Ron DeSantis needs “to take a sledgehammer” to Vivek Ramaswamy, the political newcomer who is rising in the polls. He should “defend Donald Trump” when Chris Christie inevitably attacks the former president. And he needs to “attack Joe Biden and the media” no less than three to five times.
A firm associated with the super PAC that has effectively taken over Mr. DeSantis’s presidential campaign posted online hundreds of pages of blunt advice, research memos and internal polling in early nominating states to guide the Florida governor ahead of the high-stakes Republican presidential debate next Wednesday in Milwaukee.
The trove of documents provides an extraordinary glimpse into the thinking of the DeSantis operation about a debate the candidate’s advisers see as crucial.
“There are four basic must-dos,” one of the memos urges Mr. DeSantis, whom the document refers to as “GRD.”
“1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”
The documents were posted this week on the website of Axiom Strategies, the company owned by Jeff Roe, the chief strategist of Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down.
The New York Times was alerted to the existence of the documents by a person not connected to the DeSantis campaign or the super PAC. After The Times reached out to Never Back Down for comment on Thursday, the group removed from the website a key memo summarizing the suggested strategy for the debate.
Super PACs are barred by law from strategizing in private with political campaigns. To avoid running afoul of those rules, it is not unusual for the outside groups to post polling documents in the open, albeit in an obscure corner of the internet where insiders know to look.
Posting such documents online is risky — the news media or rivals can discover them, and the advice can prove embarrassing. But super PACs often decide the risk is justified to convey what they consider crucial nonpublic information to the candidate without violating the law.
But it is unusual, as appears to be the case, for a super PAC, or a consulting firm working for it, to post documents on its own website — and in such expansive detail, down to the exact estimate of turnout in the Iowa caucuses (“now 216,561”), and including one New Hampshire poll with more than 400 pages of detailed findings.
The DeSantis super PAC and campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Notably missing from the debate materials is a document focused on Mr. Trump. The former president, who has said he is unlikely to participate in the debate, is also not among the candidates whose previous attacks against Mr. DeSantis were highlighted by the super PAC, in a preview of what he might expect onstage.
Key among the documents is one entitled “Debate Memo,” dated Aug. 15, which cynically describes how Mr. DeSantis — who has been battered by critical coverage and has struggled to capture attention in the face of Mr. Trump’s indictments — could wring the most favorable media attention from the debate.
Addressed simply to “interested parties,” the memo describes “Roger Ailes’ Orchestra Pit Theory,” quoting the now-deceased Fox News executive and political strategist’s well-known maxim that a candidate who lays out a comprehensive plan on foreign policy will draw less coverage than the one who accidentally falls off the debate stage.
To that end, the memo lists “potential Orchestra Pit Moments,” beginning with one drama-making opportunity, complete with a recommendation for a Trump-style insult: “Take a sledgehammer to Vivek Ramaswamy: ‘Fake Vivek’ Or ‘Vivek the Fake.’”
Related documents — one runs nearly 5,000 words across 17 pages — show that the DeSantis operation advises portraying Mr. Ramaswamy as an inauthentic conservative.
Internal polling contained in the trove of documents shows Mr. Ramaswamy surging in New Hampshire, which may have inspired the attack line. Mr. Ramaswamy was at 1 percent in New Hampshire in April but rose to 11 percent in an early August survey, according to the documents.
The debate-prep memo also urges Mr. DeSantis to “defend Trump when Chris Christie attacks him,” with a specific suggestion for an attack line accusing Mr. Christie, the former New Jersey governor, of appealing mainly to Democrats: “Trump isn’t here, so let’s just leave him alone. He’s too weak to defend himself here. We’re all running against him. I don’t think we want to join forces with someone on this stage who’s auditioning for a show on MSNBC.”
The strategy memo also highlights one of Mr. DeSantis’s long-running political vulnerabilities, his reputation for awkwardness or aloofness on the campaign trail, by suggesting that he “invoke a personal anecdote story about family, kids, Casey, showing emotion.”
