like, let’s be all over CNN, NBC News and all that and they were dying for that at the time. Dying for that content at the time. We just said no to all of it. And I thought that was arrogant. And dumb,” they continued.

“Instead the focus was on these little Twitter wars, which nobody cares about. Regular people don’t know who the hell Christina Pushaw is. Regular people don’t know who they are,” they added.

Pushaw, a prominent member of the DeSantis campaign’s rapid response team, pushed back on the notion that she engaged in an excessive amount of Twitter fighting. “I used Twitter the way I’ve always used Twitter,” she told the Caller, asserting that she rarely went after trolls given the amount of incoming fire she received.

“I’m not willing to say I did everything perfectly,” she added, but stood by her defense of the governor and said she still believed he would be the best president for the country in 2025. “There are always going to be people who try to play the blame game. I am not one of them.”

A source familiar with the campaign’s thinking pushed back on the criticism that DeSantis was too closed off to media, claiming that a late-summer strategy shift lifted him to success: “He held more gaggles than any other candidate, did more mainstream sit-downs than any other candidate, and prioritized local media more than any other candidate. Ron DeSantis’ commitment to a revamped media strategy was the reason he was able to withstand the onslaught against him and beat Nikki Haley in Iowa.”

DeSantis did, in fact, defeat Nikki Haley by two points in Iowa. He also lost to former President Donald Trump by thirty points in that contest. As of the time of this publication, Haley’s campaign is still competing for the Republican presidential nomination.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis participates in a Fox News Town Hall on January 09, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa Republicans will be the first to select their party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential race when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis participates in a Fox News Town Hall on January 09, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa Republicans will be the first to select their party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential race when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Conservatives who were sympathetic to the governor frequently picked at the campaign’s aversion to mainstream media coverage, particularly when juxtaposed with the number of scoops ending up in the same corporate media outlets DeSantis was publicly denying access to.

“If you’re not feeding the beast, the beast will eat you,” National Review’s Jim Geraghty said on a recent episode of The Editors podcast. “You need to keep giving them new kinds of stories to tell about you that are at least somewhat positive or somewhat interesting. Otherwise, they’ll find their own stories that make you look like an idiot.”

The corporate media beast ate DeSantis indeed. One such inflection point occurred around the time of the mass layoffs. DeSantis already trailed far behind Trump. Then, another hit: a pro-DeSantis video featuring Nazi imagery from a DeSantis fan account had been retweeted by staffers.

“DeSantis campaign mired in controversies over slavery, anti-gay video, alleged Nazi symbol,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote.

“Outrage as DeSantis Staffer ‘Retweets’ Nazi Symbol Video: ‘Disgusting,'” a Newsweek headline read.

“DeSantis aide deletes tweet suggesting Nazi protesters were Democratic operatives,” Politico wrote.

The ineffectual communications strategy and mishandling of hostile press wasn’t limited to the campaign itself. Perrine was allegedly “afraid” to do non-friendly media hits, multiple sources told the Caller.

“She is the only director of communications I’ve ever encountered who’s afraid to actually communicate. Like deathly afraid of it,” a former Never Back Down official told the Daily Caller. “She hates to be challenged.”

Perrine also served as the Trump 2020 re-elect campaign’s director of press communications, where one former colleague involved in the booking operation echoed the criticisms: “She never did the difficult hits, and even on the easy ones if she got an unexpected question, she would freak out and reduce the young studio staff to tears.”

“She would just randomly cry in her office if she didn’t get her way,” another former Trump campaign staffer alleged. “I remember one time in the studio you know, a young girl who was working in there on the studio team, she just made her cry because she was so nervous for an interview that she started screaming at her.”

One former Never Back Down official recounted an anecdote where Perrine became enraged and skipped out on a Newsmax panel after learning Hogan Gidley, a Trump surrogate, would also be present.

Three additional sources confirmed the Gidley anecdote. However, a Daily Caller review of Perrine’s past media hits showed that she has appeared alongside Gidley for media hits on numerous occasions.

After the Caller reached out to Perrine to ask for her side of the story, she dispatched multiple colleagues to call the Daily Caller in her defense. She also repeatedly reached out to the Caller to request “updates” on this story and demanded to speak to an editor. Perrine declined to comment herself on the record.

Several former colleagues of Perrine, both from the 2024 cycle and prior, defended her work in comments to the Caller.

“Every principal wants a smart, experienced and fierce political pro like Erin” to work with, Matt Wolking, former strategic communications director at Never Back Down, told the Daily Caller. “Anonymous sniping by jealous people who aren’t is pathetic.”

Another former colleague of Perrine echoed the sentiment that critics of her are simply “jealous.” Others denied that Perrine dodged media appearances, claiming she only passed on TV hits when she was too busy to do them.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a "Countdown to Caucus" event at the Never Back Down Headquarters on January 13, 2024 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa voters are preparing for the Republican Party of Iowa's presidential caucuses on January 15th. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a “Countdown to Caucus” event at the Never Back Down Headquarters on January 13, 2024 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa voters are preparing for the Republican Party of Iowa’s presidential caucuses on January 15th. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Days after DeSantis dropped out, his absence in the race is hardly noticeable. Trump’s sense of inevitability has carried through, and some DeSantis backers maintain the former president was always meant to win, no matter what their team had done differently.

“The Lord God could have come down and lost to Trump in the primary,” one former Never Back Down official told the Daily Caller.

In New Hampshire, Trump fought off Haley by roughly 11 points. Even as Haley’s home state isn’t far out, calls for her to drop out are increasing, not long after they were once directed at DeSantis.

Between messaging problems, inexperienced staff and media misplays, from the inside, some staffers felt DeSantis never even had a chance.

“I knew we were going to lose almost immediately after I got there,” a former campaign staffer told the Daily Caller.

“I have texts I sent friends like, ‘Trump’s gonna win the primary. No question.'”