DES MOINES, Iowa—I enjoyed every bit of West Virginia University’s blowout victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the recent Duke’s Mayo Bowl. I stayed tuned for the ceremonial mayo dump and everything. Gross, but oddly satisfying.
I hung around for close losses to University of Houston and Oklahoma State University. I held my breath for onsides kicks and Hail Mary passes.
But the 39-point drubbing from the Oklahoma Sooners in November? Click. Two quarters was plenty for me.
As predicted, the Iowa Republican caucuses generated the lowest voter turnout since the contest in 2000. For a sense of proportion, former President Donald Trump’s 56,260 votes (as of this writing) represented 51 percent of the total. The same number would have netted him just 30 percent eight years ago.
Certainly the cold weather had its effect, as did the decision to hold the evening event on the third day of a holiday weekend. But there was something else driving down the numbers to a 24-year low: The landslide effect.
In 2016, the race was close, with three or four candidates in contention. This time, the race was very explicitly for second place. Now, when an unpopular candidate has a massive polling advantage—think Hillary Clinton’s 2016 general election fizzle—there’s the risk of unenthusiastic voters shrugging off their responsibilities. When you like your candidate, though, the expectation of a lopsided win can actually be an enticement. There’s low emotional risk and a high chance of reward.
But the difference between a commanding win and an honest-to-goodness landslide is what happens on the other side. The losing team has to know it’s over and just gives up. We see it in the famous presidential general election tsunamis, including the wipeout of 1984. Challenger Walter Mondale got close from time to time, but never led. Assured of defeat, Democrats in states where they should have carried the day, like Rhode Island and West Virginia, stayed home rather than be part of the losing effort. Democrats lost 49 states and the down-ballot damage was enormous.
Primaries are different in several ways, but particularly in that partisans might want to “send a message” in a losing vote, especially if there is a salient ideological or policy consideration. But that’s not what was going on in Iowa.
Both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former chief acolyte of the MAGA faith, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who served in Trump’s Cabinet, agree that Trump had a successful presidency and that he was generally correct in his policies. Indeed, they argue that the problem was that Trump didn’t accomplish more of what he promised. They contend that Trump should be replaced atop the party because he isn’t the very stable genius he once was and that he is likely to lose again in the general election.
They nibble around Trump’s main weakness—his characterological deficiencies, corruption, and his bungled 2021 coup attempt—but basically hold that choosing one of them over Trump is a more prudent calculation. Electability isn’t a terrible argument in a primary. But not if you’re sure to lose.
There is a considerable minority in the Republican Party that is ready to fight for a lost cause in order to send a message, but that message is one that would all but concede defeat and alienate a majority of the party. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney have won many admirers and some loyal supporters, but most Republicans—including many who know Christie and Cheney are right about Trump—will never forgive them for airing the party’s dirty laundry. That’s a sacrifice very few in politics are ever willing to make.
Haley is still hoping to skate through, winning the support of the motivated minority while still remaining palatable to most of her party. And it’s not an unreasonable idea. Voters often choose more pragmatic vehicles for protest, if there is even a modest chance for success. That’s why Haley’s bronze medal in Iowa could hurt so badly. If victory is the trade-off for purity, there’s little tolerance for defeat.
But she’s still in it. A win in New Hampshire could solidify her standing as the candidate of both the resolutely Never Trump and the pragmatic partisans. It depends on how high an asking price she has to pay to the Trump resistance. If Christie comes out strongly for Haley and doesn’t ask for any public renunciations in return, maybe she gets back on track and makes a race of it for at least the next month.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has a different challenge to face.
There are losing candidates in Republican history like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney who very ably converted second-place finishes into nominations down the road. Then there are those runners up like Pat Buchanan and Rick Santorum who hung on in their contests to pressure the eventual winner on policy matters and to prove the power of their faction.
Both Haley and DeSantis have the organization and notoriety to persist in the race like McCain, but not a cause like Pitchfork Pat.
But if DeSantis can slog on through Super Tuesday and make it to Florida on March 19, he might rack up enough delegates to end up in second place. If he drops out then, endorsing Trump, DeSantis might be well positioned as a 2028 contender. Spend down the last of the cash paying your people, keep the name identification up, and—most importantly—outlast Haley, and 2024 could be the beginning of the next chapter.
That’s why there’s so little motivation for DeSantis to step aside now, despite the preposterous strategy of riding a third place finish in South Carolina 38 days from now back into contention. Yes, getting out now probably would be a net benefit to Haley’s chances to win—though plenty of DeSantis voters would go back to Trump before they went to her. But it would also help Haley for 2028, something DeSantis seems unlikely to do.
Indeed, the path DeSantis is following looks like the one he’s been on all along: That of Ted Cruz’s 2016 dud. As Cruz found out, it’s awfully hard to get people to stay tuned for a blowout loss. Along the way, you neither endear yourself to the loyal opposition nor win the admiration of the majority.
And that’s even worse than getting mayonnaise dumped on your head.