Inside Ron DeSantis’ Final Push in Iowa

10 minute read
By Mini Racker/Urbandale, Iowa

I’m standing so close to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that I can see each snowflake land in his perfectly-combed hair. 

Thanks to a blizzard warning, DeSantis, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and the operation of former President Donald Trump have all scrapped their planned schedules. DeSantis, however, has still made it through the unplowed streets to his team’s Urbandale Get Out the Vote office and is now addressing a clutch of cameras. He keeps his hands firmly holstered in his jean pockets as he talks about how well organized his team is and how he knows his supporters will make it out to vote Monday, despite the record cold temperature. And when it comes to the fact that Trump skipped this week’s debate, he grows animated.

“I had people come up to me in the press with the debate saying, you know, ‘You didn't go after Trump in the debate,’” DeSantis says. “That is not true. Like, if you watch the debate, I hit him on BLM. I hit him on not building the wall, the debt, not draining the swamp, Fauci, all those things. But it's different for me to just be doing that to a camera, versus him being right there.” Indeed, those hits have not come close to knocking Trump out of first place. The final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll, released Saturday, shows Trump with 48% of the vote, followed by Haley at 20% and DeSantis at 16%. If such a margin came to pass, it would mark a sore letdown for the governor, who has focused much of his campaign in the Hawkeye State. 

But if DeSantis seems to be struggling in polls or televised debates, up close in Iowa the size and dedication of his organization, his commitment to campaigning and the passion of his conservative devotees presents a different picture. As he barnstorms the state in the final hours before caucus night, the governor is counting on that discipline, combined with lowered expectations, to deliver a surprise Monday night. Asked on CNN Sunday morning if a third place finish would mark the end of his campaign, DeSantis refused to entertain the possibility. “We're going to do well on Monday,” he said. “Our voters are very motivated. This is—I think it's very hard to poll an Iowa caucus, period… There's a lot of excitement on the ground. We're in this for the long haul.”

I see some of that excitement in Urbandale, where two dozen or so supporters making calls while they snack on charcuterie roar upon DeSantis’ arrival. “4 Days Until the Iowa Caucus” declares a handwritten poster on the wall, which also includes the wifi network name: “nhdoesntcorrectit,” a dig at a suggestion Haley made in New Hampshire that voters there will choose the right nominee even if Iowans don’t. Many of the volunteers here have flown in from out of state to help this man, and they appear thrilled to spend time with him and his surrogates. About an hour after the press conference, a volunteer from Texas who I’m interviewing pauses when he sees Bob Vander Plaats, perhaps the state’s most important evangelical kingmaker, walk through the door. “That was a goal of mine, to be able to shake his hand,” the volunteer says.

Meanwhile, the governor and the first lady are posted up in a side room. Texas Rep. Chip Roy and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, two DeSantis endorsers, eat tacos while talking to some supporters, and the governor’s mom, who still lives in the same house he grew up in, chats with others. Little girls in cheerleading costumes race around the office. The building is buzzing with conversation, a stark contrast to the silent snowfall outside. 

The next day, as temperatures fall but snow doesn’t, I join DeSantis back on the campaign trail with Never Back Down, the Super PAC supporting him. The group says it has knocked on over 940,000 doors in the state since last year. First up is a stop at an event hall in Council Bluffs, a town on Iowa’s Western border across the Missouri River from Omaha. Many in the crowd are Republican fans from Nebraska, but at least a few are undecided Iowans. “A lot of neighbors have Trump flags,” says part time public school employee Theresa Tsubaki, a local who’s deciding between DeSantis and Trump. “But you know, I think some people are open-minded too.”

The crowd appears to love the governor’s right-wing message. He earns applause and cheers when he talks about beating Disney “and making sure that the transgenderism is not allowed in our schools.” There’s more applause when he talks about reviewing tenured professors and fighting ESG. Sometimes, when people clap, DeSantis looks down as if he doesn’t expect it. The encouragement continues as he slams his opponents. The crowd cackles when he says, “I had to debate the other night on CNN, with Hillary—I mean—Nikki.” When he adds, “She really represents kind of the warmed-over corporatist strain of the Republican establishment,” I see Reynolds nodding along vigorously. Then, he goes after the frontrunner. “Trump said drain the swamp, and I agreed with that. The problem is he didn't drain it,” DeSantis says, and the audience yells out in agreement. A few minutes later, he touts the “Don’t Fauci My Florida” T-shirts he sold during the pandemic and adds, “The Fauci-Trump policies were the wrong policies. … Me, as President of the United States, you know, I represent a wall of safety for you, because I will never let that happen to this country ever again.” The audience goes wild.

