March 1, 2024

After a year of high expectations and low results, of constant bad press and negative ads from opponents, of repeated shakeups and internal feuding, of strategic blunders and tactical mistakes, Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign Monday suffered its biggest humiliation yet.

The Florida governor was demolished in Iowa by almost 30 percentage points against former President Donald Trump.

For months, DeSantis clung to the fiction that his relentless Hawkeye focus would lead to an Iowa victory, springboard him into frontrunner status in the primary and expose Trump as the weak figurehead of a flimsy Potemkin village of a campaign. 

But Monday’s Iowa blowout showed the folly of the belief. All the pre-election polls did, too. Yet DeSantis refuses to quit, complaining that an early call declaring Trump the winner amounted to “election interference.” 

DeSantis is still vowing to fight on in the other states where all the polls show he’s likely to meet a similar – or worse – fate than in Iowa. The decision to press on despite the odds continues a pattern for a campaign fraught with frequent failure and persistent denial about it.

And DeSantis will face the same problem: he doesn’t know how to beat Trump in a GOP primary.

“DeSantis never established dominance,” Chris La Civita, one of Trump’s co-campaign managers, told The Messenger in July when it became clear DeSantis didn’t have what it takes.

“If you want to be The Man, you’ve got to beat The Man. Ron DeSantis is not The Man. Donald Trump is The Man.”

The DeSantis campaign’s destruction provides a case study in the complexity of running for president and it exposes a reality that Republican elites, pundits and never-Trump billionaires have tried to ignore for eight years: the GOP is the party of Trump.

There’s dispute about whether Trump was ever beatable in a GOP primary. But there’s little disagreement among connected political pros about the multiple problems with the campaign of DeSantis, an aloof not-ready-for-primetime candidate who didn’t know what he didn’t know and was arrogant about it, according to more than a dozen insiders who shared their insight to The Messenger since March. They spoke on condition of anonymity, many out of fear of retribution from DeSantis or his aggressive army of social media followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

DeSantis’s prickly personality estranged one-time allies, donors and political pros. His likability problems turned off many voters. The $47 million spent against him by the super PACs of Trump and Nikki Haley damaged him. And the spring and summer criminal indictments of Trump changed the trajectory of the race.

“We had to be perfect and lucky. And we were neither,” said one adviser.

Still, the DeSantis downfall was striking in light of polls showing him ahead of Trump a year ago. He received fawning coverage from conservative media. He had the backing of big-dollar donors who helped stuff his Never Back Down super PAC with $130 million at the beginning.

Much of that money was spent in Iowa, where DeSantis made sure to campaign in all 99 counties. Iowa instead became a field of nightmares for DeSantis. The more he built his campaign there, the more voters didn’t come. He lost every county Monday. 

Protesters interrupt Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a Fox News Town Hall on January 09, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. Alex Wong/Getty Images

FIGHTING FOR DISTANT SECOND

By that point, DeSantis’s super PACs dropped all pretense that he was still in a “two man race” against Trump. It began training most of its fire on Haley, spending almost $5.4 million against her compared to about $830,000 targeting Trump.

That sum was dwarfed by the money spent against DeSantis from Haley’s SFA Fund super PAC, which dropped $24.4 million on his head but less than $660,000 against Trump.

Now the two were fighting for distant second to see who would go on to the other early states of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in matchups where polls show Trump remains the clear frontrunner, with Haley in second place.

The sentiment that DeSantis pulled his punches with Trump – in contrast with his full-throated attacks on opponent Nikki Haley — stayed alive right through the Iowa caucus, where a Republican voter asked DeSantis on Jan. 3 “why haven’t you gone directly after him.”

An annoyed DeSantis cut him off, “What do you mean going directly after him?”

“In my viewpoint, you’re going pretty soft on him,” the voter said.

DeSantis refused to admit it and blamed the press instead.

“What the media wants,” DeSantis said, “is they want Republican candidates to just kind of, like, smear [each other]. That’s just not how I roll.”

But the spending from the DeSantis-approved super PACs and his rhetoric on the campaign trail showed he rolled that way much more against Haley, especially when the two faced off in a head-to-head debate last week in Iowa.

The final days of the campaign trail were humbling for the governor.

On Friday, MAGA media personality Laura Loomer confronted DeSantis at his hotel on video and asked him when he would drop out. DeSantis hurried away without replying. 

On Saturday, a comedian with the troupe Good Liars pranked DeSantis before a press conference by acting like an Iowa voter, only to hand the governor a “participation trophy” as onlookers laughed

On Sunday onstage, DeSantis bemoaned how Trump demands loyalty and tolerates no criticism.

“You can be the most worthless Republican in America, but if you kiss the ring, he’ll say you’re wonderful. You can be the strongest, most dynamic and successful Republican and conservative in America, but if you don’t kiss that ring, then he’ll try to trash you.”

On Monday night, Trump won by a historic margin for a Republican in Iowa. 

The ever-online true believers in the DeSantis camp were shocked at how the results mirrored the public polling and not the bogus polls his supporters circulated on X. So they falsely claimed the too-early call declaring Trump the winner before people had voted in the caucus was tantamount to “election interference” that significantly changed the results.

Rather than concede, DeSantis knew who to blame.

“The media was against us,” he said. “They were writing our obituary months ago.”

DeSantis made that part easy.