Ron DeSantis’ Iowa prospects appear dim. The Florida governor trails Donald Trump by 30 percentage points and is taking fire from both the former president and Nikki Haley, running third in the Hawkeye State and closing in. But DeSantis supporters are stubbornly optimistic.
The governor recently secured coveted endorsements from Gov. Kim Reynolds and leading evangelical activist Bob Vander Plaats—about as powerful of a political one-two punch as there is to score in Iowa. And the 21st century is littered with underdog candidates who came from behind, late, to win the Republican presidential nominating caucuses over presumably strong frontrunners. Still, neutral Republican operatives in Iowa are doubtful DeSantis can replicate the recent past.
“They were lucky to get Reynolds and [Vander Plaats] but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a bad candidate who has underperformed,” said Republican strategist David Kochel, a veteran of several Iowa caucus campaigns who is not supporting a candidate this time around. “I think he’s a zombie candidate at this point. … I just don’t see his path anymore.”
DeSantis is undeterred. After all, Trump has lost a lead in Iowa before. Indeed, on November 30, 2015, he was leading Ted Cruz by more than 8 points in a Republican primary field overloaded with nearly a dozen candidates. Sixty-three days later, the future 45th president lost the 2016 caucuses to the Texas senator by more than 3 points. (Granted, Trump was not the GOP juggernaut he is now, and his lead then was nowhere near what it is now.)
So, to get a handle on DeSantis’ strategy and better understand why some Republican operatives supporting the governor’s bid believe the effort isn’t futile, The Dispatch spoke to sources familiar with his voter turnout operation in Iowa. “Trump is in trouble, uniquely, in Iowa,” an official with Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis and running his voter turnout operation, told The Dispatch in an interview. “I wouldn’t be comfortable—if I’m him.”
This unproven, some might say Pollyannaish, assessment is built on a foundational analysis of the national Republican electorate that itself appears reasonable.
On any given day, likely primary voter and caucusgoers are divided into three basic cohorts, according to Never Back Down: “Forever Trump,” who usually comprise about 35 percent of voters overall; “likes Trump but considers others,” who equal about 45 percent; and “Never Trump,” 25 percent. Of the key “likes Trump but considers others” category, only about one-third of voters say they plan to vote for Trump for sure—and that’s on his best day, which usually coincides with court appearances related to his four criminal indictments, sources familiar with the tracking data say.
But lest conservative populists presume “Never Trump” is synonymous with “moderate” voters, or essentially Republicans in Name Only, think again.
Fifty-two percent of this group self-identify as conservatives and 48 percent as moderate. And in Iowa, that’s moderate according to the standards of Republicans in the Hawkeye State. “When you put Never Trump people in a room, they don’t look alike,” the Never Back Down official said. “They don’t agree on abortion; they don’t agree on Ukraine funding. They have one unifying principle, and that’s that they don’t like Trump, not one bit.”
That’s the kind of data that—perhaps in vain—DeSantis is resting his hope on. He’s not alone.
Since late August, just after the first Republican debate in Milwaukee, Haley has been surging in Iowa, relative to the field of second candidates DeSantis has generally led since launching his campaign in late May. The former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is now running third, just 3 percentage points behind DeSantis. (Haley tops him in New Hampshire, where she is running a solid second.)
Some Republican insiders in the state believe she—not DeSantis—is the non-Trump candidate to watch. However, they concede Haley’s get-out-the-vote effort is lacking, which particularly matters in a caucus and could hamper her ability to make a run at the former president. That is the case because the ambassador has run a frugal campaign that has raised far less than Trump and did not begin the race with a super PAC flush with tens of millions of dollars to invest in a voter turnout operation, a la DeSantis and Never Back Down.
“Haley is the real deal right now in Iowa. The question for me is if she has, or will build, an organization to harness the energy she has,” said a neutral Republican operative, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “She has a real chance to finish second in Iowa, but there is no question that Trump and DeSantis, via Never Back Down, have significant organizational advantages over her.”
Enter Americans for Prosperity Action. The large and sophisticated grassroots organization, part of the Koch network of political groups, endorsed Haley this week and plans to put money and manpower behind the ambassador in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. That means she stands to get a boost in data analytics, door-knocking, digital outreach, and direct mail—the sort of comprehensive ground game Haley has lacked, until now. (The group declined to reveal budget or personnel deployment numbers dedicated to boosting Haley in the early states.)
“Since last spring, Americans for Prosperity has reached out to more than 6 million voters in key states across the country. With every door knock and phone call, AFP has been learning more about each voter,” AFP Action spokesman Bill Riggs told The Dispatch in a statement, adding that the group will use the data it has accumulated to tell voters “why Nikki Haley is the candidate they should get behind.”
So why are DeSantis supporters confident in his ability to hold off Haley in Iowa and emerge as the consensus alternative to Trump heading into New Hampshire? It might have something to do with the aforementioned 52 percent-48 percent, conservative-moderate breakdown of the Never Trump voting bloc. DeSantis dominates among the conservatives. And although Haley leads among the moderates, she currently tops out at about 30 percent, per Never Back Down’s data.
Incidentally, Never Back Down pegs Haley in the high single digits with the “likes Trump but considers others” segment, trailing DeSantis significantly.
DeSantis supporters are additionally buoyed by the consolidation of the primary field. Especially in Iowa, it is significant that both former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina recently exited the race. Wealthy biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy remains a threat, but after stagnating in the low to mid single digits for months, DeSantis supporters view him as a nonfactor.
Vander Plaats, who endorsed the three previous Iowa caucus winners—Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—insists the polling in the Hawkeye State, and the conventional wisdom that Trump is a sure thing flowing from it, is off base (though he stops short of guaranteeing an upset).
On Caucus Day he predicts DeSantis will get approximately 42 percent, Trump will have a “high water mark” of 35-37 percent, Haley will notch about 18 percent, and the leftovers will go to Ramaswamy. “It is game on in Iowa,” he told conservative talk show host Steve Deace (also a DeSantis backer) in an interview. “DeSantis has a lot of blue sky.”