Inside the $100 million door-to-door effort to boost Ron DeSantis

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Travier Craddock knocked on the door. He was ready to throw his guy.

“Well, kinda on [Ron] DeSantis,” he began. “Obviously he’s a Republican candidate who wants to fight and cut taxes. He’s a pro-life candidate. And he also fights for the rights of parents and the indoctrination that takes place in schools. And, you know, he has a long history of elite education. He went to Yale and Harvard, worked his way up, was a JAG officer…and basically we’re here to support [him] and I want to know if you wanted [additional] information about him. »

But he didn’t present a likely looker from the Iowa caucus. He wasn’t even at a real door. Instead, he was working to develop the perfect pitch during a canvassing training camp by super PAC pro-DeSantis Never Back Down.

On Thursday, NBC News was offered a behind-the-scenes look at what DeSantis’ allies have dubbed their “Fort Benning” — a nod to the Georgia military base that provides basic training and wears up to recently the name of a Confederate general – where knockers like Craddock go through an eight-day “boot camp” to learn all there is to know about canvassing early states and DeSantis himself.

At the training center, canvassers take classes, practice with fake voters through a fake door in the center of the facility, and run through all sorts of scenarios they might encounter in the field. When one intern was asked if DeSantis was in favor of cutting Medicare and Social Security, their classmates chanted in unison when asked how to answer, “No change. !”

Joe Williams, senior director of field training for Never Back Down, told Craddock that, considering it was only his second practice, “it was pretty good.”

DeSantis’ allies see this large-scale grassroots program as the centerpiece in an effort to overtake former President Donald Trump, who holds a substantial advantage over DeSantis in GOP primary polls but faces multiple indictments. In total, DeSantis supporters plan to spend $100 million on this ground game spanning 18 states, laying the groundwork for the Florida governor to select delegates and win key battlegrounds.

More than 260 canvassers have graduated from the Never Back Down program so far, with knockers deployed to locations in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Super Tuesday states. On Friday, the Never Back Down canvassing team reached more than 235,000 homes across the country, including about 83,000 in Iowa, 56,000 in New Hampshire and 76,000 in South Carolina since last month.

The goal, they say, is to have 2,600 canvassers trained by Labor Day.

“It’s the broadest, most in-depth, most cooperative, most intensive program – fill in as many words as you want that mean the same thing – that I’ve ever seen,” said Williams, who is also President of Vanguard. Field Strategies, says. “It’s not even close.”

In training material obtained by NBC News, DeSantis is described as having “a proven track record of gripping the left, the media, and waking up special interests,” while Trump is touted as President Joe Biden’s only chance to win. to be re-elected.

“Ron DeSantis has the same fire as Trump, but he’s more disciplined and efficient at governing,” one slide read. “Political rallies are meaningless if the Conservatives don’t get the job done. DeSantis does the job. Trump did not.

The presentation contains additional criticism of Trump for failing to complete the border wall, reduce the national debt or “drain the swamp.” He also cites that Trump-backed candidates were “wiped out in Senate and Congressional seats by Biden-aligned candidates in 2022, even though Biden was woefully unpopular.” (DeSantis also endorsed many of these candidates.)

“Ron DeSantis is a tough, smart, and proven activist,” the slide deck reads. “Trump is a fuzzy and unruly candidate who will lose again to Joe Biden.”

Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump campaign adviser, lambasted the pro-DeSantis effort for “flooding Iowa with Californians and other outsiders to attack President Trump on the doorstep of Iowa voters.”

“This tactic – while reflecting the candidate it is meant to support – is gutless,” he continued. “It will backfire and make Rob DeSanctimonious a small footnote in the long list of losers who adopt Democratic tactics in their efforts to attack President Trump.”

Ryan Rhodes, an Iowa-based GOP operative who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign, said a strong ground game in the early state can play a big role in a candidate’s performance. In a close race, he said, canvassers can make “the difference between first or fourth.”

For weeks, DeSantis’ allies have touted their canvassing operation as their secret sauce to beat Trump, building a proverbial army of early state organizers to boost turnout, gather volunteers and collect data that will prove valuable to DeSantis’ fledgling effort.

Putting canvassing at the forefront of a political operation is certainly nothing new, as Republicans in recent years have emphasized their total number of “voter contacts” in recent cycles. Big donors have been willing to open their pocketbooks to fund such efforts, which some see as offering higher returns than traditional television or digital advertising.

But, as more than a dozen insiders with experience in GOP-aligned field operations in addition to inside data obtained by NBC News detailed, these large-scale conservative prospecting efforts have been plagued by issues such as fraudulent and unreliable data entry, allegations of lax hiring practices, and a lack of accountability.

Meanwhile, Vanguard Field Strategies, which has ties to the Never Back Down effort, is currently the target of a lawsuit in Nevada alleging the company “defrauded” backers of a fundraising effort. signatures in the state. (A representative for Vanguard told NBC News last month that the lawsuit was just an effort to gain attention and damage the company’s reputation.)

With such concerns in mind, Never Back Down said it has implemented a structured training program to mitigate these issues as much as possible.

“What you see with the Never Back Down team is a very thorough screening process – as you’ve seen first-hand – to make sure people… actually believe in and support the product they’re selling,” David Polyansky, senior adviser to Never Back Down, said.

“Traditionally in the countryside there’s a big rush of bodies, not necessarily culture warriors,” he added. “But excitedly we see a lot more of that on the recruiting side…the people we’ve recruited and trained are above the norm in quality and passion. Far more than anything I’ve ever seen in the arena national policy.

Several Never Back Down officials said these canvassers focus on the quality of interactions with voters rather than the number of households that can be reached in a single shift – a metric the insiders said. to NBC News in previous reports may incentivize cheating or lead to more unreliable data. . So far, Never Back Down said more than a quarter of its door knocks led to conversations with voters.

“So we’re all for it if they have long conversations with caucus goers if they answer questions, if they engage with the husband and wife, we’d much rather they have a good conversation and fewer houses than … a bunch of shoddy houses,” Williams said.

The knockers themselves have been impressed with the amount of resources the super PAC has devoted to training them and preparing them for the long campaign ahead.

Cynthia Williams, a pro-DeSantis door knocker from Miami, said it’s unlike any other effort she’s been involved with.

“So they don’t just give us a brochure and just describe like, ‘hey, you read this and let it go,'” she said. “They want us to connect with those supporters when we go there. And if we happen to meet someone who is on the other side, find out exactly what [they] want and let them know we are still here.

As Rhodes said, such training could have a big impact this winter, when voters make their choices in the early states.

“The better you train these people, the better you follow these people and make sure they make real doors and have really good [conversations] can make the difference between winning or losing campaigns,” he said. “Especially in the primaries.”

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