Wonderful things are happening, as usual, in the orbit of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose eminently adequate and medium-quality performance at the first Republican presidential debate has yet to substantially help him gain on Donald Trump in the polls. (Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, by contrast, has soared from 3 percent to 6 percent in RealClearPolitics’ tracker.)
On Thursday, Politico published a long piece about the Never Back Down super PAC, which supports DeSantis and often features him as a “guest” at its rallies. (Super PACs can receive unlimited donations and explicitly support whichever candidate they want, but can’t formally “coordinate” with those candidates’ campaigns.) The piece was written by journalist Sasha Issenberg, an expert on targeted political advertising and the author of 2013’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. It’s titled “Ron DeSantis’ Super PAC Thinks It Has Cracked the Code on Delivering His Message,” and it features scenes and information which suggest that Never Back Down may have given Issenberg “access” to its operation in the hope (or expectation) that he would be on hand to document the success of its innovative methods in a way that would redound to the benefit of its top staffers and their hourly consulting rates.
As the piece explains, Never Back Down tried a variety of different methods of advertising DeSantis to potential voters during a “surge” of outreach this May—broadcast ads, streaming ads, mailers, etc.—then used follow-up polling to determine which had been the most effective. Its conclusion is that its most cost-efficient method of persuasion is paying contractors at call centers to send links, ads, and language like “We must remain relentless in our fight for freedom” to voters via text message, with chatbots employed to handle replies. From the article:
Federal regulations prohibit the use of auto-dialing technology to blast text messages, requiring any sender to have a human being hit the “send” button on every single one. Never Back Down, without a readymade volunteer corps but flush with cash, outsources that work to call centers, paying between two and 10 cents per message, depending on whether it includes images or video, according to super PAC officials.
“Receiving a sequence of text messages over the course of two weeks made the average voter about three-and-a-half points more likely to support DeSantis,” writes Issenberg. “Bombarding an individual with 10 had appreciably more impact than five.” This takeaway about outsourced text-spamming, he says, will be used to inform a $25 million media campaign planned for September and October in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As a respectful professional, Issenberg does not point out how grim this is, but I will: Mamma mia, that’s grim! And if you’re thinking, this seems unlikely to constitute the kind of code-cracking that will make up a nearly 40-point polling deficit, know that some of the people at the organization itself may agree with you: “Within Never Back Down’s headquarters,” Issenberg writes, “there is an ongoing dispute over how much to take away from the surge experiments.”
Actually, according to a Friday Washington Post report, one DeSantis insider who may not be happy with Never Back Down’s work is Ron DeSantis. According to anonymous sources, the governor has “privately complained,” “expressed regrets,” and “voiced anger” about the job being done by lead Never Back Down strategist Jeff Roe. (Not the voicing of anger!) In particular, the article says, DeSantis and other staffers of the DeSantis campaign proper were annoyed that Roe’s group made headlines by accidentally publicizing a debate strategy memo and being candid at a meeting with potential donors.
TBD, then, how they’ll feel about a big Politico story in which Roe staffers explain that sheer pestering repetition is the only method known to science that can convince someone to vote for Ron DeSantis. And TBD, moreover, how much longer their “relentless fight for freedom” can go on.