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.

Current Issue

Cover of July 2024 Issue

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.)

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

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.

More from The Nation

Miller Time

Miller Time Miller Time

Get out the volts.

This Week / Steve Brodner

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a campaign event at Resorts World Las Vegas on July 9, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Can Kamala Harris Beat Trump? Polls Say “Yes.” Can Kamala Harris Beat Trump? Polls Say “Yes.”

The vice president’s numbers keep rising. One new survey puts her ahead of the Republican—and in a better position to beat him than Joe Biden.

John Nichols

Joe Biden speaks at an event launching the Ukraine Compact at the 2024 NATO Summit on July 11, 2024, in Washington, DC.

Why Aren’t We Talking About the Great News on the Economy and Crime? Why Aren’t We Talking About the Great News on the Economy and Crime?

The Democrats have a winning election message—but do they have the right messenger?

Jeet Heer

Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters hold placards and Palestinian flags as they gather in front of the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in central London, on April 17, 2024.

Muslim Voters Are Sending a Message Muslim Voters Are Sending a Message

With the US election looming on the horizon, Muslim communities in the UK cast their ballots in a way that put Gaza at the forefront.

Hasan Ali

President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference during the NATO Summit in Washington, DC, on July 11, 2024.

Biden’s “Big Boy Press Conference” Went Fine, but It Won’t Quiet Doubters Biden’s “Big Boy Press Conference” Went Fine, but It Won’t Quiet Doubters

The president started with a flub but ended strong. It may not matter.

Joan Walsh

Donald Trump in 2016

Don’t Believe Trump When He Claims He’s Not Racist Don’t Believe Trump When He Claims He’s Not Racist

Trump does not deserve a single Black or Hispanic vote. Nada. None.

Clarence Lusane