Down 30 points according to a medley of Iowa Caucus polls, political pundits are starting to wonder when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will throw in the towel. The answer is straightforward: he won’t, because he thinks that Iowa has the potential to deliver a plot twist. And at this stage, DeSantis just needs to post a strong showing. The rest of the pressure is entirely on Trump to win and win big.
In a world where sequels often promise more than they deliver, the 2023 tale of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” serves as a fitting illustration to explain why Iowa could change DeSantis’s destiny. Like the studio executives who greenlit the fifth film in the Indiana Jones franchise, banking on the age-defying appeal of an 80-year-old icon, political pundits are currently convinced that Donald Trump, of similar vintage, is a shoo-in for ballot box success in Iowa and beyond. But the movie, despite its hefty budget and surefire namesake, flopped at the box office, earning just $175 million against a production budget of $300 million. The point is that well-known franchises can falter under the weight of sky-high expectations.
Like Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones might have said in a lecture to dreamy-eyed college students, history whispers its lessons through the corridors of time, offering insights into the present. Take, for instance, the 1984 Democratic Primary. At this same point in November 1983, front-runner Walter Mondale seemed unbeatable, with newspaper headlines touting his ever-widening lead. Only 11 weeks later, the Iowa Caucus provided a major plot twist. Though Mondale actually won Iowa handily, Gary Hart’s campaign, which only garnered a mere 16 percent of the Iowa vote, thrived on that second-place finish. Suddenly, Mondale wasn’t “inevitable.” Hart’s campaign went on to win the next three states, and later take 214 delegates on Super Tuesday to just 129 for Mondale. The two ran neck and neck until June of 1984.
This is the part where Trump advocates will point out that (a) unlike DeSantis, Gary Hart bet all his chips on New Hampshire, not Iowa, and it was that strategy that gave him momentum; and (b) Walter Mondale still ultimately won the nomination. But pay such trivialities no mind. The point is that presidential primaries are marathons, not sprints. They are intricate dances of strategy, endurance, and the ability to regularly win news cycles and advance specific narratives.
Donald Trump’s strategy is heavily focused on advancing the narrative theme of “inevitability.” But even during the 2016 GOP primary, despite that same strategy, we still saw contenders like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz lingering in the race until the convention’s doors swung shut. Neither Rubio nor Cruz were able to break the inevitability storyline. But fast forward to 2024, and the potential for a major shift looms large. Trump, while a formidable force, must navigate a vastly different landscape dotted with potential pitfalls, including pending criminal indictments that have shown, despite claims to the contrary, the potential to hurt badly. Any number of wildcards could similarly trip him up in spectacular fashion.
The first of those pitfalls lurk in the heartlands of Iowa, where more than half of all voting Republicans who once saw Trump as the right man for a particular moment are asking anew, is he the right man now? The magic number in politics is 50 percent – Trump’s benchmark for undisputed dominance. He’s flirted with that threshold but hasn’t consistently hit the mark, indicating a narrow window of opportunity for a challenger like DeSantis.
It’s true that unfavorable polls raise big questions for even the most fervent DeSantis backers. But questions also persist about their value this early, and in Iowa, of all places – a state known for late-breaking, stunning political upsets. More history to illustrate the point: U.S. Senator John McCain’s 2007 trajectory is similar to what the DeSantis campaign just went through. In the summer of 2007, a supposed death spiral of weak polling and weak fundraising had media pundits writing McCain’s obituary well before the Iowa Caucus. But by November, his campaign had found some solid footing, and he started a slow but eventual comeback that won him the nomination over the likes of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
Still not convinced? Ask yourself why Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds would risk her political capital on a candidate like DeSantis, if Donald Trump is going to win Iowa in a walk. The DeSantis camp will tell you they can feel something in the air. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking after months of slogging the campaign trail. Maybe it’s reading too much into the sudden surge of DeSantis yard signs dotting the Iowa roadways. After all, yard signs don’t vote. But they do signal something, don’t they? Reynolds’s endorsement is a clear signal that contrasts sharply against all the political noise. In Iowa, at least, there’s some belief in the potential for an game changing outcome. And like 1984, it needn’t be a Ron DeSantis win in Iowa. A solid second-place finish that marks him as the clear challenger to Trump might be enough to take the wind out of Trump’s sails.
Last week, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell opined that the GOP debates were being held “in case Trump chokes on a cheeseburger.” The truth, though, is that there are plenty of hazards, be they hamburgers or handcuffs, that could spell trouble for the ex-president. Underperforming in Iowa could be the catalyst for a Trumpian bomb at the “box office.” The title of Indiana Jones’ latest adventure, “Dial of Destiny,” resonates here. The dial of political fortune is ever-turning, and in the world of primaries, destiny is anything but fixed. In the end, it’s the voters who turn the dial, and DeSantis appears committed to sit through the movie all the way to the end credits.