Politics / January 15, 2024

Iowa Can Put Ron DeSantis Out of His Misery Tonight

The Florida governor’s presidential bid has already crashed and burned, but a major caucus defeat could finally get him off the campaign trail.

John Nichols
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis departs after speaking at a Northside Conservatives Club Meeting at The District in Ankeny, Iowa, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

Ron DeSantis departs after speaking at meeting in Ankeny, Iowa, Friday, January 12, 2024.

(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Ron DeSantis is not going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2024. In fact, what once seemed like a promising bid to displace former president Donald Trump as the party’s standard-bearer has failed so miserably that the governor of Florida may have dealt a permanent blow to his long-term presidential prospects.

DeSantis has proven to be a uniquely uncomfortable, and seemingly unhappy candidate, since announcing his bid in May. Now, with his poll numbers dipping almost as rapidly as temperatures in the first-caucus state of Iowa, and collapsing in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, it’s just a matter of time before his “suspension of candidacy” press conference.

But this hyper-ambitious if not hyper-competent candidate appears to be intent on delaying the inevitable.

Like another relatively young Republican gubernatorial “star,” 2016 failure Scott Walker, the 45-year-old governor of Florida has run the wrong campaign in the wrong year. However, unlike Walker, who quit when it became clear that there was no way forward for his bid against Trump, DeSantis’s ego is still getting the better of him. So it appears that he may require some career counseling from the Republicans who will come out in Iowa’s snow and cold on Monday night to attend the caucuses that formally begin the GOP nominating process.

DeSantis and his backers, who have poured millions of dollars into the Iowa campaign, are still scrambling to salvage something from the wreckage—in the form of a credible second-place finish behind Trump. But, if the latest polls are to be believed, the message from Des Moines and Dubuque could prove to be devastating for DeSantis.

Trump looks to be headed for a big win. And DeSantis is still expected to finish second. But if he slips to third, behind former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, that would be a disaster for the Floridian. Without a major boost from the Hawkeye State, it’s hard to see how DeSantis will be competitive when New Hampshire holds the first primary barely a week later, on January 23. One recent poll from New Hampshire—conducted before former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie quit the race—had Haley rising fast, while DeSantis was running fifth.

Like Walker in 2016, DeSantis went into the 2024 race with a strategy that was all about Iowa, hoping that a strong start would power him through the rest of the race. DeSantis toured all 99 Iowa counties, on a grueling schedule that took him to some of the smallest towns in the state—like Nodaway, population 74, in southwest Iowa’s Adams County, where, in a typically awkward moment, the candidate informed local farmers, “In the winter, I think I could close my eyes and throw a dart and hit a Midwesterner on vacation.” (Meanwhile, Trump was satisfied to hold higher-profile and better-attended rallies in the state’s cities.)

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DeSantis has secured key endorsements, including that of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, although the campaign was perhaps a little embarrassed last week by reports that PACS that back DeSantis had donated close to $100,000 to Iowa legislators who endorsed him. Now, in the final days before the primary, the candidate’s aides and allies say he’ll flood the caucuses with an army of 1,600 precinct captains for a final push that follows the classic model for winning in a state where grassroots organization still matters.

But basic appeal matters too—and the more Iowans have gotten to know DeSantis, polls suggest, the more they have been inclined to look for alternatives to his agonizingly predictable “war on woke” candidacy. Most Iowa Republicans appear to have settled on Trump. A November Des Moines Register poll gave Trump majority support—51 percent—as opposed to 19 percent for DeSantis. But since that bellwether survey came out, things have only gotten worse for the governor. The Real Clear Politics average of the most recent Iowa polls has Trump moving up to 52.2 percent, while DeSantis, at 16.4 percent, has fallen ever so narrowly behind Haley, who has jumped to 16.6 percent.

Unlike DeSantis, Haley never put all her eggs in the Iowa basket. She staked her bid on a strong showing in New Hampshire, which she now appears likely to get. CNN’s latest New Hampshire poll had Trump at 39 percent among likely Republican primary voters, while Haley was at 32 percent. Christie, who focused on New Hampshire before his departure from the race, was at 12 percent, while entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was at 8 percent. DeSantis had a dismal 5 percent. Christie’s exit is likely to give a further boost to Haley in the Granite State.

Haley has surged so significantly—in New Hampshire and in national polls—that her standing in Iowa has also risen. She now looks to be highly competitive in the real race in the Hawkeye State: a contest for second-place that’s expected to help settle the argument about which contender has even a remote chance of stopping Trump. That’s very bad news for DeSantis, who desperately needs an Iowa boost to resuscitate his campaign in New Hampshire and other states that he has neglected in order to make his way to places

DeSantis’s declining appeal put him in a tough position going into last Wednesday night’s final debate with Haley. The headlines said it all: “Haley’s got the momentum—as well as the spotlight,” chirped Politico, while the Associated Press explained that the debate “could help decide the Republican alternative to Trump.”

Actually, Iowa Republicans will do that, and DeSantis hasn’t given up on them.

He went into the debate in attack mode, focusing on a suggestion Haley made at a New Hampshire event when she was still assuming DeSantis would run ahead of her in Iowa. “You know how to do this,” she said. “You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it.” The line has come back to haunt the South Carolinian as her position in Iowa has strengthened.

The problem for DeSantis, however, is that he’s losing the margin of error that might allow for a correction in his favor. If Haley beats him in Iowa, there’s no credible argument for him to carry on in New Hampshire, a state where he trails her by 27 points. If he crawls across the finish line ahead of Haley in Iowa, then she—and Trump—will trounce him eight days later in New Hampshire.

Either way, Ron DeSantis finishes the race not as the nominee but as the Scott Walker of 2024.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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