A New York Times/Siena poll released this week showed DeSantis with 17% of the GOP primary vote to Trump’s 52%. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from Thursday had DeSantis at just 13%, with former Vice President Mike Pence and Ramaswamy close behind at 8% and 7%, respectively.

A July Fox Business poll of South Carolina, one of the earliest primary states, had DeSantis in third place there with 13% support. Former governor Haley was just ahead of him at 14%, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott was gaining on him at 10%, and Trump was ahead of them all at 48%.

The DeSantis campaign did not return requests for comment. The governor himself struck a positive note in a press conference in the state on Thursday, touting the support of 35 South Carolina officials including county council members and clerks.

“It’s going to be a lot of campaigning in South Carolina,” DeSantis said. “… We’ll be one of the candidates that will be there, and we’re going to be competing very, very hard.”

Nationally, DeSantis was just as optimistic. “The naysayers have always hit me for my entire time as governor,” he told Fox News Wednesday. “We lead and we deliver results, and that’s why we’ve been successful. We’ll continue to be successful in this campaign.”

But Howard Schweber, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, the state where the first GOP debate is set to take place on Aug. 23, said DeSantis’ focus on culture war battles and “anti-wokeness” has been a losing strategy so far.

“He’s falling off a cliff,” Schweber said. “He got far too wedded to far too narrow a set of issues, issues that most Republicans don’t particularly care about. … In recent surveys asking likely Republican voters what the top issues are facing the country, battling ‘wokeness’ does not come out in the top two or three.”

Some of DeSantis’ rhetoric has even become frightening, Schweber said.

In New Hampshire this week, DeSantis called for downsizing the “deep state” bureaucracy in the federal government, saying he would “start slitting throats on day one.”

“He’s taking it to such an extreme that I think he genuinely scares people,” Schweber said.

Lacking ‘presence’ in Iowa

DeSantis’ campaign in Iowa, site of the first GOP caucuses on Jan. 15, is not operating at the level it should be this far into the race, said Dave Peterson, a professor of political science at Iowa State University.

“I’m surprised I don’t actually see more of a DeSantis presence here,” Peterson said. “Given all the talk, given the amount of money he’s claiming to spend or the super PAC is claiming to spend, all of this door-knocking they’re supposed to be doing. It’s just I haven’t seen or heard much evidence of it.”

Never Back Down, the super PAC essentially acting as DeSantis’ campaign in many states as his official operation cuts costs, had already spent nearly $34 million by the end of June and had nearly $100 million cash in hand, according to FEC filings, and there are reportedly worries about whether big-pocket donors will continue to give.

The campaign recently sent first lady Casey DeSantis on a “Mamas for DeSantis” tour of Iowa, which included stops in smaller venues such as “a packed barn of more than 100 attendees,” CNN reported.

But lavish spending on things like private planes, preferred by both DeSantises, led the campaign to cut 38 positions last month to create a “leaner, meaner” operation.

“One of the things that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not in the discourse, is the opening of field offices,” Peterson said. “They do talk about how they’re going to knock on every door six times or whatever. But it’s not the same type of local presence that we usually see.”

DeSantis has also gotten criticism for his style of one-on-one retail campaigning, which Peterson said is an important step in Iowa.

Some of his occasional gaffes have gone viral, such as seemingly over-the-top smiles and laughter and his telling a child holding an Icee at a county fair, “That’s a lot of sugar, huh?”

Still, Peterson said weird interactions are common in Iowa.

“He didn’t seem as bad as I think the narrative is making him out to be,” he said of one event he attended. “There’s a lot of terrible videos, but … I wonder if the DeSantis ones get picked up a whole lot more, just because that’s the narrative of who he is.”

Economics in New Hampshire

Iowa, where evangelicals make up a major part of the GOP electorate, is more amenable to DeSantis’ rhetoric on things like transgender issues, Peterson said. “From the events I’ve seen, that’s what they want to hear,” he said.

That’s not the case in New Hampshire, the site of another early contest, where economic conservatives and social libertarians are more prevalent.

“Culture war does not play as well here as, as it might elsewhere,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “… Having a more varied message talking about the economy is something more appealing to mainstream conservatives here.”

DeSantis gave an economic speech in New Hampshire this week announcing his “Declaration of Economic Independence,” which included attacks on the Federal Reserve bank and reducing spending. But it also leaned heavily on ending diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, a culture war issue.

“I guess the bottom line is New Hampshire Republicans like him well enough,” Scala said. “They’d be satisfied if he were the nominee. But they don’t love him.”

‘He could be the target’

DeSantis’ strategy of being the next-best option after a Trump implosion is still a viable strategy, experts said. Trump pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, the third round of indictments this year.

“There’s a reasonable scenario where he’s not the second-place finisher,” Coleman said of Iowa. “Historically with the caucuses, candidates rise and fall a lot and there’s often a lot of movement in the polls. … I could definitely see somebody like Tim Scott passing him.”

Trump has also implied he won’t appear at the first debate. “With DeSantis in the room? It makes sense that he could be the target,” Peterson said.

More candidates might potentially enter the race if they sense weakness. In Virginia, Coleman said he’s constantly being asked if Gov. Glenn Youngkin will jump in.

“Maybe it hasn’t gotten to that point yet,” Coleman said. “But DeSantis is worse off now than he was last year.”

Slavery and a Nazi symbol

The 38 staffers let go by the campaign include Nate Hochman, who allegedly boosted and, according to one report, created a now-deleted video that superimposed DeSantis over a Nazi sonnenrad symbol.

According to Semafor, senior DeSantis aides were behind a strategy of posting such videos through anonymous Twitter accounts.

“He decided strategically to define his candidacy around an appeal to the hard-right element of the Republican Party,” Schweber said. “[But] you have to be very careful not to let even more extreme things seep in, things that will turn off other voters. And that’s what’s happened.”

Even Republicans amenable to his anti-woke message, Schweber said, “are nonetheless turned off. Hearing him sound like an apologist for slavery, or finding out that his campaign imagery includes Nazi imagery? It’s just been a very sloppily run campaign.”

‘Under the bus’

Both DeSantis and Trump have dismissed the idea of a Trump/DeSantis ticket. DeSantis said last month he was “not a No. 2 guy,” while Trump said in March a DeSantis pick would be “a very unlikely alliance.”

But Trump might enjoy seeing DeSantis coming back into the fold and begging for a spot on the ticket, Coleman said.

“I can definitely see Trump taking a lot of pleasure in that,” he said.

It’s more likely, experts said, that a Trump/DeSantis ticket won’t happen. It would face constitutional problems for Florida’s presidential electors in the Electoral College unless one of them moves. And for DeSantis, it could also carry a lot of risk.

“It’s not like Trump would be handing DeSantis the presidency on a silver platter,” Coleman said, noting that even sitting vice presidents such as George H.W. Bush and Al Gore faced primary challenges.

In the end, Pence acts as a cautionary tale of the risks of being Trump’s vice president, Schweber said. Pence was a target of Trump’s ire for not interfering in the election certification on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Close to Trump is not a safe place to be, in general, and I think DeSantis knows this,” Schweber said. “… Trump can use him as a guy to be pushed under the bus.”