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How Ron DeSantis salvaged a distant second place in Iowa

In the end, Iowans just weren’t convinced by the governor’s blitz across the nation’s first presidential caucus state.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 16|Updated Jan. 16

WAUKEE, Iowa — About 200 Iowans sat in neat rows on the bleachers of a middle school gymnasium, listening to a handful of caucus-night speakers and the hum of a heater thawing them from the minus-28 wind chill.

Iowans supporting former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley each took turns at the microphone to urge the crowd to vote for their candidates, knowing personally crafted appeals are what their neighbors value most.

Then it was time for a representative from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign. A man from Belleair in Pinellas County said he flew in at the campaign’s request. His silver watch and popped-collar coat contrasted the attire of many of the caucus-goers, bundled in puffy jackets and homemade scarves.

”I am a constituent of Gov. DeSantis. And the storm — it took me about 27 hours to travel here,” P.J. Farrenkopf told the crowd. “I’m here because it’s extremely important.”

In the end, he didn’t convince enough of them.

P.J. Farrenkopf, of Belleair, Florida, makes a short speech to convince caucus-goers to vote for Ron DeSantis at South Middle School in Waukee during the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.
P.J. Farrenkopf, of Belleair, Florida, makes a short speech to convince caucus-goers to vote for Ron DeSantis at South Middle School in Waukee during the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Jan 15, 2024. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When the votes in the gym were tallied — each on a piece of paper bearing the handwritten name of a candidate, collected in a Hy-Vee grocery bag — DeSantis would not win either of the two precincts that convened at South Middle School on Monday night. Many of the caucus-goers in this sprawling Des Moines suburb were the exact type of voter DeSantis had pursued. Instead, they preferred Trump and Haley.

It wasn’t the result DeSantis was hoping for. But it could have been worse.

After seven months of tireless campaigning, it took an all-out blitz at the finish line for DeSantis to salvage second place. His distant finish behind Trump, and narrow edge past Haley, was not the narrative-defying result that DeSantis and his backers had promised, nor what pundits once expected of a candidate seen as the Republican Party’s next standard-bearer. But it might be enough to keep his campaign alive a bit longer.

“In spite of all of that that they threw at us, everyone against us, we’ve got our ticket punched out of Iowa,” he told the crowd at his caucus night watch party.

It’s hard, though, to call DeSantis’ Hawkeye State experience a win.

The precincts that voted at South Middle School make for a good snapshot of DeSantis’ neither-here-nor-there finish in Iowa. He may have finished second, but he received a smaller share of the statewide vote than Sen. Marco Rubio did in the 2016 presidential caucuses when he came in third.

Neutral caucus observers sort ballots from caucus-goers at South Middle School in Waukee, Iowa, on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.
Neutral caucus observers sort ballots from caucus-goers at South Middle School in Waukee, Iowa, on Monday, Jan 15, 2024. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

DeSantis’ inability to pry the party from Trump, even as the former president fends off criminal indictments, defies history, said Will Rogers, former chairperson of the Polk County, Iowa, GOP.

“I never get anybody to tell me any substantive answers about why (DeSantis) wouldn’t make a great president,” he said. It’s just that they still prefer Trump.

Rogers likened DeSantis’ dogged pursuit of traditional metrics for success, like visiting every county and locking up coveted endorsements, to cramming for an important test. The problem was, he was competing in a popularity contest.

“He’s going to ace the exam,” Rogers predicted before the caucuses, “but he’s still not going to win homecoming king.”

Waukee residents walk into South Middle School ahead of the Iowa caucusese on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.
Waukee residents walk into South Middle School ahead of the Iowa caucusese on Monday, Jan 15, 2024. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The final week’s blitz

The frenetic final days before the caucuses brought an all-out blitz of campaign stops from the race’s three top candidates.

On Saturday, DeSantis swung in for a locker room pep talk-style speech at Never Back Down’s low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit headquarters in West Des Moines, arriving more than an hour late due to icy roads. He looked tired from the trail, bags under his eyes.

With more than 100 journalists packed in — some from as far as Paris and Madrid — he gave a livelier speech than he’s known for, rousing the volunteers who braved a wind chill of minus-20 to get there.

“They can throw a blizzard at us and we are going to fight!” he said. “They can throw wind chill at us, and we are going to fight!”

People listen as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during a rally on Saturday, Jan 13, 2023, at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa.
People listen as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during a rally on Saturday, Jan 13, 2023, at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

At a cozy, pine-paneled lodge tucked away in snowy Adel, Haley charmed a crowd on Sunday, making her pitch in a calm but emphatic voice. She was talking about Russia when someone sneezed.

“Putin knows he’s in trouble — bless you. Now, let’s talk about Israel,” she said with a smile, drawing laughs. “Didn’t your parents tell you to bless people?”

It was the first time Elizabeth Johnson had seen Haley. She left saying Haley seemed “authentic” — something she never felt watching DeSantis, especially following a shooting this month at Perry High School near Des Moines.

“DeSantis didn’t show any compassion whatsoever. There was no one sentence of like, ‘I’m sorry,’” said Johnson, 32, adding that the governor instead launched straight into his talking points. “Nikki Haley was a human being. That really stuck out to me.”