Mr. DeSantis is keenly aware of his vulnerability in this regard: Leaked videos of his preparation for a 2018 debate for governor, obtained by ABC News, included an adviser telling him that as a reminder to himself, he should write in capital letters at the top of his notepad: “LIKABLE.” Mr. DeSantis, then a congressman, nodded.
The documents published on the Axiom Strategies website also address the delicate way in which Mr. DeSantis should handle Mr. Trump, who remains by far the most popular figure in the Republican Party. They suggest saying that Mr. Trump’s time has passed, and that Mr. DeSantis should be seen as “carrying the torch” for the movement he inspired.
The strategy memo provides Mr. DeSantis with an elaborate script with which to position himself in relation to Mr. Trump.
He could say that Mr. Trump was “a breath of fresh air and the first president to tell the elite where to shove it,” then add that the former president “was attacked all the time, provoked attacks all the time, and it was nonstop.”
Mr. DeSantis could then argue that Mr. Trump, who has now been indicted four times, faces “so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward,” and that “this election is too important. We need someone that can fight for you instead of fighting for himself.”
Mr. DeSantis, the memo urges him to conclude, is the only candidate who can keep the Trump movement going.
The memo then supplies a YouTube link as “inspiration.” It’s an ad produced by Win It Back PAC, a group linked to the anti-tax organization the Club for Growth that has been spending heavily to run the ad in Iowa. The spot features a man describing himself as a disillusioned former Trump voter, expressing concerns about Mr. Trump’s electability — effectively creating a permission structure for voters to move on from him.
Taken together, the documents reveal the remarkable extent to which the financially struggling DeSantis campaign is relying upon the resources of his super PAC, which raised $130 million in the first half of the year. The outside group is paying for research on Mr. DeSantis’s rivals, strategic insights and polling — all traditionally the work of campaigns themselves.
The documents include detailed research showing how each candidate expected to be on the debate stage has been attacking Mr. DeSantis. They even include a dossier on the low-polling governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, warning that he might attack Mr. DeSantis over the “Book Ban Hoax” — a reference to a law the Florida governor signed last year that allows parents to challenge books they deem inappropriate for school libraries.
Some of the lengthiest documents in the trove center on Mr. Ramaswamy, Mr. Christie and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina — underscoring the idea that they are the candidates that the super PAC is most focused on. .
Mr. Ramaswamy, who has been creeping close to Mr. DeSantis in some public polling, is the only candidate about whom two separate documents described vulnerabilities that Mr. DeSantis could attack. One lays out Mr. Ramaswamy’s past statements about abortion, immigration policy and Covid masks, among a long list of subjects. The other is a lengthy opposition-research document on his positions and past actions.
The polling, conducted by WPA Intelligence in early August, shows Mr. DeSantis in second place in New Hampshire, with 16 percent support, and Mr. Trump ahead but at only 34 percent. Mr. Ramaswamy was in third with 11 percent and Mr. Christie fourth with 8 percent.
But there were other warning signs for Mr. DeSantis in the private poll. His net favorability among Republicans — the difference between the percentage of voters who view him favorably and the percentage who view him unfavorably — had dropped from 65 percentage points in March to 26 points in August. Mr. Scott was seen far more favorably, with a 49-point net favorability.
Importantly, Mr. DeSantis has also declined in terms of serving as Republican voters’ second choice, dropping from 32 percent in March to 17 percent in August, tied with both Mr. Scott and Mr. Ramaswamy.
The internal polling included in the documents about Iowa was less detailed, but appeared to show Mr. Trump leading in the state with 40 percent support, while Mr. DeSantis was at 19 percent and Mr. Scott at 12 percent.
Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. More about Jonathan Swan
Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. More about Shane Goldmacher
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. More about Maggie Haberman
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