But he seemed like such a natural!
The most accurately cruel way of summarizing Ron DeSantis’s primary campaign is that he was unable to attain the levels of charisma and likability achieved by Tailgunner Ted Cruz:
DeSantis’s task in Iowa has always seemed straightforward: he just had to be Ted Cruz. In 2016, Cruz had campaigned in the state relentlessly, drawing on its deep evangelical tradition, and had beaten Trump by five points. Cruz’s chief strategist in that race, Jeff Roe, is now one of DeSantis’s most prominent advisers, and the Florida governor has followed the same blueprint, taking a very hard line on abortion and other social issues and campaigning so relentlessly across Iowa’s small towns that Jasper County had been, until Saturday, the only one of the ninety-nine counties in the state that he had yet to visit. Even for those political observers unimpressed by DeSantis’s stump presence or underwhelmed by his indecisiveness about how to take on Trump, the 2016 example seemed to set an appealingly reachable bar. We weren’t talking about Ronald Reagan. Even if you were a pretty run-of-the-mill retail campaigner, surely it wasn’t too much to ask of an aspirant to the Presidency of the United States that he match Ted Cruz.
Conservative leaders in Iowa have done their part. The endorsements around the State Capitol have all gone DeSantis’s way: The popular governor, Kim Reynolds, the state House majority leader, and the state Senate president have come out for him. Mike Pence and Tim Scott, the other two Presidential candidates with some claim on the evangelical vote, had dropped out. When Vander Plaats announced before Thanksgiving that he was endorsing DeSantis (Politico had been reporting on the “Vander Plaats primary” since the summer), it seemed to cement the Florida governor’s position as the champion of Iowa’s social conservatives.
The setting also seemed to beckon a quality that DeSantis does very much lack, which is folksiness. The plan seemed to be that the candidate would reminisce about all the charming things he had seen on the campaign trail, and all the personal connections he’d made. Onstage, DeSantis kept consulting a list of such visits, but he was short on detail and emotion, making it sound like he was narrating someone else’s scrapbook, or possibly just reciting driving directions. “When we were in Audubon County, my kids and Casey and me went to this big large bull statue, which I think is the largest bull statue in the entire world, and we got to get some good pictures with that, which was a lot of fun,” DeSantis said. “Casey, me, and the kids, when we visited Sac County, we saw the world’s largest popcorn ball. Quite a sight.” On it went. “We were in Chickasaw County . . .”
On some level, all of that is fine. No one comes to see Ron DeSantis for the charm. The theory of DeSantis’s political persona has always been that Trump proved that what conservatives really want is just a fighter, someone who understands that the culture wars are constant and will constantly contest them. That had been part of the intent when DeSantis staged a series of media-friendly conflicts beginning in 2020: with Anthony Fauci over covid, with Martha’s Vineyard over migrants, with Disney over trans people, with his own state’s universities over race and gender. In 2022, that worked—after DeSantis won a sweeping and much-covered reëlection victory in Florida, he was polling, by the turn of the year, close to Trump. But, in 2023, DeSantis has not only had to fight the culture war each day on Fox News but explain why he would be a better choice than Trump. He has also, generally, been hesitant to criticize the former President, even as his debate and stump performances have been underwhelming and his polling has collapsed. Nationally and in Iowa, he is running about thirty points behind Trump and roughly even with Nikki Haley. Meanwhile, his campaign has concentrated more and more of its resources in Iowa, has fired several high-ranking officials, and is reportedly trying to pivot from television ads to a turnout operation. The social-conservative play in Iowa is beginning to feel like his last real shot.
Given that Casey DeSantis is urging people from outside of Iowa to commit voter fraud to save her husband’s candidacy, I don’t think it’s going to work. But it does remind me of Puddin’ Hands Ron prosecuting people for false or manufactured cases of voter fraud after instituting a poll tax.