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DeSantis touts Iowa ‘kingmaker’ whose picks weren’t nominated

Hawkeye State helps winnow field but often doesn’t predict winner

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis needs a stronger showing in Iowa to have a chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis needs a stronger showing in Iowa to have a chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Things are not going to go well after Iowa for Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to his campaign.

“Iowa Kingmaker Steve Deace Endorses Ron DeSantis for President” according to the headline from an Aug. 11 press release. The Florida governor needs to make a splash in the Hawkeye State if he wants to dethrone former President Donald Trump as the leader of the Republican Party. But while Deace has been influential in conservative circles in Iowa, dubbing him “kingmaker” is a stretch. 

The release featured Deace’s support of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. Both men won the Iowa caucuses in those cycles, but neither candidate became president or even won the GOP nomination. The release omitted 2012, when Deace backed former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth in the caucuses that year.

The worse news for DeSantis is that the winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t usually become the Republican nominee.

Iowa not predictive

With its first-in-the-nation status and made-for-TV state fair, Iowa generates plenty of attention every four years. Reporters descend on Iowa to follow candidates from all tiers and talk to voters of all types. But Iowa is not predictive in the presidential race. 

In the seven cycles without an incumbent president since the caucuses’ inception in 1976, Iowa Republicans have chosen the GOP nominee just twice — and the last time was more than 20 years ago. Texas Gov. George W. Bush won Iowa in 2000 and went on to win the nomination and presidency. Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won the Iowa caucuses in 1996 on his way to the nomination. 

The track record is not lost on Iowa’s current governor, Republican Kim Reynolds, who wants to make sure her state stays relevant. She told Fox News Sunday that the caucuses were “not really to protect the winner, but to really start to narrow the field.” 

“We don’t need more candidates in the field, we probably need less,” she added.

Familiar scenario

Another Iowa GOP insider admitted that the state wasn’t predictive but is still critical in the 2024 nominating process. They also said the buzz about DeSantis in Iowa is better than the national headlines. That’s good because DeSantis is down by more than 37 points to Trump (52.2 percent to 14.4 percent)  in Wednesday morning’s FiveThirtyEight national average

The Iowa polling is a bit better for the former Florida congressman. Trump led DeSantis by 26 points (43 percent to 17 percent) in the the RealClearPolitics average on Wednesday. That includes Trump’s 23-point lead in the NBC News/Des Moines Register poll completed Aug. 17 and a 24-point lead in a New York Times/Siena survey completed Aug. 1. That’s still not quite within striking distance, and DeSantis has been trending in the wrong direction.

DeSantis has been focusing his ground operation in Iowa. The Iowa GOP source also pointed out that DeSantis has room to grow because of his positive image and local support. Among likely caucus goers, Trump had a 65 percent favorable/33 percent unfavorable rating in the Des Moines Register poll compared to 66 favorable/29 percent unfavorable for DeSantis.

DeSantis has also been collecting endorsements from state legislators, which could pay dividends over the next few months. There are also some bigger name endorsers, including Reynolds and conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who could come off the sidelines before January. 

At some point, DeSantis will have to turn endorsements into caucus support, which should start showing up in the polls eventually.

Similar to the national narrative, there’s a sense that as long as the field of non-Trump candidates remains divided, Trump’s lead will endure. If the field doesn’t winnow significantly after the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses and before New Hampshire or then South Carolina on Feb. 3, once again, Trump stands a better chance of winning with a narrow majority, or even a plurality. So the Iowa results could be critical. 

In 2016, Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul  dropped out after Iowa and Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore dropped out after New Hampshire (which Trump won with 35 percent). But that still left Cruz, surgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich to contend with Trump in South Carolina (which Trump won with 33 percent). 

While plenty of attention is on DeSantis and the clock is ticking, there’s still time for candidates such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to have their time in the spotlight. Then it’s up to the candidate to leverage that attention into January support. At this point in 2016, Trump was running close in Iowa with Carson, who would end up placing fourth in the caucuses. 

For DeSantis, the question is whether he still stands to get his time in the spotlight and surge late like Cruz in 2016. Or maybe DeSantis already had his moment and a majority of voters have decided to look elsewhere.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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