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Ron DeSantis Failed Spectacularly In Iowa, But It Didn’t Have To Be This Way

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If DeSantis had better understood the underlying dynamics of the race, he would never have gone directly after Trump.


The results of the Iowa caucuses surprised no one: Donald Trump ran away with it, as his 28-point lead in the polls going into Monday suggested he would. The polls were accurate this time, and most corporate media outlets called Iowa for Trump not long after 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The former president ended up with 51 precent of the total caucus vote, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a distant second with 21 percent, and Nikki Haley coming in third at 19 percent.

But the big news of the night isn’t Trump’s massive win, it’s DeSantis’ spectacular defeat. His campaign is now a cautionary tale about how not to go after Trump.

DeSantis had every advantage before he launched his presidential bid. He was a popular governor of a large state who won reelection in a landslide in 2022, notched major, substantive policy victories, and was adept at punching back at hostile corporate media. Yet somehow he managed to squander all this and flame out in Iowa. Recall that less than a year ago, in April 2023, before he launched his campaign for president, DeSantis was polling near 30 percent in the Hawkeye State.

Given these dismal results, it’s important to recall just how much time and money DeSantis spent in Iowa only to come in a distant second, more or less sounding the death knell of his campaign. The DeSantis camp and a trio of pro-DeSantis super PACs spent a combined $35 million in Iowa, almost as much as Haley’s campaign and allied groups spent in the state, and nearly twice what Trump and his groups did.

In addition, DeSantis himself went all-in for Iowa, crisscrossing the state and visiting all 99 counties, making countless appearances in every forum imaginable. One super PAC backing his campaign “said it recruited more than 1,600 precinct captains in Iowa” over the past nine months, according to Politico.

Why did DeSantis do all this? Because his strategy was to win Iowa to show GOP voters nationwide that he could take on Trump and win. As events have shown, that was a big mistake. But it fits within a recognizable pattern in the DeSantis campaign: Every decision was about comparing himself to Trump in the most explicit and unhelpful ways. Ever since he announced his candidacy, DeSantis has been obsessed with taking on Trump, never missing an opportunity to malign the former president or take a cheap shot, even when it was unnecessary or frankly irrelevant to whatever he was talking about.

It was a curious approach to take in a race where all the fundamentals suggested that aggressively going after Trump would alienate and anger GOP primary voters, especially as Democrats ramped up their unconstitutional schemes to imprison Trump or, failing that, keep him off the ballot in as many states as possible.

Like it or not, many Republicans have a unique bond with Trump, not just because they had to endure a lot of grief for supporting him in the past but also because they see how Democrats and the media have weaponized entire institutions against him in the most outrageous and dangerous ways. Even if these GOP voters are open to supporting other candidates this time around, the last thing they want is to be told that Trump is awful, which comes off as an indictment of them and their judgment

It’s odd that DeSantis was never able to figure that out, or that no one in his orbit was able to persuade him to take a different approach. Instead, as my colleague Emily Jashinsky put it Monday, DeSantis “allowed Beltway vest aficionados and their friends in the donor class to steer his career off course” with endless attacks on Trump.

But of course, DeSantis didn’t need to attack Trump to make his case for the GOP nomination. He could have praised Trump’s achievements and defended him from the unfair attacks leveled at him by Democrats, as Vivek Ramaswamy has done, and simply ignored Trump’s insults. At the same time, he could have instead focused on explaining and touting his own considerable accomplishments in Florida.

Any governor running for president faces the challenge of conveying his or her popularity and accomplishments to a national audience. But DeSantis had a lot to work with in this department, given his headline-grabbing policy wins in Florida in recent years and his landslide reelection in 2022.

Yet he seemed to have no communications strategy in place to make his case on the national stage. Upon launching his campaign, DeSantis kept the national corporate press at arm’s length and simply took for granted that every Republican in the country knew him as “America’s governor” whose record would speak for itself, when that manifestly wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until much later in the campaign (too late, it turns out) that he began making appearances on corporate shows like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and doing interviews with CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Trump, who is more or less running as an incumbent in the primary, is the one candidate who can bypass the corporate press and speak directly to his massive base. That’s a huge advantage Trump enjoys over his GOP competitors. So DeSantis needed a plan to get his message out to the rest of the country. He didn’t have one.

It didn’t have to be this way. Instead of listening to “Beltway vest aficionados” and hiring too-online campaign staff, DeSantis could have ignored Trump’s attacks, touted his own impressive accomplishments, and embraced favorable (and unfavorable) press coverage. DeSantis is actually very good at handling the press and could have used them to his advantage (as Trump did in 2016). Doing this would have drawn implicit comparisons to Trump without DeSantis himself ever having to utter Trump’s name — except to defend the former president from the real enemy, which is the Democrats and their republic-killing machinations to destroy electoral politics.

Indeed, this is where DeSantis really went astray. He mistook Trump for his main opponent when his real opponent — and the real villain in all this — is the Democrat machine that’s trying not only to take out Trump before November but also to destroy democracy and self-government in this country. The primary so far has been a target-rich environment, it’s just that Trump shouldn’t have been one of the targets, much less the main one.

DeSantis might not be a great retail politician, but he is obviously a smart guy. The redirection he could have pulled on questions about Trump would have required discipline and focus, and these are qualities DeSantis possesses — he has demonstrated them as governor, if not as a candidate. Some CNN hack might have asked about Trump’s latest insult, and DeSantis could have brushed it off and talked instead about the latest insane Trump indictment and how we can forget about the primary if this is how the left is going to engage in politics. 

But he never did that, or at least didn’t do it without also taking swipes at Trump, which did nothing to hurt Trump but did much to alienate GOP primary voters, most of whom voted twice for Trump and, even if persuadable, have some affection for the former president.

Having finished a distant second in the one state where he bet the farm, it’s fair to say DeSantis is probably done. That’s a shame because he could have changed the primary race if he had better understood the underlying dynamics — that Trump wasn’t his main opponent, that he needed to use the national corporate press to make his case, and that the one mistake he could not afford to make was to insult and alienate Trump voters.

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