DeSantis’s Iowa Letdown: A Distant Second Place Behind Trump

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida may have done just enough in the Iowa caucuses on Monday night to argue that he still belongs in the race to defeat Donald J. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

But his distant second-place finish had all the feelings of a disaster, given how much time and money he invested in the state, and it calls into question his ability to stay in the nominating contest, with his campaign cash running low and tough tests ahead in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Mr. DeSantis, who entered the field as one of its most compelling contenders, just barely managed to hold off a late surge from Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.

Mr. Trump defeated both candidates so soundly on Monday night that the race was called in his favor by The Associated Press just 31 minutes after the caucuses got underway. The early call — while some Iowans were still caucusing — gave Mr. DeSantis’s team a lifeline to blame the news media for a disappointing performance.

Mr. DeSantis, who addressed his supporters at a hotel ballroom in West Des Moines, criticized the news media and noted that his opponents had spent heavily against him, but did his best to spin his second-place finish into a positive result. He vowed to stay in the race.

“We’ve got our ticket punched out of Iowa,” he said to cheers, adding, “I am not going to make any excuses and I guarantee you this: I will not let you down!”

Mr. DeSantis had staked everything on Iowa — a state that was seemingly built for his candidacy as the most ideologically conservative politician in the race. But while his candidacy looked good on paper, it seemed far less so in the flesh. From the outset he has seemed woefully underprepared for the rigors of retail politicking, often coming off as awkward and robotic in his interactions with voters and delivering a flat stump speech with few memorable lines.

Mr. DeSantis’s expensive canvassing and voter-turnout operation produced lackluster results, though volunteers knocked on the doors of his supporters in Iowa as many as five times in an attempt to get them to caucus sites. The effort — organized by his super PAC, Never Back Down — could go down as one of the most colossal bonfires of cash in American political history.

Mr. DeSantis’s much-hyped “ground game” was supposed to provide a significant advantage, especially during the dangerously cold weather on Monday night. Instead, Mr. Trump, who had invested less than Mr. DeSantis on field operations and relied instead on passionate volunteers, swept past him.

Finishing so close to Ms. Haley is a flashing danger sign for the viability of Mr. DeSantis’s campaign. He and his team ran a playbook that has traditionally resulted in victories for Republican candidates in Iowa, traveling frenetically around the state and courting white evangelical voters with hard-right stances on abortion and L.B.G.T.Q. issues. In contrast, Ms. Haley didn’t begin to seriously compete in Iowa until October.

If Mr. DeSantis is to continue to compete, he may need to raise significant new sums of money. Without a surge of donations, it’s unclear how long he can financially sustain his campaign, and many of the party’s biggest donors abandoned him long ago. It’s hard to imagine how a roughly 30-point loss to Mr. Trump would have restored their faith in him.

Mr. DeSantis’s failure to meaningfully cut into Mr. Trump’s support constitutes a stunning fall from where he stood a year ago. He began 2023 with every conceivable advantage and set his sights early on a victory in Iowa.

He had been ordained as the future of the Republican Party by no less an authority than Rupert Murdoch. The New York Post’s headline after his landslide 2022 re-election victory in Florida read: “DeFUTURE.” And Fox News had spent the previous two years intravenously feeding him to the G.O.P. base with frequent and glowing appearances on the top-rated network.

Mr. DeSantis had an enormous head start on fund-raising, with the ability to transfer more than $80 million from his Florida campaign account to his super PAC. After his thumping 2022 re-election win, donors from all over the country, most of whom had never met Mr. DeSantis, were calling people close to him asking how they could meet the governor and fund an anticipated campaign for president.

A year ago, polls suggested that Republican voters who wanted to move past Mr. Trump overwhelmingly favored Mr. DeSantis over all others. He trailed Mr. Trump by just 10 percentage points nationwide last January, a time when Ms. Haley was barely registering in surveys, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Mr. DeSantis is now roughly 50 points behind the former president in national polls.

Mr. DeSantis also had profound institutional advantages in Iowa. He forged a relationship with its popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, that was so strong that Ms. Reynolds ultimately broke her neutrality, endorsed him and campaigned around the state for him. He benefited from the powerful network of the Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. As recently as last week, both Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Vander Plaats were promising that Mr. DeSantis would triumph there.

Iowa, a conservative Midwestern state, seemed like the perfect place for Mr. DeSantis — who, as governor, transformed Florida into a laboratory for hard-right policies — to excel. Mr. DeSantis tried to run to Mr. Trump’s right, painting the former president as insufficiently conservative on social issues and criticizing his handling of Covid and immigration.

Ultimately, the Republican base didn’t buy it, and the Florida governor’s decision to portray himself as the most right-wing candidate in the field created a lane for Ms. Haley to win over moderate Republicans and independents.

As Ms. Haley surged in polls, donors desperate to defeat Mr. Trump poured millions into her super PAC, which gave her the ability to pound Mr. DeSantis with negative advertising. Mr. Trump and his allies were also running ads against Mr. DeSantis, compounding the effect. The main super PAC supporting Ms. Haley spent $23.7 million in ads attacking Mr. DeSantis in Iowa. In the two weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Ms. Haley’s campaign outspent him on television in the state by nearly three to one, according to data collected by AdImpact.

Across Iowa, polling showed that Mr. Trump led Mr. DeSantis with key demographics of the Republican electorate: older voters, those without college degrees and white evangelicals. That left Mr. DeSantis with no natural constituency that he could drive to the polls. As of 10 p.m., he was poised to lose every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, each of which he visited at least once.

Now, Mr. DeSantis faces a daunting path ahead.

Next up are primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, neither of which seems promising. New Hampshire voters tend to be more moderate, and Mr. DeSantis’s strident social conservatism appears to have diminished his standing there. He is polling in the single digits, putting him in third place. Ms. Haley, who has the support of the state’s governor and is popular with independent voters, has gained on Mr. Trump, who still leads in New Hampshire.

Mr. DeSantis has signaled that he thinks he has a better chance in South Carolina, but that is an optimistic view. Mr. Trump remains overwhelmingly popular there, and Ms. Haley is the state’s former governor.

The DeSantis campaign has done little in Nevada — which holds its caucus between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — after Trump allies in the state Republican Party changed the rules in ways widely seen as helping the former president.

Late Monday night, Mr. DeSantis was scheduled to fly from Iowa to South Carolina, where he will host a rally on Tuesday morning. That stop is intended as a jab at Ms. Haley and as a sign to the Trump campaign that he plans to stick it out. He will then fly to New Hampshire for another campaign event and a town hall broadcast on CNN, with two nationally televised debates to follow.

Heading into October, Mr. DeSantis had just $5 million available for the primary race, less than Ms. Haley ($9.1 million) and Mr. Trump ($36 million). In the week before the Iowa caucuses, he spent only $6,842 on ads in rural northwest Iowa, a stronghold of conservative Christians where he had hoped to peel voters away from Mr. Trump.

Overall, in Iowa last week, he was outspent on television even by Ryan Binkley, a self-funded businessman and pastor who never qualified for a debate.

Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.

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