Defeating Donald Trump in a Republican presidential primary won’t be an easy challenge for Ron DeSantis.
But it becomes exponentially harder — maybe even insurmountable — if he stumbles out of the gate.
As DeSantis prepares to formally declare his bid for president, Republican lawmakers, former candidates and strategists are predicting a difficult path through the first four nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, where the Florida governor will have to clinch at least one victory to maintain party support, donor funding and popular momentum to proceed to Super Tuesday.
Iowa, they say, may provide DeSantis with his best chance to solidify his place as the only serious alternative to Trump — or possibly end his campaign before it ever really begins. After Iowa, the early state map won’t get any easier.
“Iowa is crucial for him,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based social conservative group. “I don’t know if … he has to win it. But he has to show former President Trump, by either beating him or coming very close, that he is the best one positioned to win the nomination.”
Iowa hasn’t been a must-win state for candidates of either party for some time. The last Democratic and Republican nominees to win the Iowa caucuses were Barack Obama in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000, respectively.
But Vander Plaats and other conservatives argue that while Iowa is almost always important, an unusual set of circumstances in next year’s primary could make it especially vital to DeSantis.
The Florida Republican might have to compete for critical anti-Trump votes against home-state challengers in New Hampshire — where the state’s governor, Chris Sununu, is considering a run for the nomination — and in South Carolina, where former Gov. Nikki Haley has already mounted a formal campaign and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is expected to do so next week.
And a few early victories for Trump, the winner of the past two GOP presidential contests, could give his candidacy a sense of inevitability, ending the primary almost immediately.
Well aware of the stakes, DeSantis crisscrossed the Hawkeye State this past weekend, flipping burgers, shaking hands and making an improvised stop at a BBQ joint near the site of a Trump rally that the former president canceled due to concerns about questionable weather. DeSantis is expected to visit New Hampshire on Friday.
“If Donald Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the race is over,” said Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina GOP. “He’ll win South Carolina, and he will be the nominee.”
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Many Republicans across the country are still convinced that DeSantis remains the most viable alternative to Trump in the looming 2024 race, despite his slide in the polls since launching a book tour in February.
And they’re quick to say that, in theory at least, the Florida governor could overcome a poor showing in Iowa if he follows it with a breakout win days later in New Hampshire.
“The rule of thumb is you have to win, place or show,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
“Candidates always make the mistake of picking out one of those early states, and try to win it while ignoring the others,” Kamarck said. “It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be competitive in each of the four states. And you have to be competitive according to expectations.”
Test of retail politics
DeSantis is expected to announce his presidential bid as soon as this month.
Iowa is the lone early state that Trump didn’t win during the 2016 GOP presidential primary, losing its caucuses narrowly to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Trump would go on to win New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada by double-digit margins in each state.
It wasn’t the first time the state had bucked the national trend: In 2008, Iowa Republicans backed then-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, seen as a longshot candidate at the time, over eventual winner John McCain. Four years later, the state supported former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania over Mitt Romney.
That independent streak, Republicans suggest, could benefit DeSantis against a former president who, for now, sports a big lead in national polls of the primary.
“I would make the argument that Iowans, probably more than other states, don’t look at national polls and make their decisions based on national polls,” Santorum, the former presidential candidate, said in an interview. “They make them based on what they see and experience.”
The Pennsylvania Republican cautioned that the state isn’t so independent that it breaks against someone who holds a massive 30-point lead in national polls, as Trump currently does in some surveys. And most past surprise victories in the state, he added, have been rooted in building a superior on-the-ground organization and showing a willingness to hold events across the state, no matter how few people attend.
Desantis’ ability to excel with retail politics — the art of meeting and talking with everyday people on the campaign trail — has been the subject of public debate in recent months. Some Republicans suggest he’s overly stiff and unable to do it well, though DeSantis made sure to mix with voters during his recent visit to the state.
“I don’t know him well enough to know how well he will relate to average Iowans,” said Santorum, who added his events in 2012 sometimes drew as few as a single attendee. “He is not going to be able to get away with what Trump did, and that is to fly into big events and leave. That is not going to work.”
Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis’ expected bid, has already hired half a dozen staffers in Iowa and is knocking on hundreds of doors each weekend, according to a spokesperson, who noted that the governor’s event on Saturday at Randy Feenstra broke the super PAC’s records for RSVPs.
