Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked his presidential candidacy on Iowa, investing nearly all of his time and resources there. His campaign moved a third of its staff to the state, he’s toured all of Iowa’s 99 counties and has done over 170 events, his campaign says.
The super PAC supporting him, “Never Back Down,” says it has knocked on 770,000 doors in Iowa and collected over 40,000 “commitment to caucus” cards signed by voters.
In the closing months before the January 15 caucuses, DeSantis earned high-profile endorsements from evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who became the first governor to endorse before the caucuses since 1996.
But with less than a month remaining until Iowans vote in the caucuses, DeSantis has a 36-point polling deficit with former President Donald Trump, according to the latest CBS News poll. And he’s been trading attacks with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who CBS News polling shows has a clear and growing advantage over DeSantis in New Hampshire, the second state to hold a GOP nominating contest.
“That’s the frustrating thing for those of us who’d rather turn the page [on Trump]. Trump operates on his own schedule. He’s grown and I just think these guys are gonna have to try to hold him under 50% in order to have an argument,” said veteran Iowa-based GOP strategist Dave Kochel, who is not working for any candidate this cycle.
On the campaign trail in Iowa this week, DeSantis and his surrogate, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, have been downplaying the polls. Asked by a voter in Dubuque Wednesday about polling in New Hampshire showing DeSantis behind Haley, DeSantis responded, “First of all, who cares about polls? You guys vote.”
After his 20-point reelection victory in Florida’s gubernatorial race in 2022 — a far more comfortable margin than in 2018, when he won by less than 1 point — the New York Post dubbed him “DeFuture” in a front-page headline, and he emerged as the clear favorite to challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination.
Once DeSantis entered the presidential race, his campaign talked about the primaries as a “two-man” race and was confident he’d be able to winnow the race down to him and Trump.
But his run has been riddled with personnel drama, a rising threat from Haley who is ramping up her schedule in Iowa and a widening poll gap with Trump.
After spending at a heavy clip in the first few months, DeSantis’ campaign was forced to lay off staff this past summer. Never Back Down, which has been entrusted with field operations for the governor’s bid, saw six senior members fired or resigning in recent weeks.
Both the campaign and PAC are also now the subject of a complaint by the Campaign Legal Center filed with the Federal Election Commission. The complaint alleges illegal coordination between the PAC and the DeSantis campaign (the DeSantis campaign called it a “baseless complaint” and “politically motivated”).
Supporters of the governor and GOP strategists say Iowa is not a “must win” for DeSantis’ broader prospects, but they still say that at the very least, DeSantis must come within ten points of Trump in Iowa to continue to have a viable path for the GOP nomination.
“Do I think DeSantis has to win Iowa to be able to move ahead? The answer is no, I do think he will win Iowa. But I think he has to have a respectable, strong showing,” said Iowa State Rep. John Dunwell. “I got my eye on 10 points.”
“He can’t come in second and get beat by 30 points. Nobody can. If Trump wins by 30 points. I mean how are you going to make the case to your donors and voters that you got second place and got beat by 30+ percent?” said Cody Hoefert, who was the co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party between 2014 and 2021, is backing DeSantis and said he’d be “shocked” if Trump wins by 30 points, as polling suggests he might.
“[DeSantis] needs wins to get the momentum to persuade the whole country,” said Bill Coakley, a precinct captain for DeSantis who saw him and his wife, Casey, at a Perkins Diner in Dubuque. “Second place is just barely acceptable.”
Asked after a town hall in Adel if Iowa is a “must win” contest, DeSantis predicted he’d win the state but a win “doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
“People have won it and not [gotten the nomination], people have not won it and won [the nomination]. You need a majority of the delegates, and this is a long haul. And we’re gonna be fighting all over the country over these next many months,” he said.
DeSantis’ campaign deputy campaign director David Polyansky argued the campaign is “built for the long haul” and pointed to DeSantis’ filing for ballot access in 19 states after Iowa.
“You don’t beat the former incumbent president of the United States in one fell swoop,” said Polyansky. “That’s just not how this works. To score the upset, you must fight for every inch and do whatever it takes to get it to the full 12 rounds. And that’s what our aim is,” he added.
Polyansky said the campaign would be in New Hampshire “bright and early” after Iowa’s contest, and predicted Haley would finally be taking “a lot of incoming” in the state as its primary gets closer.
Haley is the target of at least one competitor’s ad in New Hampshire, where Trump’s super PAC began attacking her on the airwaves this week. A Haley spokesperson said “DeSantis has a short shelf life with his Iowa-or-bust strategy.”
“Ultimately, this is a two-person race between Nikki and Donald Trump, and we hope to see him on the debate stage,” they added, referencing upcoming GOP debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Trump is not expected to attend.
Trump’s campaign has constantly bashed DeSantis’ chances of being competitive in Iowa. In a release Monday, Trump’s team referred to the Jan. 15 caucuses as the “stage” for “Ron’s final and greatest act of self-humiliation.”
Republican strategists noted that if Trump falls short of expectations and DeSantis pulls off an upset, that pierces the “invincibility shield” Trump has had throughout the primary.
“Trump is running as a quasi-incumbent, which comes with all kinds of advantages. But he’s also got high expectations,” added Kochel.