Could Iowa be Ron DeSantis’s last stand?

Florida governor has done ‘everything right’ and his Iowa campaign is a ‘well-oiled machine’. But will it be enough? Eric Garcia and Gustaf Kilander take a look at the DeSantis campaign heading into the first-in-the-nation contest

Friday 12 January 2024 18:12 GMT
Florida Governor and Republican candidate for President Ron DeSantis departs after speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit in Altoona, Iowa
Florida Governor and Republican candidate for President Ron DeSantis departs after speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit in Altoona, Iowa (EPA)

Ron DeSantis did everything right in Iowa. The Florida governor has checked all the boxes that Republicans must complete if they are to stand a chance in Hawkeye State.

He completed the “Full Grassley,” named for Iowa’s long-serving Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, where he visited all 99 counties in the state. He made the hard sell at Iowa’s State Fair. He received the endorsement of Kim Reynolds, the state’s governor, and Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Iowa Family Leader and a kingmaker in the state whose support of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz all played a role in their victories in the caucuses.

Mr DeSantis has staked everything on Iowa, a state that should have been a perfect match for him.

Despite Mr DeSantis’s Catholicism, the state’s heavily white, heavily churchgoing evangelical population should have been fertile ground for a man who has prided himself on delivering for social conservatives.

Indeed, Mr DeSantis’s supporters regularly point to how he fulfilled campaign promises conservatives wanted, from passing a six-week abortion ban to fighting Disney when it opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” law that restricted how schools taught about sexual orientation and gender identity to passing school vouchers. Mr DeSantis himself hammered former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley about her failure to live up to conservative promises during the final debate at Drake University.

Trump still blocking out the sun

But just four days before the first-in-the-nation contest, former President Donald Trump is still blocking out the sun in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average in the state. At 52.3 per cent, Mr Trump remains far ahead of Mr DeSantis, who has now even lost the second spot to Ms Haley, who is at 17.7 per cent to Mr DeSantis’s 16.2 per cent.

Mr Vander Plaats tells The Independent that Mr DeSantis “needs to convince those who are supporting Nikki Haley, ‘listen, you want an alternative to Trump? I’m your guy’. And he needs to convince the Trump voters – ‘Hey, if you want all the good of Trump, but without all the drama, then I’m your guy’”.

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He notes that the second choice for Trump supporters is Mr DeSantis, whose backers have the former president as their second choice.

“So really, it’s Trump and DeSantis dividing that vote. And then Nikki Haley is kind of modern-day Mitt Romney,” he adds in reference to the Utah senator and 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

More moderate voters are thus likely to flock to Ms Haley, Mr Vander Plaats says. “But I believe that the modern-day Mitt Romney lane is narrower today than it used to be.”

‘Trump running for himself and Haley for her donors’

The Evangelical leader argues Mr DeSantis has “done things right all the way along”.

“Here’s a governor from a major media state – a big state like Florida – who has been willing to go at all 99 counties, that will pay dividends, investing in infrastructure in Iowa of 120 county chairs for 99 counties, 1,600 precinct captains. And now he is travelling the state relentlessly closing the sale with Iowans,” he says, repeating a line of Mr DeSantis that “Trump is running for his issues, Nikki is running for donor issues, and he’s running for our issues.”

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“You have a chance to elect a leader who has been proven on all of your issues. And not only proven, but then somebody who took a toss-up state and won in a landslide,” Mr Vander Plaats says in reference to Mr DeSantis’s 2022 re-election, which he won by almost 20 points – a far cry from his 2018 win, when he just squeezed by, winning by 0.4 per cent – a margin of only 32,463 votes.

Indeed, Mr DeSantis flipped historically Democratic areas like Miami-Dade County and regularly touted the support he had from Latino voters in the state.

Former GOP strategist and Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson told The Independent in late November that Mr DeSantis was “hustled” into the governorship “on the backs of 30 years of Republican dominance in the state and an infinite amount of money”.

Mr Wilson also dismissed Mr DeSantis’s landslide 2022 election, saying there’s “really no functional Democratic Party in the state”.

“Having worked in 38 states, I can tell you it’s the single best Republican Party in [the country] by an order of magnitude,” he added at the time. “DeSantis did not ride into this thing on some magical wave of his talent and skill. He rode into this thing because he was handed the job.”

‘A desperate attempt to get away from Donald Trump’

“I’ve been amused by it for like a year now ... people thought this guy was gonna go in and really blow the doors off of other people who are talented, relatively speaking, candidates in a primary, and then take on Donald Trump, who from the beginning had DeSantis’s number and knew he was a weak candidate,” Mr Wilson added.

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“A lot of the Republican donor class were operating not from metrics or math or polling or reality, but from wish casting in a desperate attempt to get away from Donald Trump. They were looking for anybody. And so DeSantis was that anybody for a little while, and now he’s not,” the strategist said.

"Trump’s base support kind of doubled when they started all these indictments," former Florida congressman Francis Rooney, who served with Mr DeSantis in the House, told The Independent.

Mr Rooney also said that Mr DeSantis failed to make a unique case for himself with the former president in the race.

“He’s taken so many positions that are right close to Trump’s there’s not a lot of daylight,” he said. “I think he started out by saying things like ‘I’m your Trump guy without the baggage of Trump’.”

