Why a wave of social media ads may signal a potential DeSantis White House run

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising Republican star, has been careful not to nurture growing speculation that he will make a presidential bid in 2024. He has brushed off questions about his political ambitions, while the party’s presumptive front-runner, Donald Trump, repeatedly hints he will run again.

But there are signs that DeSantis could be preparing for a White House run even as he campaigns for another term as governor in November’s midterm elections.

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A Reuters analysis of DeSantis’ social media ads shows he has dramatically expanded his out-of-state ads in recent months, an indicator, say some political analysts, that he may be laying the groundwork for a national campaign.

In the first three months of this year, political ads sent through DeSantis’ Facebook and Instagram pages were overwhelmingly concentrated in Florida, as one would expect from a man running for office in the state.

But by the April-June period, they were spread roughly evenly between Florida and the rest of the country, according to a Reuters analysis of regional spending data for social media ads compiled by New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project.

DeSantis’ increase in out-of-state ads suggests a move toward building a nationwide network of supporters, said three Republican strategists, including Ron Bonjean, who was an adviser to former president Trump’s 2016 presidential transition team.

“It’s an important part of the campaign playbook and can help him build support quickly should he eventually throw his hat in the ring,” Bonjean said, adding that the timing matters as Trump could declare his candidacy “at any moment” and potentially dent DeSantis’ momentum.

DeSantis may, however, simply be using his national profile to seek a broader donor base for his re-election campaign, said Travis Ridout, an expert on campaign ads at Washington State University, although the Republican is a fund-raising giant who has already built a $100 million plus war chest.

Dave Abrams, a senior adviser on DeSantis’ re-election campaign, did not comment on the ads, but said the governor was fully focused on “winning big” in Florida this November.

“We’ll let the self-described ‘experts’ do what they do best: pontificate endlessly,” he told Reuters.

Two sources close to DeSantis confirmed to Reuters he is building a national database of voter contact information.

Political campaigns in the United States use such data, collected from many sources, to create detailed profiles of voters to inform their strategies and tactics. Gathering data via social media was a key tool for Trump’s own 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Any challenger would have to compete against his formidable database of small donors.

Social media ads often prompt supporters for their names, email addresses and other information that campaigns can use for future fundraising appeals and invitations to rallies.

Swing states

Should DeSantis launch a White House bid, he would be retracing the steps of past presidential candidates including US Senator Corey Booker, a Democrat who boosted out-of-state social media ads ahead of the 2018 midterm elections before running for president in 2020, Ridout said.

Many of DeSantis’ recent ads were concentrated in swing states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, with ad viewers asked to fill out surveys with questions like: “Are YOU feeling pain at the pump thanks to Joe Biden?”

Other ads ask for support to fight “the dishonest corporate media,” “woke corporations” and the left’s “socialist agenda.”

After clicking on an ad, users are directed to a DeSantis web page that asks for their opinion on the issue and contact information.

Compared to television, ads on social media are cheap for political campaigns. DeSantis spent only around $300,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads in the first half of 2022, according to the NYU data.

“Small-dollar donors are worth more than the money involved,” said Ohio-based Republican strategist Mark Weaver. “They can be volunteers and force multipliers of your message far outside of the borders of Florida.”

In contrast, the governors of the other biggest states - Republican Greg Abbott of Texas and Democrats Gavin Newsom of California and Kathy Hochul of New York - have overwhelmingly focused on their home states in social media ads this year.

To be sure, there are many bigger steps that American presidential hopefuls need to take before launching any White House campaign. Making a pilgrimage to early voting states in the nomination process, such as Iowa, is one of them.

Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, has already made the trip. DeSantis has not.

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