Three scenarios for DeSantis after Iowa, none of them particularly good

by | Jan 14, 2024

Trump is in the driver’s seat, and even a DeSantis upset might be short-lived

On Monday, two of Florida’s most famous politicians, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, will face off in the Iowa Caucus. With the cornfields, school basketball gymnasiums, churches, and small town community centers as their backdrop, the outcome will have an outsized influence on Republican politics for years to come.

But Iowa is a long way from Florida, and we want to know how the Caucus results might impact the Sunshine State. Where DeSantis finishes in the results will make all the difference. We break it down for you:

Scenario1: Victory in Iowa and national recalibration 

A win for DeSantis in the Iowa Caucus would be nothing short of a political earthquake, given the current polling landscape that has, for months, predicted a landslide victory for Trump. Any win, no matter how sleight the margin for DeSantis, would defy expectations and cause many people to question the stability of the ground they’re standing on.

To be clear, most credible polls have shown support for Trump hovering very close to the 50 percent mark – not just recently, but for months on end. Worse for DeSantis is that recent polls have him slipping into third place behind former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

The implications for DeSantis, were he to defy political gravity on Monday, would give him the equivalent of a caffeine-laced energy drink in the form of a short-term political boost, with emphasis on the “short-term.” More than that, though, the most significant result from a DeSantis win is that it would force everyone to question the accuracy of national and state-level polling and trigger political recalibrations across the nation.

But it is important that we don’t overestimate the impact.

Trump’s team will work hard to downplay the result, and they’ll have a pretty good basis for doing so. It’s no secret that DeSantis pushed all his chips into the middle of the table, betting everything on Iowa. As the week progresses, media pundits, backed by Trump surrogates, will be all too happy to credit DeSantis’s ground game and organization – but not DeSantis himself. And with Iowa in the rear view mirror, that ground game will have to scramble to catch up in other states. At the same time, expect to hear frequent reminders that Iowa only predicts the GOP nominee 43 percent of the time. The last three contested caucus winners dating back to 2008 are Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee. None of them became the GOP nominee.

Back home in Florida, the victory would temporarily forestall a mass defection among state lawmakers jumping from DeSantis to Trump, buying the governor more time to try to repeat the miracle in subsequent states. But given this scenario’s long-shot chance of happening, forgive us for not expending too much energy trying to unpack the longer-term fallout.

Scenario 2: Respectable second place

A second-place finish for DeSantis, particularly if he substantially outperforms Nikki Haley, will obviously boost the argument that he’s the primary alternative to Trump. This outcome might help keep DeSantis in the race as a credible alternative candidate, but it depends on just how close to Trump he finishes: a close second carries similar implications to the first scenario, with polling coming into question, while donors and supporters get temporarily frozen in their tracks. A brief period of recalibration will ensue, but the end result is much like first: the math gets increasingly difficult for DeSantis after Iowa.

In Florida, expect mixed reactions, including a few potential defections and some quiet pressure by a limited number of donors and supporters for DeSantis to throw in the towel, despite the surprisingly positive result.

Scenario 3: Distant second or third-place finish

The worst possible outcome for DeSantis tomorrow isn’t a third-place finish but a distant second with Haley hot on his heels. The illusion will be difficult for him to see through. He may be tempted to posture as a legitimate challenger to Trump, but with Haley finishing close behind, he’s not likely to score a better result in New Hampshire. And with the rare exception of Bill Clinton in 1992 and George McGovern in 1972, no candidate has lost both states and gone on to win the nomination.

An easier scenario for DeSantis would be a third place finish. That’s because it’s more clearly over for DeSantis if he finishes third to Haley on Monday. He bet everything on Iowa, and he will have come up short. The campaign will be too bogged down to continue. Donors will bail out, supporters will defect, and cash immediately becomes a problem. Even if DeSantis personally decides to stay in the race, only the most loyal staffers will stick around. Many will return to Tallahassee, others will seek refuge with other campaigns, if they can.

The question for DeSantis will be how he chooses to handle the result: playing his cards right could win him respect and position him for a future run. Playing them wrong, however, could turn his campaign into the political equivalent of walking around with spinach in his teeth. The awkwardness would be evident to everyone but him.

Our prediction:

Given DeSantis’s heavy investment in Iowa, his known strength among evangelical conservatives, and the Hawkeye State’s notoriously difficult to predict outcome, we expect DeSantis will turn in a solid second place finish, with the final result being Trump 38%, DeSantis 25%, and Haley coming in third with 21%.

But what do we know?  Look for full coverage and analysis late Monday and early Tuesday.


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