‘Donald Trump is not the same Trump from 2016’

Almost a year into the campaign, with polling numbers not budging, Mr DeSantis appears more willing to take on Mr Trump directly.

“You go back to October of 2020, that first Trump/Biden debate when Donald Trump was the incumbent president, and Biden beat him in that debate, I think, pretty soundly. And so now we’re in a situation where we’ve got three, four years down the road. I mean clearly Donald Trump is not the same Trump from 2016,” he said on MSNBC on Thursday morning.

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“When he gets off the teleprompter, there’s a lot of mistakes, a lot of stream-of-consciousness stuff. So, just from a position of, okay, you want a battle-tested candidate, you want somebody that you know is going to be able to handle all comers, Donald Trump, we have no idea how he would do in a debate setting. And I think that they made a strategic judgement that he had way more to lose by debating than gaining,” he added in reference to the former president’s refusal to take part in the GOP primary debates.

Many DeSantis supporters are putting a lot of faith in the governor’s organisation in Iowa, especially since the caucus process can be affected by things like the weather, which has less of an impact in a regular primary or general election with early voting.

Iowa GOP State Senator Jeff Reichman, who has endorsed Mr DeSantis, tells The Independent it’s a “mystery” that the governor remains so far behind Mr Trump despite having thrown the kitchen sink at the state.

“DeSantis has said, [Trump] was the right man to start this, but he’s not the right guy to finish this … we see this in sports all the time – you have a front-runner, but if that person gets double-teamed, you hand it off to somebody else,” he says.

‘The most well-oiled machine I’ve ever seen’

About Monday night’s caucuses, Mr Reichman says, “Calling people on a phone and asking them how they’re going to vote, which they usually associate with the general election doesn’t necessarily translate to coming out on top in the caucus. There’s gonna be some weather that night, and it’s just gonna be who’s really motivated and determined”.

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The chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Virginia GOP Rep Bob Good, another DeSantis supporter, tells The Independent that the governor has “the best ground game” but admits that Mr Trump remains “extremely popular”, calling him “an outstanding president”.

GOP Rep Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who has also endorsed the Floridian, told The Independent after spending some time on the road for Mr DeSantis in a freezing Iowa that he has the “most well-oiled machine I’ve ever seen”.

“I think he’s going to exceed expectations. And I don’t think he has to win it to exceed expectations … the press has managed expectations down so low, and clearly he’s doing better than what’s being reported,” he argues.

The expectations game

The Iowa Caucuses rose to prominence as a way for underdog candidates to gain momentum by talking to as many Iowans as possible.

As with the surprising wins of Barack Obama in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, John Kerry in 2004, George HW Bush in 1980 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, the strong second-place result for Democrat George McGovern first showed in 1972 that a lesser-known candidate can come from behind and do better than expected.

Des Moines Register reporter Katie Akin told The Independent before the holidays that the expectations for Mr Trump in Iowa are “very high”.

“If he only wins the Iowa caucus by 15 points, that is a red flag for him,” she adds. “Whereas for another candidate who did not have such sky-high expectations, 15 points would be a fantastic victory.”

“Maybe DeSantis will have a huge surge and come in first, that would be wild. But … people like DeSantis, and Haley are positioned in a place where they might be able to get that strong second-place finish and that might be enough to really create some doubt in the next several primary competitions after Iowa about how strong Trump is as a candidate,” she added in late November.

In a typical primary year, a candidate like Mr DeSantis could dominate the caucuses. But 2024 is anything but a typical campaign year.

Mr Vander Plaats says that Mr Trump running as “basically an incumbent” has completely changed the calculus.

Snow and ice could affect caucus night

“But I still believe especially with the weather forecasts being well below zero on caucus night, with snow and ice on the roads … the one who has the best organization should be the one that performs the best,” he adds.

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Prominent Iowa pollster Ann Selzer told The Independent in November that the caucuses are notably difficult to predict as they’re designed for things to happen down to the very last moment.

But she noted at the time that “Trump is the only one doing big rallies. So you can see and hear the crowd that he can command. And Hillary Clinton chose to do small events that were often closed to the press. I have seen this happen, with Obama for example, that you could kind of feel the contagion of a candidate picking up momentum. And I can’t say that I feel that for DeSantis”.

Mr Grassley tells The Independent that Mr Trump “doesn’t have to” do the regular retail politicking other candidates have to do to do well in Iowa.

“Every time he meets he has thousands of people come to these meetings … and so he’s campaigning the way he wants to … He’s campaigning really hard and harder than I thought he would,” he adds.

So if Mr Trump wins on Monday, is it all over? Thad Nearmyer, the chair of the GOP in Jasper County, Iowa, tells The Independent he thinks the former president “needs to rack up two or three, four in a row to put it away early” in the nomination contest.

“I think the wider the gap in Iowa, the better news for him. But I think it’s going to take more than one state for them to say that he’s gonna run away with this,” he adds.

But it should be noted that, as Ms Akin previously told The Independent, “the key in Iowa is you never say never. Looking back at previous cycles, there have been people who saw a surge in support just in the last couple of weeks before the caucus, even in the last couple of days”.

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