Santorum said he had been told by Iowa operatives that Trump was running a much better operation now than he did in 2016. The governor, however, has his own ace in the hole: His super PAC has hired as an adviser Republican strategist Jeff Roe, who managed Cruz’s winning 2016 effort in Iowa.
Both Trump and DeSantis have rolled out lists of endorsements from prominent Republicans throughout the state, with the Florida governor recently securing the support of the Iowa Senate president and House majority leader.
But a Trump victory in the state could seal a narrative in the race that Trump is on a glidepath to the nomination — creating momentum for his candidacy that will be hard for DeSantis to stop in the states to follow.
New Hampshire’s primary follows just days after the Iowa caucuses. The state’s partially open primary allows independent voters — which make up a plurality of registered voters in the state — to make up their minds last minute whether to participate in the Republican contest.
It won’t be any easier for DeSantis there, and only harder if he performs poorly in the Hawkeye State, local Republicans said.
“If you look at the structure of the party — the internal people within New Hampshire Republican politics — they’re still pretty pro-Trump,” said Thomas Rath, former attorney general of New Hampshire and a Republican National Convention delegate over several decades. “My sense is there is a desire among a lot of people in the state to have a real primary. But DeSantis is not well defined here yet.”
Many of the cultural issues core to DeSantis’ brand are unpopular in New Hampshire and could ultimately hurt him among independent voters, Rath said. The Florida governor’s decision to sign a six-week abortion ban in Florida, for example, could bode poorly in a state where less than a third of voters support abortion restrictions in most circumstances.
But if Sununu, New Hampshire’s governor, were to enter the race, “DeSantis would at best be third,” Rath said.
Sununu has said he will decide whether to enter the race by late June.
“There is a group of Republicans that want somebody other than Trump,” Rath continued. “To the extent DeSantis presented an alternative in that regard, there may have been some interest in him. But he has now decided the way to be the person other than Trump is to be more Trumpy than Trump, and that doesn’t play well in New Hampshire.”
‘Uphill battle’ after New Hampshire
Joe Biden lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in the 2020 Democratic primary and still went on to become the nominee. But that’s because he won South Carolina.
It’s unclear if DeSantis will have a similar firewall in either South Carolina or Nevada, the two final contests before the primary goes national on Super Tuesday.
Trump won South Carolina — the first Southern primary and one with a bevy of Evangelical voters — with relative ease in 2016, besting by double-digits Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
The governor has highlighted his wife Casey’s ties to the state during a recent visit — she attended college there and it’s where her parents live — but he has far fewer connections or endorsements in South Carolina than some of the other candidates.
Trump has already won the support of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. Haley and Scott, meanwhile, have spent their political careers in the state and remain popular among its conservative faithful.
“I think DeSantis has support in all three states,” Stroman said. “But I don’t know which state is his firewall state, like maybe we do with some of the other candidates.”
Nevada’s Republican Party structure is similarly chock-full of Trump supporters, including the state party chairperson, Michael McDonald. But DeSantis has secured the support of Adam Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general and its failed Republican nominee for governor and senator in the last two election cycles. Laxalt had been supported by Trump in those races, but was roommates with DeSantis when they were both training as naval officers.
Never Back Down has sent out three glossy, expensive mailers to Nevadans over the last six weeks, a sign to political experts there that the governor is expected to make a serious play for the state.
“It’ll be an uphill battle for DeSantis here. Trump has dominated the caucuses that we’ve had in the past two election cycles,” said David Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada and interim executive director of Brookings Mountain West. “And a lot of the issues he’s pushing don’t really work here.”
Jon Ralston, founder of the Nevada Independent and a top political analyst in the state, said it was too early to make any meaningful predictions in the race.
“The question is what Governor Joe Lombardo’s organization does, and if it were to get behind DeSantis, the governor has some very smart people working for him,” Ralston said. “If they were to get behind DeSantis, I think that would be very meaningful.”
Erin Perrine, communications director for Never Back Down, told McClatchy that the organization “is building a grassroots movement that has not yet been seen in presidential primary elections.”
“We already have a dominant presence in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and we are expanding our operations outside of these first four primary states as the energy behind Governor Ron DeSantis to run for President and defeat Joe Biden in 2024 continues to grow,” she said.
Despite the perilous path, the super PAC is projecting confidence by spending money far beyond the first four contests. Perrine said the group is already hiring staff in Super Tuesday battlegrounds.