DES MOINES, IOWA — At an Iowa barbecue this summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke behind a lectern bearing a poster with a telling slogan: “Iowa Picks Presidents.”
Those three words, while oversimplified, are not far off from summarizing DeSantis’ strategy heading into the final months before 2024. Since May, DeSantis has spent at least 19 partial or full days in Iowa, even with a break from the campaign trail to manage Hurricane Idalia prep and recovery back in Florida. As polls show DeSantis’ nationwide support continuing to plummet, success in Iowa is becoming increasingly make-or-break for his campaign.
From April through this week, paperwork filed by the super PAC providing the bulk of DeSantis’ political operation, called Never Back Down, shows the PAC has spent nearly $17 million on promoting DeSantis in Iowa. That’s more than eight times what it’s spent in the much more populous early primary state of South Carolina, which had the second-highest sum. Of the expenses Never Back Down has reported so far this month, 99% have gone toward Iowa, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
There’s just one problem: The slogan on the poster isn’t really correct. Iowa hasn’t picked a Republican in a contested primary who would go on to win the presidency since 2000. Lately, the state hasn’t even picked the man who would win the Republican nomination. Recent Iowa GOP presidential caucus victors include Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016.
Here’s why DeSantis’ heavy Iowa emphasis looks smart, and why it could be costly — and what it shows about his approach to campaigning more broadly:
Why DeSantis’ Iowa focus makes sense
While Iowa may not actually pick many presidents, it has weeded out a long list of candidates who dropped out not long after bad showings in the state. Doing well there is more about building momentum than it is about winning Iowa’s small number of delegates, longtime political observers said.
Recent national polls have only shown DeSantis slipping further behind. Polling averages compiled by the data analysis site FiveThirtyEight show his support dipping under 15%, while former President Donald Trump has a commanding 55% majority.
DeSantis needs to prove to would-be supporters that despite his campaign’s problems, he’s not finished yet, politicos said.
“The bottom line of this particular race right now is that the status quo favors Donald Trump, and if you want to topple the 900-pound gorilla, you’re going to have to do it quickly and unambiguously,” said Rachel Paine Caufield, co-chairperson of the department of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “DeSantis needs to have a genuine feeling of, ‘I am the guy who is consolidating the anti-Trump sentiment in the party.’ If he doesn’t have that in Iowa straight out of the gate, then it fizzles really fast.”
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The unusual mechanics of the Iowa caucus system require candidates to heavily invest time and resources if they want to do well in the state. Campaigns must rely on dedicated Republican voters willing to spend time on a January winter night trying to convince their neighbors at one of 1,700 precinct caucuses that their candidate is meant for the White House.
That translates into a lot of candidate handshakes in towns and cities across the state. Accustomed to all the attention being the first primary state brings, Iowans place a premium on face time with the candidates in small gatherings. That’s posed a new strategy challenge for DeSantis, who dominated his Florida gubernatorial reelection race largely through TV ad blitzes and scripted rallies.
DeSantis’ campaign promises they’re eroding Trump’s support by out-working the former president. The Florida governor plans to visit all 99 Iowa counties, and has checked off nearly two-thirds of them so far.
But the competition is about to intensify. Trump’s team is expected to ramp up its efforts in Iowa in the coming weeks, after having a somewhat light campaign event schedule so far, in an effort to finish off DeSantis.
“Ron DeSantis made more stops last Saturday in Iowa than Donald Trump will make in the next seven weeks alone,” DeSantis campaign spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in response.
One of those stops was Winterset, a small town outside of Des Moines, where DeSantis and his wife, Casey, spoke in the back room of a Pizza Ranch. The Iowa-based chain restaurant, owned by a prominent evangelical family, is a staple of retail politicking in the state.
The two DeSantises were “really personable,” asking attendees how they liked the breakfast pizza, said Dylan Engelbrecht, the chairperson of the College Republicans chapter at Drake University, who attended. He remains undecided about which Republican he’ll support next year.
Why DeSantis’ Iowa focus carries risk
But DeSantis’ tactic places a focus on a state whose population and caucus system are unlike that of other GOP primaries.
The state’s caucus-going population skews evangelical, which isn’t representative of the rest of the country, said Caufield, the political science professor. That’s why molding a campaign to win Iowa, including by taking hardline stances on issues like abortion, can backfire in other states.
“Is it a dangerous strategy? Maybe,” she said, of candidates catering their message to the evangelical bloc. “But I would say definitely, it’s a necessary risk.”
Because of the quick nomination calendar and differences in each state’s political makeup, candidates typically have to pick whether they’ll gamble big on Iowa or New Hampshire — but not both, said Craig Robinson, a longtime Iowa Republican operative.
With DeSantis, it’s obvious they’ve chosen Iowa, he said. Campaign finance supports that: While the pro-DeSantis super PAC has reported spending almost $17 million on promoting the governor in Iowa, it has not cracked the $1 million mark in New Hampshire.
DeSantis is “making the exact same play” that Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, did ahead of the 2016 election, Robinson said. (The chief strategist for the pro-DeSantis super PAC is Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s campaign manager at the time.)
Cruz’s decision to heavily focus on Iowa and move to the right of everyone else in the field on social issues won him the state, Robinson noted. But it didn’t get him the nomination.
What Iowa reveals about DeSantis’ campaign
DeSantis’ omnipresence in Iowa shows a willingness to put in the hard work of campaigning, political observers said. But the state has also exposed some of the governor’s potential weaknesses.
Videos of a few awkward interactions with voters have gone viral, piling onto DeSantis’ national reputation of sometimes coming off stilted or cold.
Robinson said he’s been struck by how reliant DeSantis is on the super PAC to spread his message, host events and otherwise take on roles typically left to the official campaign. Candidates are legally barred from directly coordinating with super PACs, which unlike campaigns, can accept unlimited contributions.
“It means he’s not setting the tone or the message,” Robinson said. He cited one particular TV ad run by Never Back Down that emphasizes DeSantis’ plan to have border authorities shoot suspected cartel members “stone cold dead.”
“It doesn’t sit well with some Iowans, and quite frankly I don’t think it would sit well with most evangelicals,” he said. “That’s where being a little too dependent on a super PAC, you can get crosswise. ... If the campaign doesn’t have the money to put up its own message, you better hope the super PAC has your best interest and hits the right buttons.”
Caufield said more generally, DeSantis’ sometimes-uncomfortable voter interactions plus the reliance on the super PAC, which hired paid door-knockers rather than volunteers, could lead skeptical voters to question DeSantis’ authenticity.
“The populist brand is one that distrusts big moneyed institutions and slick, fancy folk,” she said.
Observers said they expect DeSantis’ campaigning to get better with time, as Iowa typically provides a stage for politicians to hone their pitch. The question is whether it’s happening fast enough.
“That’s also part of the Iowa caucus process: refining the message, finding out what’s important to voters,” said Engelbrecht, the college Republican leader.
Before the caucus season is over, he expects he’ll meet DeSantis a few more times.
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