It’s good to be a political incumbent: There’s little need to separately campaign when you’ve already got a bully pulpit.
Take Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has changed the substance of his speeches during official appearances in recent months to focus on national political issues or his political victories during the 2022 legislative session.
Since April 1, he has spent almost half of his speech time during official press conferences and bill signings either criticizing President Joe Biden, weighing in on national issues, or lauding political achievements not related to the event, a City & State Florida analysis found. He spent a little over 10% discussing those topics during events from January to March.
The shift in focus comes as the governor is gearing up his reelection campaign and amid buzz that he is atop of the list of potential Biden challengers in 2024, should former President Donald Trump decide against trying for a second term.
His opponents and critics have accused him of using official appearances to pound the podium on the taxpayer’s dime to build momentum for his reelection campaign and set the stage for a future presidential run. But DeSantis supporters argue the shift is part of his responsibility to constituents and prompted by him and the state receiving greater attention from national media.
“Obviously all politicians have done it to some extent but DeSantis, I think, is particularly shrewd in how he does it and where,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Paulson uses the example of DeSantis’ signing anti-vaccine mandate legislation at the Brandon Honda dealership – a wink and nod to “Let’s Go Brandon,” the anti-Biden meme.
That event “became almost like a cheerleading session for DeSantis and against Democrats,” added Paulson, a lifelong Republican who left the party after Trump won the GOP nomination. DeSantis has doubled up his official events as campaign stops “far more often than any other politician than I'm certainly aware of … in my 50-plus years in Florida.”
DeSantis has had 58 press conferences or bill signings since Jan. 1, according to the Florida Channel’s video archive, with those events showing a distinct change in his messaging once the calendar flipped into April.
Across 37 events in January and March, the Governor spent almost 13% of his speech time off topic from the purpose of the signing or press conference. He spent a little more than 47% of his speech time off topic over 21 events from April to May 11.
In total, he spent about 35 minutes off topic from January to March. That number climbed to about 140 minutes in the next month and a half – a four-fold jump across 16 fewer events. His average total speech time also skyrocketed. DeSantis spent about eight minutes on his speeches from January to March. He has spent an average of about 14 minutes on each speech since April.
The shift was most apparent in his Infrastructure press conference series, where he held an event to announce millions of dollars in infrastructure project funding for a specific county.
Across 11 such events from January to March, he spent about five minutes per speech, with 20% of the speech time not about infrastructure. Across five events since April, he averaged 20 minutes per speech, with almost 89% of his speech focused on topics unrelated to infrastructure. The five most recent infrastructure conferences were in Lafayette, Levy, Dixie, Jefferson and Hamilton counties, all rural counties that predominantly backed DeSantis in 2018 and Donald Trump for President in 2020.
Blurring the line between campaigning and governing?
DeSantis spent a few minutes talking about the infrastructure projects at each of the five stops before shifting into discussing national topics or political victories. He criticized “Bidenflation,” and blasted Biden for forming a Disinformation Task Force. He lauded the dissolution of Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. He applauded Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Near the end of an April 5 press conference in Jefferson County, DeSantis asked a packed crowd, many sporting DeSantis 2022 merchandise, if there was anything else he could do for the county.
“Get reelected!” an audience member shouted. The crowd applauded. DeSantis smiled. “That’s up to you. Not up to me,” he said.
The shift in subjects also has been noticed by America’s most influential conservative news outlet, bringing his stances to a national audience. Over 93 articles have been written under FoxNews.com’s “Ron DeSantis” tag since the start of April. Several of them are focused on comments he made on national issues during official events.
On May 3, DeSantis called the leaking of the draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade a “judicial insurrection.” His comment was picked up by Fox News. The network also picked up his comments on:
- Biden’s Disinformation Governance Board during a April 29 press conference.
- His vow to send “illegal immigrants dumped in Florida” to Biden’s home state of Delaware during an April 6 bill signing.
- His criticism of Disney during a May 2 press conference about manatee protection, and others.
The coverage from Fox comes as DeSantis is viewed as a potential 2024 Republican presidential nominee if Trump decides not to run. An April poll from the Harvard Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll found 35% of Republican respondents would support DeSantis in the next Republican Presidential Primary, followed by Mike Pence with 20%.
‘Stretching the boundary,’ one expert says
Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, said he thinks it’s obvious what sparked the change in DeSantis’ remarks: He’s “really aggressively trying to use those public actions as part of his reelection campaign.”
The governor, like many incumbents, is stretching the boundary public officials are supposed to maintain between official appearances and reelection efforts, he added, saying, “My sense is Governor DeSantis is blurring that line between those two activities, (and) he's blurring in a very deliberate and skillful way.”
Kevin Cate, a campaign consultant for state Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried, said DeSantis’ shift is not shocking: It’s an imitation of Donald Trump.
The governor “takes the term ‘bully pulpit’ way too literally. The closer we get to Election Day, the more he whines, complains, and bullies the most vulnerable Floridians to make himself feel tougher,” Cate said. “Expect that to only get worse as he has no message on affordable housing, property insurance or the cost of living in Florida."
But a DeSantis spokesman said his speeches, including topics unrelated to the event's main subject matter, are simply part of his responsibility as the state’s chief executive.
Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary, said the infrastructure press conferences are primarily designed to announce a specific item, but also are an opportunity for DeSantis to directly interact with people in various parts of the state. He said the Governor has been responding to the impact the Biden administration and federal government policies have had on Floridians.
“These are the topics and concerns on every Floridian’s mind at the moment. Governor DeSantis is not only having to lead the State of Florida, but actively work to protect Floridians from the harms of the Biden Administration,” Griffin said. “That’s what prompts his dialogue choices at press conferences.”
Evan Power, chairman of county chairs of the Republican Party of Florida, said DeSantis’ shift could also be a result of him and the state being the focus of national media. He suggested DeSantis would have to address national issues anyway through media questions if he didn’t add them to his speeches.
“Florida being in the spotlight makes it important to address national issues,” Power said. “You know you are going to get asked those questions, so you are going to want to get in front of it. Because of his popularity, his message is resonating with people.”
Tristan Wood is a reporter for City & State Florida.