DeSantis this week asked approximately one-third of his aides in Tallahassee, Florida, to move to Iowa 3 1/2 months before the caucuses. But time and money are limited resources for the governor, once considered the GOP’s best hope of undermining Trump.
DeSantis’s strategy to make a stand in Iowa is “a long shot,” but, at this point, it is “probably” his “only shot,” according to Dan Schnur, communications director of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain‘s 2000 presidential campaign.
“The odds of this working for him are slim, but it’s his last viable option,” Schnur, the founder of the University of Southern California-Los Angeles Times state poll, told the Washington Examiner of DeSantis.
Nationally, DeSantis’s share of the Republican primary vote has decreased from an average of 31% in January to 12.5% this week, according to RealClearPolitics. But while the governor is now in third place in New Hampshire behind Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley with 10% support, he is in a more comfortable second in Iowa with 16% of the vote. Trump, however, retains 49% support in the Hawkeye State.
By redirecting resources to Iowa, DeSantis is seeking one of the “three tickets” out of the Hawkeye State, according to University of Iowa politics professor Timothy Hagle.
“We usually don’t think of ourselves as the kingmaker,” Hagle said. “It’s more of separating the contenders from the pretenders.”
But 2024 is not a typical primary election cycle because of Trump, a popular former president running for reelection whose campaign and allies have invested millions of dollars undercutting DeSantis.
“It’s hard for [DeSantis] to break into that, but, by the same token, the other candidates really haven’t done that much either,” Hagle said. “As far as DeSantis’s strategy of moving to Iowa, it’s probably not a bad idea. It may not necessarily be successful, but he’s done the work here and is doing the work here.”
“We may not know until caucus night,” he added. “It’s very difficult to poll for the caucuses.”
Regardless of polling, DeSantis could also have money problems. The governor’s campaign and fundraising committees raised $15 million from July through September, with $13.5 million cash on hand, but only $5 million of that can be used during the primary. Meanwhile, Trump raised $45.5 million during the third financial quarter, with $37.5 million cash on hand.
“One of the nice things about Iowa is you don’t have to have a lot of money to compete here,” Hagle said. “Of course, as you get closer to the caucuses, that’s where a lot of times people will be spending their money on media, television ads, and making sure people get out [to vote].”
But for Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, “drastic measures,” including DeSantis’s Iowa strategy, tend to have the “smell of doom around them,” though McCain defied exceptions with his New Hampshire decision in 2008.
“Ted Kennedy moved his entire campaign operation to Illinois in the 1980 primary, but to no avail — Jimmy Carter still crushed him,” Shirley said. “Such actions often signal the end of a campaign rather than the beginning.”
DeSantis is returning to Iowa this weekend as he tries to travel to the state’s 99 counties. After this weekend, the governor will have been to 74, according to DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo.
“Sometimes people outside of Iowa don’t understand when you’re showing up at all 99 counties, that’s not something that’s going to show up in like poll results or anything,” DeSantis told a local Iowa radio show this week. “You’re laying groundwork, you’re building relationships, you’re earning support that come to fruition on caucus night. I’m the only candidate that will do all 99 counties.”
DeSantis’s Iowa strategy coincides with his increased criticism of Trump, repeating, for example, that Trump is not “entitled” to the nomination as the former president complained this week that his optional appearances in a New York courtroom as Attorney General Letitia James litigates her civil fraud case against him were keeping him from the campaign trail. Trump has not been campaigning as much as his opponents and is required to attend his four federal and state criminal trials in person.
DeSantis was also more critical during last week’s second Republican primary debate in California, scrutinizing Trump for not taking part and his spending record. The governor amplified that message this week in Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, in addition to Tampa, Florida, as well as emphasizing Trump’s age and Washington, D.C., “chaos” amid the House Republican speakership race.
“I don’t think anybody voted for Biden. They were voting against Trump,” he said in Tampa of the 2020 election. “That’s why they did it. Let’s just be honest. He energized Democrats. You could have John Kennedy walk through the door right now, and he wouldn’t energize Democrats as much as Donald Trump does.”