Nikki Haley leaves the building after her rally on Sunday, Jan 14, 2024, at the Country Lane Lodge in Adel, Iowa.
Nikki Haley leaves the building after her rally on Sunday, Jan 14, 2024, at the Country Lane Lodge in Adel, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Trump, meanwhile, didn’t campaign in Iowa nearly as much as DeSantis but maintained his usual sway over every large crowd he drew.

Hours before Haley’s rally, Trump was cheered by about 500 people at an event at Simpson College in Indianola, with 200 more in an overflow room. Organizers handed out free koozies proclaiming Trump a “Back to Back Iowa Champ” in 2016 and 2020, even though Trump did not win the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

Jacob Fuller, 53, who owns a construction business, said he’s supported Trump since “day one” in 2016 and he never considered DeSantis as an option. Pollsters have consistently estimated that unshakeable Trump supporters like Fuller make up about a third of the nation’s GOP base.

“I don’t trust him,” Fuller said of DeSantis. “He is not a leader. Not one iota. He repeats everything Trump does. … He’s not real.”

Jacob Fuller, left, and his wife Sherri Fuller, of Adel, Iowa, watch a live feed of former President Donald Trump as he speaks during a rally on Sunday, Jan 14, 2023, at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
Jacob Fuller, left, and his wife Sherri Fuller, of Adel, Iowa, watch a live feed of former President Donald Trump as he speaks during a rally on Sunday, Jan 14, 2023, at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The DeSantis team long ago realized Trump’s grip on a segment of the party was unshakable. But for the past three months, it clearly saw Haley as a threat. On the social platform X, accounts affiliated with the DeSantis campaign started calling her “unhinged,” “disrespectful,” “cringeworthy,” a “trainwreck” — language far harsher than they’d ever directed toward Trump. Super PACs supporting DeSantis spent more than $12.2 million on anti-Haley messaging in October through December, according to federal filings, more than they spent touting their own candidate in that period.

Meanwhile, the primary super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, didn’t let up on its expensive, time-consuming ground game, sending an army of paid and volunteer canvassers to knock on Iowa doors around 950,000 times. The New York Times put the bill at $30 million by December.

“If you ask any Iowan, ‘Has your door been knocked on?’ Most Iowans will say, ‘Yes, five times. By Ron DeSantis people,’” influential pastor Bob Vander Plaats said.

That didn’t mean all of them found it persuasive.

A Trump flies over a home in a Waukee, Iowa, neighborhood on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.
A Trump flies over a home in a Waukee, Iowa, neighborhood on Monday, Jan 15, 2024. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Dave Reddebaugh, 55, a former Tampa resident living in rural southeast Dallas County, said three political canvassers made it to his door, and all were there for DeSantis. None convinced him to change his vote for entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

“I don’t think Iowans really want an endorsement from a Florida volunteer coming up,” Reddebaugh said. “We want to talk to our friends, neighbors, people at church. That’s really what the caucuses are about.”

The campaign tried that more neighborly, word-of-mouth route, too — an essential element of the Iowa process. It worked to find voters able and willing to speak on DeSantis’ behalf on caucus night in most of Iowa’s nearly 1,700 precincts.

Volunteers with the Never Back Down super PAC make calls to convince Iowans to caucus for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday, Jan 13, 2023, in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Volunteers with the Never Back Down super PAC make calls to convince Iowans to caucus for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday, Jan 13, 2023, in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Two days before the caucuses, Never Back Down volunteers sat in the super PAC headquarters working the phones.

One placed a call and began to read from a script, asking for support for DeSantis at the caucuses. There was a second of silence.

“May I ask why not?” he asked.

The view leaving Iowa

The campaign’s final few days brought an array of support from Florida. A cadre of state officials, including several state legislators and Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nuñez, arrived to spread the governor’s gospel. So did DeSantis’ mom, Karen, from Dunedin, trudging door to door in the snow to knock on doors for her son.

For days, these and other high-profile backers had been predicting that he would exceed the low expectations set by polling.

Now, with a result that confirmed the polls were pretty close to spot-on — with Trump far ahead and with DeSantis neck-and-neck with Haley for second — they still said it was just enough to continue the fight.

“Historically, if you look at Iowa, Iowa has not exactly been a harbinger for what the rest of the election is going to be like,” former Florida House Speaker José Oliva, one of DeSantis’ first major supporters, said at the watch party. “The really important thing to do here is going to be accomplished, which to is solidify yourself as second, as the first alternative ... so long as Trump is right in or around 50 (percent), that means that half the electorate is still looking.”

Supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attend his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attend his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

If DeSantis thought Iowa was difficult, the path through New Hampshire and South Carolina won’t be easier. While polls consistently showed him as a contender for second place in Iowa, he’s running a whopping 25 points behind Haley in New Hampshire and 12 points back in South Carolina.

He’s spent far less time in those states compared to Iowa, and his super PACs have poured in far less money. As of last week, their New Hampshire spending hadn’t cracked the $1 million mark, compared to more than $43 million in Iowa.

But DeSantis has pledged to hit New Hampshire hard before that state’s Jan. 23 primary. And after that, “they’ll have about a three-week window that I think they’ll be living in South Carolina,” said Nate Leupp, president of the Fourth District Republican Club in the Greenville area. DeSantis has touted the endorsement of a number of South Carolina state legislators as a sign of Haley’s vulnerability in her home state.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Monday, Jan 15, 2024, at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hours after his Iowa party, DeSantis was on a plane to his next event in Greenville. One state was finally down.

He had only 49 more to go.

Times photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.

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