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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

With 4 months left until the caucus, Ron DeSantis is betting big on Iowa

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is going all-in on Iowa, the first state to hold a presidential nomination contest and one his campaign and allies believe he can win, despite numerous campaign shakeups and dips in his polling numbers throughout the summer.

He’s more than halfway through a tour of 99 counties in Iowa, the so-called “full Grassley,” named for the state’s senior Republican senator, Chuck Grassley, who has been visiting every county in the state annually for over 40 years.

Both his campaign and the super PAC supporting him, “Never Back Down,” have offices set up in the Des Moines area, with the PAC running five offices and employing 20 political staffers. The PAC says it’s finished its second pass of door knocking, part of an over $100 million national investment in voter mobilization.

The PAC says it has signed up 12,000 Iowans to support DeSantis in the caucuses. It has spent $16 million on Iowa market TV ads, according to advertisement tracking firm AdImpact, and has a new $25 million ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire that will run through Halloween.

DeSantis will be appearing in his first campaign events in Iowa this weekend, since he left the trail a week and a half ago to deal with Hurricane Idalia and recovery efforts in Florida. He plans to go to a tailgate at the big Iowa vs. Iowa State University football game — the same day that former President Donald Trump will be visiting.

But, despite all the doors knocked and the tens of millions spent in the state, DeSantis trails Trump by over 20 points in Iowa polling, according to a late August poll by the Des Moines Register.

Another post-debate poll of Iowa caucus goers, commissioned by a non-profit that hired DeSantis’ polling firm, found a small increase in his favorability rating and a bump in his percentage on the full ballot. But the same poll still showed him down 20 points to Trump.

Other candidates have narrowed the polling gap with DeSantis, too. And Iowa Republican Party county officials are split on whether anyone but Trump can win the caucuses in January.

“It’s really still anybody’s game at this point,” said Jeanita McNulty, the Scott County Republican party chair.

Johnson County Republican Party Vice Chair Donald MacFarlane, who thinks DeSantis has improved as a candidate in Iowa, doesn’t see DeSantis winning Iowa “unless Trump drops out.”

DeSantis’ campaign and allies think he can buck early polling by out-organizing Trump, pointing to their investment in grassroots operations that historically have helped Republicans prevail in Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, beat Trump by 4 points in Iowa in 2016. But in the September of 2015, he was down more than 20 points to Trump in the state, according to averages of polling data by RealClearPolitics.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012. He, too, campaigned heavily in Iowa and visited all 99 counties, as Cruz did.

The campaign and PAC are highlighting DeSantis’ infrastructure in Iowa, and they believe it will separate DeSantis from the rest of the field, including Trump. He already has enlisted 99 campaign county chairs, who may be influential at a local level leading up to the caucuses.

They also note that Trump has been an infrequent presence in the state and has been picking fights with the popular governor, Kim Reynolds, and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

“It’s been all preseason to this point,” said Kristin Davison, the DeSantis super PAC’s chief operating officer. “We’ve been able to define DeSantis, he’s been able to introduce himself, and now we’re gonna shift to telling people what DeSantis is gonna do for them.”

“When it’s 13 degrees outside on caucus night and snowing in half the state, you’ve got to have the organizational structure in every one of the 99 counties and every single caucus location to ensure our supporters turn out and deliver for Governor DeSantis,” said David Polyansky, DeSantis’ deputy campaign manager and a veteran GOP strategist with ties to Iowa.

But Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung points to Trump’s lead in all Iowa polls and said the DeSantis team has “backed themselves into a corner with their ridiculous bluster and moronic statements.”

“Take the Iowa State Fair as the latest example of President Trump and his campaign completely outshining anything Always Back Down or the DeSantis campaign could ever do. We completely outclass them with our unmatched operation and, quite frankly, we have a candidate that voters actually like and respect,” Cheung said.

While DeSantis’ events are attracting consistent crowds, and many attendees say they want a non-Trump candidate, DeSantis is only one among several they’re considering, along with Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy and Mike Pence.

“We have several very good candidates,” said Delma Hardin, a Republican voter from Cedar Rapids, Iowa who would support DeSantis “if the caucus were tomorrow” but added she could change her mind.

“Iowa Caucus history is littered with candidates who try to ride the wave of exciting, albeit short-lived, campaign moments without having first built out the critical infrastructure to support it,” Polyansky said, adding he believes there’ll be a lot of “volatility” for the third place spot.

Cody Hoefert, the former co-chair of the state Republican party, recently endorsed DeSantis, argues the full picture on the caucus field likely won’t be fully formed until deep into the fall.

“Obviously, you’d rather be ahead in the polling than behind, I’m just saying historically the person that’s leading in the polls right now traditionally does not win the caucus,” he said.

Trump’s mounting legal issues have become something of an X factor in the primary race. After each indictment, he’s seen a bump in GOP support and fundraising. But it remains to be seen what effect the trials will have, with most expected to take place after the Iowa caucus but during the nomination process.

Karen Fesler, who advised Santorum on his 2016 presidential bid in Iowa, is leaning towards DeSantis as her choice after seeing him speak in Coralville.

“Is [Trump’s] focus going to be working on the problems we have, getting the economy straightened out, straightening out the Southern border, or is he gonna be focused on his litigation? He can multitask, there’s no question in my mind, but I’m just concerned,” she said.

Ryan Frederick, the chair of the Adair County Republican party and a county chair for DeSantis’ super PAC, said while Trump’s base isn’t fazed by the legal cases, the “rank-and-filetype” Republicans that are historically caucus attendees are “more wary.”

“The Trump campaign is mostly trying to keep their boss out of jail. And I have to believe that distracts a little bit from the organization part,” he said.

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