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Former Florida congressman struggles in Iowa presidential race

DeSantis relying on ‘Full Grassley’ to catapult him to the lead

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has completed campaign visits to all 99 of Iowa’s counties ahead of the Republican presidential caucuses next month.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has completed campaign visits to all 99 of Iowa’s counties ahead of the Republican presidential caucuses next month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — All this time, former President Donald Trump’s kryptonite has been a tradition set by a 90-year-old senator from Iowa. Or at least that’s what Ron DeSantis believes.

Recently, the Florida governor finished the “full Grassley” by visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties. It was popularized by GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley and copied by other Iowa politicians and presidential contenders as a way to demonstrate their connection with the state known for rewarding retail politics. 

Now, DeSantis is hoping his effort will help him close the significant gap between him and Trump in the GOP presidential race in the Hawkeye State and nationally. But it’s not likely to be the game-changer he envisions.

Rather than an accomplishment, this “full Grassley” actually illustrates the former Florida congressman’s weakness. After traveling to every corner and county of the state over the past six months, DeSantis was at the same place, or worse, in the polls. The governor was at 20 percent in Iowa, according to an early June poll by National Research. He’s at 18 percent in the latest FiveThirtyEight average and has cracked 20 percent in only one of 11 Iowa polls since the beginning of August

If DeSantis’ retail effort, ground organization and dozens of endorsements from elected officials, from Gov. Kim Reynolds on down, were having an impact, it would have started to show up in the polls by now. It’s unlikely their effect would happen all at the same time.

For months, DeSantis has been bragging about the size of his Iowa support. “We’ve got over 30,000 people that already committed to caucus for us. We’re adding more every day,” the governor said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. That might sound like a lot of people, but 51,666 Iowans caucused for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016. That was enough for 28 percent of the vote (and the win) in Iowa that cycle but likely won’t be enough to topple Trump, who is at 45 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average. 

“If you look at past Iowa caucus winners, and compare to what people were saying in November with this poll or that poll, it almost never comes out the same way,” DeSantis claimed on “Meet the Press.” But is his recollection correct? 

Looking back at polling in mid- to late December 2015, Cruz led Trump 24 percent to 19 percent in a Monmouth University survey, 31 percent to 21 percent in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll and 30 percent to 23 percent in a Loras College poll. In the end, Cruz won 28 percent to 24 percent. It seems like the polling was pretty good that far out from the election. And those 2016 caucuses were two weeks later (Feb. 1) than they are this cycle (Jan. 15), which means DeSantis has less time to surge.

“We have a much wider base of people who are potential caucus-goers who believe that I’ve been a great governor and would be a good president. And we’ve just got to bring that home when people start to make their decisions,” said DeSantis. This is a longer version of the notion that Iowa voters decide late. But is that true?

The 2016 polls projected a Cruz victory. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee’s wins were more of a surprise in 2012 and 2008, but those were wide-open races without a de facto incumbent like Trump, who is significantly ahead of the field this time and is a known commodity. 

Endorsements from well-known individuals such as Reynolds and conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats can’t hurt DeSantis. But it’s unlikely there is a large swath of Iowa Republicans who were on the fence, waiting for Reynolds to tell them what to do. 

Remember that, in the best-case scenario, DeSantis wins Iowa. But that certainly doesn’t guarantee success, considering the last three candidates to win competitive caucuses in Iowa didn’t become president and didn’t even win the GOP nomination, including Cruz (2016), Santorum (2012) and Huckabee (2008). 

At this point, the DeSantis campaign and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s look like trains at the same point on parallel tracks but moving in opposite directions. DeSantis is moving in the wrong direction, while Haley has some momentum. Haley was at 4 percent in the June National Research survey of Iowa Republicans and stands at 15 percent now in the FiveThirtyEight average — just 3 points behind DeSantis.

It’s possible that someone other than Trump becomes the GOP nominee, but he remains the clear front-runner in the early states as well as the race overall, even without pulling off a “full Grassley.” 

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

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