March 2, 2024

I have heard from two people very familiar with the DeSantis campaign — a major donor and a high-level political operative — that if the Florida governor loses the Iowa caucuses to former President Donald Trump as expected on the night of Jan. 15, he will either drop out of the race that night or make his announcement the next morning.

More than that, both believe DeSantis will then — very begrudgingly — endorse Trump for president. 

Should both predictions come to pass, DeSantis would be jumping on a bandwagon that is dramatically increasing in speed and taking on more and more Republican politicians looking to back the clear frontrunner. Last week, Trump received critically important endorsements from House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (Minn.) and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.). Those are on top of Speaker Mike Johnson’s (La.) endorsement just a month ago.

Joining the Minnesotan Emmer was the rest of the GOP congressional delegation from that state: Reps. Michelle Fischbach, Pete Stauber and Brad Finstad. 

Trump also just secured the endorsement of Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, quite a substantial one in conservative and faith-based circles, as Cotton became an unplanned “folk hero” to many on the right when the New York Times first ran his opinion piece on June 3, 2020, titled “Send in the Troops” — regarding the protests and riots taking place in many American cities after the horrific death of George Floyd — before disowning the essay after massive backlash from within the paper.

That backlash forced New York Times opinion editor James Bennet to fall on his sword and resign. Once that was announced, former President Trump immediately took to Twitter: 

“Opinion Editor at @nytimes just walked out. That’s right, he quit over the excellent Op-Ed penned by our great Senator @TomCottonAR. TRANSPARENCY! The State of Arkansas is very proud of Tom. The New York Times is Fake News!!!”

While liberal reporters and editors within the Times and elsewhere may have been outraged that the paper gave Cotton a rational and needed opportunity to express his opinion, tens of millions of Americans were not. More than that, Cotton was instantly elevated in their eyes precisely because of the liberal and far-left pushback. His endorsement of Trump this week will carry real weight going forward.

While that pushback made Cotton a folk hero back then, Democratic judges, prosecutors, district attorneys, state supreme courts and attorneys general are adding to the already massive folk hero status of Trump today by continually trying to use “lawfare” to either indict him or take him off ballots altogether. Actions which — as DeSantis admitted — are causing millions to circle the wagons around the former president.

As of this writing, the RealClearPolitics national polling average has Trump at a jaw-dropping 62.7 percent, with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at a distant 11 percent and DeSantis at an embarrassing 10.9 percent. And within the state of Iowa — the focus of the moment — Trump is at 51.3 percent, with DeSantis 33 points behind.

If Trump does — as expected — crush DeSantis in Iowa, will it make sense for the Florida governor to go on to New Hampshire eight days later, where he is in fourth place at 9.5 percent and trailing former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 10.5 percent, Haley at 24.8 percent and Trump at an astounding 46.3 percent? After Iowa, more endorsements will flood toward Trump and more donors will run from DeSantis.

Basic math is still basic math, most especially in presidential primaries. DeSantis will have to evaluate not only the size of his losses, but also his money on hand, bills owed and the greatly disappointed financial backers who will be clamoring for him to exit the race.

From the outset, DeSantis decided — or was more likely pushed by overeager supporters — to challenge the “cult of personality” figure of Trump, most especially after his almost 20-point landslide victory for reelection in 2022. But now, just over a week from the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis is realizing that he is not only taking on a “cult of personality,” but one infused with increasing folk hero status because of the Democratic “lawfare” being waged against him.

I have long believed that the time for DeSantis was 2028. That also may now be a bridge too far.

Come the night of Jan. 15, we will see whether DeSantis folds his hand and walks away from the table or goes all in with his dwindling stack of chips should ego rule reason. I suspect reason will win that contest.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

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