Bartow vs. the Ballroom: Why the DeSantis Crowd Size Flap Doesnt Matter

by | Jan 30, 2018

Comparing crowd sizes at gubernatorial campaign kick-off events isn’t exactly the kind of evidence political scientists use to measure the likelihood of success for a given pair of political candidates. In 2010, Rick Scott didn’t even have an official kickoff event, he just started melting Bill McCollum’s hair off with a $6 million opening week ad buy, and we know how that turned out.

But this week, many Tallahassee insiders were texting around a photo from the official Ron DeSantis for Governor kickoff event, comparing it to the massive crowd at the Putnam launch, suggesting the DeSantis ballroom image didn’t bode well for DeSantis’ prospects. Indeed, both the Bartow photo and the ballroom snapshot, are powerful bits of propaganda, if only they were both genuine.

Putnam announcing his candidacy in Bartow.

The Bartow visuals speak volumes about Putnam’s ability to organize and mobilize a massive support network. It is truly a magnificent image in political terms.

The DeSantis “ballroom” image suggests exactly the opposite – the inability to attract support, organize a crowd, etc. But it turns out the alleged DeSantis ballroom image wasn’t real. Or, more accurately, it is real, but taken before the full crowd arrived.

In reality, the room DeSantis rented was totally full after all. Not Bartow full, but full. Certainly not the “sad trombone” empty that some Tallahassee insiders were so giddy about earlier this week.

Still, full room or not, GOP frontrunner Adam Putnam has to like what he saw this week.

Bogus image purporting to be DeSantis’ kickoff crowd.

For starters, having to fight off misinformation about the crowd size at his kickoff party is only one of the attacks DeSantis had to deal with this week. A potential rival, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, attempted to bracket the DeSantis launch with the release of a red-meat-conservative ad portraying Corcoran as staunchly opposed to sanctuary cities. While the issue could ultimately cut Putnam more deeply than DeSantis as the campaign cycle heats up, the effect of that ad this week was to partially drown out some of the noise DeSantis made with his launch.

But even that doesn’t matter much. The real tale of the tape isn’t going to be an analysis of apples-to-oranges crowd sizes, or even who grabbed the most headlines on a given day. It’s going to be a measure of how hard Ron DeSantis is shaking the national GOP donor tree, and how many bushels of the green stuff he’s managed to harvest when the next campaign finance reports start leaking to the public in a little more than a week. If the numbers are big for DeSantis, people will start taking his campaign seriously. If they are paltry, it’s a sign DeSantis failed to get off the runway despite one of the longest runups of any candidate in the 2018 cycle except Richard Corcoran. If Team DeSantis is proud of their numbers, they’ll undoubtedly crow about them, and if the numbers are mediocre, we’ll get spin.

One thing is certain though: Even if DeSantis has collected some eye-popping sums of cash over the past month, he’ll almost certainly still trail Putnam’s cumulative cash haul by $10 million or more. The bright side, for DeSantis, is that if he can get Putnam locked into a 1-on-1 race, he may not need to reach parity with Putnam’s fundraising totals. Just coming in at a 2:3 ratio might be enough for DeSantis to win. That’s because both men are still virtual unknowns to Florida voters, but while Putnam would have a cash advantage to help define himself, he’s also much more vulnerable to being attacked than DeSantis, by virtue of the fact that Putnam has a Washington D.C. voting record that is more than twice as long as that accumulated by DeSantis (though not everyone agrees with me on this point).

Putnam is going to need more cash to play effective defense.

Whether or not DeSantis can raise $2 for every $3 raised by Putnam, it’s starting to look more and more like Richard Corcoran plans to enter the governor’s race at some point in the early spring. When that happens, DeSantis has bigger problems than just trying to raise his own name ID and define Putnam as a soft-on-immigration creature of Washington. The resulting cross fire will be fascinating to watch. In this increasingly likely scenario, Putnam remains the frontrunner, with both DeSantis and Corcoran sniping at his record, but also sniping at each other, fighting for similar factions of voters.

Insiders who know Corcoran well say he’s totally unfazed by the entry of DeSantis into the race, that it hasn’t changed his plans one bit, and that he’s actually encouraged by the prospect of a wide-open free for all. But Corcoran needs money to compete in that environment, too. And when session is over, many insiders are scratching their heads, trying to understand what fundraising leverage Corcoran holds once he relinquishes the Speaker’s gavel.

For that, the DeSantis supporters have disparagingly suggested that people should look no further than the members who are already registered to solicit for his Watchdog PAC. All of them are slated to hold powerful positions within the Florida legislature next year, too. While DeSantis and company will point out that’s exactly what’s wrong with Tallahassee, Corcoran will be laughing all the way to the bank.


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