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Can DeSantis come back against Trump? Here’s what history says.

(History says no.)
 
From left, evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Casey DeSantis, holding son Mason DeSantis, watch as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a rally Jan. 13 at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa.
From left, evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Casey DeSantis, holding son Mason DeSantis, watch as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a rally Jan. 13 at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 20

Before the frost could thaw on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ middling Iowa caucuses performance, he’d already moved on.

First came a quick trip and makeshift rally in South Carolina, which holds its primary in February. Then came another flight back up to New Hampshire for a CNN town hall in which he was asked how he could avoid another crushing defeat to former President Donald Trump.

“You still had roughly half of the Iowa caucusgoers that made another choice,” DeSantis said at the town hall Tuesday. “That tells me that there is an appetite for a different leader.”

DeSantis’ second-place finish, 30 points behind Trump, may be enough to allow him to test that thesis for the next few weeks. But he’s lost his status as a proven winner, and it’s uncertain how long he can keep churning through cash. The governor is now forced to combat not just his rivals, but decades of modern precedent: No Republican presidential candidate has lost the nomination after winning Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump looks likely to do just that.

If DeSantis is to defy these very long odds, he’ll have to learn some lessons from history, and fast. Presidential campaigns have come back from Iowa shellackings, but it’s rare. For DeSantis, it will be all but impossible, experts told the Tampa Bay Times. If DeSantis is to mount a historic rally, it will take a major tactical shift and a renewed connection between him and the voters he courts.

People arrive at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attended a rally Jan. 13 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
People arrive at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attended a rally Jan. 13 in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Can DeSantis pull a Clinton?

Three modern campaigns looked to be in deep trouble after Iowa, but rallied to seize their party’s nomination: Bill Clinton’s in 1992, John McCain’s in 2008 and Joe Biden’s in 2020.

Clinton’s main problem in 1992 was personal scandal. Gennifer Flowers, a former Arkansas state worker, had just publicly claimed to have had a 12-year affair with Clinton. The then-Arkansas Democratic governor was also fielding questions about reports that he had dodged the draft to avoid serving in Vietnam.

The questions facing Clinton were different from the ones now facing DeSantis, but they boiled down to the same theme: How can this candidate win this race?

Paul Begala, a political commentator for CNN who worked on the Clinton campaign, said Clinton turned things around by making voters believe that the horse race mattered less to him than their day-to-day economic concerns.

“Clinton was asked every day, ‘What about this scandal? That scandal?’” Begala said. “His answer was always, ‘You know, the hits I’ve taken are nothing compared to the hits that you’re taking.’”

Clinton didn’t win New Hampshire — as DeSantis almost certainly won’t — but his strong second-place showing propelled his campaign to success in more friendly Southern states. He went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

At the town hall in New Hampshire this week, DeSantis largely talked about himself and his policy accomplishments when asked about the state of the race.

“I’ve had almost $50 million spent against me so far this presidential election campaign,” DeSantis said. “They don’t do that unless they think you’re a threat.”

DeSantis’ big bet on Iowa

In 2007, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona faced a series of challenges that DeSantis could relate to. His campaign had to shed staffers after a disappointing first few months of fundraising. His national polling numbers slipped, and in early 2008 he finished a distant fourth in Iowa’s GOP caucuses.

McCain slimmed his campaign down, opting for a cheaper and more personal approach. He held more than 100 town halls in New Hampshire and wound up carrying the state, and eventually the nomination.

In some ways, DeSantis’ early state approach has been similar to McCain’s. DeSantis bet big on the idea that he could win over enough conservative Iowa voters to prove he could compete with Trump. He spent far less time and resources in New Hampshire. McCain wagered on winning over independent-minded New Hampshire voters, expending little effort on the more conservative Iowa.

McCain’s gamble paid off. DeSantis’?

“The comparison does not give anyone any reason to think DeSantis can pull off what McCain did,” said Bill Kristol, a longtime figure in conservative media who was close with McCain at the time.

Kristol noted that McCain had finished second in the 2000 presidential primary, meaning he built up goodwill with millions of Republicans across the country years before the 2008 campaign. When Biden staged his 2020 comeback, he too benefited from a decadeslong relationship with voters. This is DeSantis’ first run for national office.

