At any given fundraiser or VIP room where he’s present, Ron DeSantis is usually easy to find—in the corner, keeping to himself.
Despite having a job that entails exchanging small talk and pleasantries on a daily basis, the Florida governor tends to brush off those obligations and struggles with basic social skills, according to a source close to DeSantis, several of his former staffers, and other GOP operatives who have worked with him and his team.
As DeSantis gears up for a potential White House run in 2024, his aloof public persona is being thought of by his rivals—namely, former President Donald Trump—as his Achilles heel in the retail politics-heavy early primary states.
And even though he hasn’t announced a bid yet, DeSantis’ apparent desire to test the waters of a presidential campaign—while barely dipping a toe into the aspects he recoils from—is already being put to the test.
During his donor retreat in Palm Beach in late February, an attendee stood up and called him “DeSatan,” according to Republicans familiar with the outburst.
At his recent book tour stop in Davenport, Iowa, a volunteer English teacher and seasoned caucus enthusiast posed for a photo alongside the governor with the term “fascist” carved out within her design of a paper snowflake.
The governor’s aversion to pressing the flesh, and his concern over the risk of unexpected interactions with the public, is already so well-known that early primary state players are working to DeSantis-proof their events in order to attract the flinty would-be candidate and his tight-knit team.
The problem is, hosts often have no idea what the DeSantis team wants.
“Easily the least responsive campaign I’ve ever dealt with,” one veteran event host in an early primary state told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to avoid alienating the Florida governor.
“We invite, invite, invite, ping, ping, ping. We don’t hear anything,” this prominent event host said.
“He’s been tighter in his requests than other candidates,” a top New Hampshire Republican told The Daily Beast, adding that only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came to mind as a bigger “nightmare” to deal with.
During his Iowa swing, DeSantis’ apparent use of bike racks to create space between himself and a crowd didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere. “If they want 50 bike racks, we’ll give them 50 bike racks,” a New Hampshire GOP lawmaker quipped to The Daily Beast. A representative for DeSantis did not return a request for comment for this story.
While DeSantis is winning over supporters in the conservative movement for his hard-right brand of politics—and has impressed with his electoral success in once-purple Florida—his untested skills under the bright lights of a presidential campaign have led operatives and pundits to wonder if he is just the second coming of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker.
Months into his own campaign, meanwhile, Trump has started to dabble in retail politics—mostly in the form of unannounced visits to local eateries likely to have a friendly crowd scouted in advance by the campaign, according to the Washington Post—in an effort to paint DeSantis as stiff and cold.
If DeSantis continues on his current course, Trump’s job may not prove very difficult.
Gone are the days of covert fundraisers, such as a little known DeSantis soiree in San Francisco last October, which was hosted by David Sacks, an Elon Musk and Peter Thiel acolyte who recently helped spread panic amid the run on Silicon Valley Bank.
In the critical early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa, a panoply of elected and unelected power brokers—not to mention thousands of seasoned voters—are accustomed to interacting with presidential candidates up close.
In their view, that scrutiny helps the rest of the country determine which candidates are legit and which aren’t, though many political observers in both parties believe that the early primary’s emphasis on retail politics is overblown.
But the veteran primary event host compared DeSantis’ insular approach to the way former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran her campaign in 2016—not exactly a blueprint that the governor would like to follow.
A GOP strategist, who has no horse in the 2024 race, even compared DeSantis’ early approach to that of his potential general election opponent, arguing the governor has embraced a “Tallahassee basement strategy, mirroring that of Biden in 2020, where he hides from press and real voters.”
DeSantis’ tendency to restrict media outlets also worries hosts of primary campaign stops who have long been friendly to presidential hopefuls of both parties, leading to concerns that the Florida governor may be setting new precedents for future candidates.
Three former DeSantis staffers described him as simply “quiet” no matter the occasion—someone who keeps to himself. That’s made the shift to the national scene harder than anticipated, one source explained, particularly in the governor’s hesitation when it comes to “delegating” and his insistence on maintaining a “very small” orbit.
For all the focus on his personality, DeSantis has defenders who don’t try to spin it. Former Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), still an influential donor in the state, told Politico that “Ron is a little reserved and dry compared to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is what he is. So what he needs to do is organize his campaign to minimize that characteristic.”
Or, as comedian Bill Maher put it in a sitdown with CNN in making the devil’s advocate case for DeSantis, a good personality isn’t “a prerequisite, it’s great if you have one.”
Several former staffers for the governor told The Daily Beast almost everything he does is scripted, which, coupled with an aversion to small talk, general pleasantries, and any unplanned interactions with the public, make him difficult to manage ahead of events.
“It’s very prescribed,” one former DeSantis staffer told The Daily Beast, while adding there are limited “off-the-cuff” interactions while on the trail with DeSantis.
For his upcoming trip to the Granite State on April 14, DeSantis is expected to keep a minimal media presence at the state GOP’s annual Amos Tuck Dinner in Manchester, according to a source familiar with the plans.
DeSantis may hold a separate press conference or another kind of media availability, but will not take any questions following his remarks at the fundraiser, the source added. Some New Hampshire Republicans have begun to worry that DeSantis’ efforts at avoiding any pointed questions from the press or public could become its own sideshow.
The chatter over DeSantis’ public engagement has also surfaced past unflattering stories about his social skills—particularly, his propensity to devour food during meetings.
“He would sit in meetings and eat in front of people,” a former DeSantis staffer told The Daily Beast, “always like a starving animal who has never eaten before… getting shit everywhere.”
Enshrined in DeSantis lore is an episode from four years ago: During a private plane trip from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C., in March of 2019, DeSantis enjoyed a chocolate pudding dessert—by eating it with three of his fingers, according to two sources familiar with the incident.
A representative for DeSantis’ political team did not return a request for comment on it.
The scrutiny of his social skills, his past interactions, and his openness to unscripted interactions has been inevitable, a seasoned primary operative pointed out.
“He’s obviously gotta be ready to take what comes at this point,” the senior New Hampshire Republican said, “because that’s how it always is.”
Still, if he does run, DeSantis would instantly become the most credible potential Republican presidential contender after Trump himself—a status that would afford him real deference on the campaign trail, even if his demands get even more cumbersome.
One manager of a restaurant that’s been a frequent campaign stop in an early primary state told The Daily Beast that they would agree to any DeSantis demands to restrict access.
“If they came here, they would get the private dining room and it would be their rules and do what you like,” they said. “We’re not like the diner where you shake hands and make your way through.”