I arrive late at the next stop in Atlantic for another town hall-style event in a Victorian era historic building. Two Suburbans pull up while I cross the snowy street. Vander Plaats hurries in ahead of me. But when I go to squeeze inside, there’s a hubbub near the entrance. I stand against the door as a burly security guard pushes a man past me. I see he’s holding a token that serves as a reminder of DeSantis’ long odds: a little gold trophy printed with the word “Participation.”  

The program here is much abbreviated, with DeSantis’ surrogates rattling off their remarks and the Governor taking questions within minutes. As he wraps up, he shakes a few hands and hurries out to his car. His wife and Reynolds stick around a little longer, standing close to attendees who they greet like old friends. Still, the visit seems to have served its purpose. Ron Russell, who works in education, tells me at first he’s deciding between Haley and DeSantis, but as we talk, his pick seems to solidify. “I'm tending to think in the DeSantis direction, actually,” he says. “He pointed out his willingness to travel through 99 counties of Iowa, including in a blizzard, and I appreciate that. I think I agree with almost everything he stands for. I’m just processing which candidate would be most likely to be able to win.” 

An hour and a half later, back at Never Back Down headquarters, the room is packed so tight I can barely move. They’re distributing cards that say “DeSantis Solves Problems” and, in smaller print “With No Drama.” A sign on a staffer’s door declares “Your Preference is Not My Probelm” (sic). After DeSantis arrives, I can see him grinning. The office is crawling with young members of his team in DeSantis-branded winter gear. They make their way in and out of a corner blocked off “for political staff only.” Some of his longtime friends from Yale are also here supporting him.

I find two of them, including California attorney Mike McClellan, on their way out. McClellan says that about a dozen of the college buddies have been fundraising for the governor and several of them have been out knocking doors here in the snow. McClellan says the two talk once a week, about sports and family. The governor asks his friends for a pulse check on different areas of the country; they urge him to keep pushing for conservative legislation. He updates them about the campaign. “Whether there's been some media story about, you know, process or drama with personnel or whatever it is, none of that has ever affected his unwavering commitment to be the president that he believes America needs to stand up for our values,” says McClellan of their private talks.

I ask McClellan the same question DeSantis responded to on CNN: Would DeSantis stay in the race if he came in third in Iowa? “I think he absolutely would stay in the race,” he says. “I think no matter what happens, he's getting on a plane and heading to New Hampshire to campaign on Tuesday. I think Ron DeSantis can beat Nikki Haley in South Carolina. It's a conservative state. He's way more conservative than she is. But I also don't for a moment believe that we're going to come in third.”

Indeed, even if the Iowa poll shows that Haley is edging out DeSantis, it also shows weakness in her voters’ enthusiasm: only 9% say they are extremely enthusiastic to caucus for her. But there’s still Trump to contend with. He’s been dominating throughout the race, sometimes polling above 50%. Even DeSantis’ supporters, though hopeful, concede that winning Iowa outright is a long shot. “I think people need to understand that it's about turnout, about persuasion,” says Rep. Roy. “At the end of the day, you know, whether he does or doesn't, the question is, is ‘Can President Trump crack 50?’”

That’s a very different benchmark than the one set by Trump’s team, which has framed any margin of victory greater than 13 points as a success. Roy’s comment suggests that even if Trump trounces the governor, if fewer voters back Trump than don’t, DeSantis will continue on as if he can upset the former President. He has meet and greets scheduled for the day after the Iowa caucuses in both South Carolina and New Hampshire. 

For now, DeSantis and his surrogates head west to Davenport. I loiter in the front of the office, where about a dozen volunteers are sitting around making calls. One of them is Rob Owen, a landscape architect and a DeSantis precinct captain back in Urbandale. His involvement with the campaign speaks to the depth of the operation; he decided to work on the governor’s behalf after he responded to the team’s text with some thoughts about the Constitution and a young person on the team invited him to a two-hour coffee. 

Owen tells me he’s still talking to a lot of voters who are undecided. He tells them about the governor’s record and how he used to be a Trump supporter, as well. He talks about how he thinks if Trump becomes the nominee, the justice system will find a way to take him down before November. As for the polls? He doesn’t buy them. 

“The last four or five years we've, we've been gaslighted on everything,” Owens says. “I was just in the break room and got a piece of pizza and they've got all the media up there. And I saw CNN now showing Nikki Haley has moved up to 20% and DeSantis is 13. I don't buy that for a minute. We saw in ‘16. We saw in ‘20. We saw Governor DeSantis, last time, it was supposed to be a narrow margin and he absolutely obliterated his opponent. So will we win? I don't know. I think he's going to have one heck of a showing.”

After months of tumbling in the polls, he’d better. With hours to go before caucusing starts, this is it: DeSantis’ last big chance to cash in on his ground game and get his candidacy off the ground.

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