And, unlike McCain, DeSantis went all in on Iowa, only to come up short. The governor traveled to Iowa’s 99 counties, had his supporters knock on people’s doors up to five times and gathered people to speak on behalf of his campaign at each of nearly 1,700 caucus meetings. After his 2008 defeat, McCain had other states to fall back on. It will be difficult for DeSantis to shift his Iowa efforts to other states.

On Thursday, national outlets reported that DeSantis was moving most of his campaign staff to South Carolina, which votes Feb. 24, and not New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday. Recent polls show DeSantis in the single digits in the Granite State.

A spokesperson for Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, said it would keep organizers in both states. DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the South Carolina State House on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the South Carolina State House on Tuesday. [ JOSHUA BOUCHER | The State ]

Can DeSantis close the deal with voters?

Adjusting to regional politics can make or break a campaign, said Roderick Hart, a professor of government and former dean at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication. He pointed to John F. Kennedy, a young Catholic and “tight-lipped New Englander” who needed to win West Virginia in his 1960 campaign for president. Barnstorming the state to figure out how to connect directly with voters pushed him past Hubert Humphrey to take the Democratic primary, and was key to his nomination that summer, he said.

“I think it will be hard for DeSantis to easily move from one section of the country to another and have it feel natural,” Hart said. “I just don’t think he has that kind of flexibility as a person or as a communicator, from what I can see.”

In South Carolina, DeSantis may be able to win over some of the religious voters who supported him in Iowa, and the kind of cultural conservatives who support him in Florida. Biden saw his 2020 campaign revitalized by a victory in South Carolina. DeSantis’ campaign sees the Palmetto State as an opportunity to expose weaknesses in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s bid on her own turf. The two have been vying for second behind Trump.

“This is her home state. If she can’t win this then I don’t see how she could say she’s gonna win on Super Tuesday or those other states,” DeSantis said of Haley this week.

Nikki Haley rallies with supporters on Jan. 14 at the Country Lane Lodge in Adel, Iowa.
Nikki Haley rallies with supporters on Jan. 14 at the Country Lane Lodge in Adel, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But Iowa’s results show that DeSantis has had difficulty closing the deal even with voters who are open to his ideas.

Bryan Moon, a substitute teacher who owns a bar in the Des Moines, Iowa, suburb of Clive, was still an undecided voter when he walked into a DeSantis event the Saturday before the caucuses.

He’d heard Florida’s governor often came off a bit stilted but wanted to keep an open mind.

Moon ended up supporting Trump.

“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know,” Moon said, adding that he trusts Trump to address his top issues of border security, foreign policy and the economy.

Moon watched each candidate’s speech after the results came in Monday night, and said DeSantis’, in which he repeated a well-worn line about “what George Washington called the sacred fire of liberty,” only further convinced him he’d chosen correctly.

“He didn’t really thank anybody and gave kind of a history lesson, which is part of the thing I think hinders him in connecting with the people,” Moon said.

The Trump factor

Trump’s unique influence over GOP voters sets this race apart from historical precedent. It’s possible, and perhaps likely, that no matter what DeSantis does, he won’t be able to wrest the Republican Party from a man whose support has only grown after he was criminally indicted.

From left, Corky Boucher, Toby Coucher and Bob Martindale leave the Simpson College campus moments after attending a rally where former President Donald Trump spoke on Jan. 14 in Indianola, Iowa.
From left, Corky Boucher, Toby Coucher and Bob Martindale leave the Simpson College campus moments after attending a rally where former President Donald Trump spoke on Jan. 14 in Indianola, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Many Trump supporters in Iowa interviewed by the Times said they like DeSantis and would consider voting for him in the future — but didn’t see any compelling reason to pick him over the original architect of the Make America Great Again movement.

For some, DeSantis’ decision to run against Trump has poisoned his chances forever.

That includes Patricia Lage, a minister in a small Iowa town 25 minutes south of Des Moines.

“God forgives us when we repent and change, and I’m sure other people could,” she said. “You don’t know if he’s gonna repent for what he’s done.”

• • •

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