Iowa Results Show That DeSantis Must Drop Out
Florida’s governor can’t win, but he can split the right’s vote against Nikki Haley.
Donald Trump is running to be the Republican nominee for president. After the Iowa caucuses, what are Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley running for?
“Second” is the obvious answer. But if that’s the case, Florida’s Governor DeSantis, the second-place finisher in Iowa, is in serious trouble.
He was ahead of Ambassador Haley by just 2 points by the time networks declared him Iowa’s runner-up. If DeSantis could hardly put any distance between himself and Haley after campaigning for a year and visiting every one of the state’s 99 counties, what are his prospects for clinging to second for the rest of the race to the nomination?
In the next two major battlegrounds, DeSantis is guaranteed to place third—with greater odds that he’ll be a distant third to Haley than that he’ll finish as close to her in New Hampshire or South Carolina as she finished to him in Iowa.
John McCain crushed George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, winning by more than 18 points. If a next-generation McCain-style candidate can finish a strong second to Trump anywhere—or even have a prayer of beating him—it’s in New Hampshire. And Nikki Haley is a Netflix or Kathleen Kennedy update of John McCain: his politics in a woman’s body.
Conservative pundits noticed that Haley, in her remarks to supporters after the caucuses, said the contest for the nomination was now a two-person race. That seemed odd coming from a candidate who finished third. Yet she spoke truthfully—New Hampshire, if it’s a race at all, is a Trump–Haley race, and Haley’s home state of South Carolina is not going to boost DeSantis back to #2. After losing to Haley—not just Trump—in the Granite State and Palmetto State, what kind of momentum will DeSantis have for the rest of the race?
More to the point, who is going to write the checks to let him keep losing?
In their one-on-one Iowa debate on Jan. 10, Haley asked DeSantis what kind of leadership he’d displayed by burning through $150 million in his campaign to date. We now know that money bought a distant second in the nation’s first contest, 30 points behind Trump. DeSantis says he isn’t about to drop out. His paymasters may say otherwise.
This is an expensive, painful lesson for one of the most successful Republican governors in the country, a man who should be in the top ranks of the party’s prospective nominees for 2028. His 2024 campaign, however, has done him more harm than good. It’s an absolute scandal—he had money, he had momentum after his landslide 2022 re-election, and he had a record of conservative policy success. Even if all of that couldn’t beat Trump, why couldn’t it beat Nikki Haley by more than 2 points in Iowa, with the state’s Republican governor and evangelical leaders in DeSantis’s corner?
It would be a mistake to write off DeSantis’s successes as governor, including his electoral success in that role, because of the dismal performance of his presidential campaign. But if the 45-year-old governor wants to build toward another run for the White House, with lessons learned and times more favorable—when there’s no Trump on the ballot, for one things—he has to find the most creditable way possible to euthanize his 2024 bid.
As things stand, DeSantis now functions as Haley’s most valuable ally. He splits the right-wing primary vote with Trump, while Haley has the pseudo-moderate lane all to herself. Chris Christie, no less proud than DeSantis, shut down his campaign against Trump when it was clear all he could do was hurt Haley. With Christie’s vote added to what was already hers, and with Democrats free to vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary, Haley can narrow the margin with Trump in the first and second full-on primaries. This will buy her more good press from a media eager to find angles for embarrassing Trump and dividing Republicans. Her donor list will grow accordingly—and that’s what the Haley campaign is all about.
Even a first-place finish in New Hampshire and a razor-close second in South Carolina—improbable but not altogether impossible dreams—would not set Haley up to win the Republican nomination. Nor will she win Trump’s favor, with an eye to becoming his vice president, by persisting as a rival to him. Yet she will keep going, and her sponsors will keep paying, because they are building an enterprise that isn’t primarily about Trump, but rather what happens after Trump. Just as Barry Goldwater’s failed campaigns of 1960 (when he didn’t get the nomination) and 1964 (when he did) created networks of activists and small-dollar donors who could institutionalize Goldwater’s ideology in the form of the conservative movement, Haley’s campaign is the embryo of a neoconservative rebirth.
She’s no Goldwater, and her supporters, who are barely Republicans when they are Republicans at all, are nothing like the conservative cadres for Goldwater. But they are still the stuff from which an influential movement can be made: There is plenty of money available for politicians like Haley (her team outspent DeSantis on the airwaves in Iowa), and educated voters with a reflexive disdain for populism are a significant demographic, even if they are a minority within the GOP. If this faction could find a single leader in 2028 or beyond, and if the populist right splinters after Trump, the Bush-Cheney wing of the party could yet live again. Even short of capturing the presidential nomination in the future, this wing, if revived, could wield considerable power through congressional offices, presidential appointments, the federal bureaucracy, think tanks, and media. Crudely put, the Haley campaign is an attempt to use Barry Goldwater’s means for Bill Kristols’ ends.
There is no advantage for DeSantis, as he looks toward the future, in helping Haley anti-populist forces within the GOP. The Florida governor is a proud man, and he has much of which to be proud, his disappointing showing in Iowa notwithstanding. But he was ill-served by those who told him 2024 was his “moment,” and he will be ill-advised to remain in the race without a hope of winning. There are no better results awaiting him after Iowa, and in the next two major contests there are clearly worse ones.
It’s true that he and Trump are the only candidates still in the race who are on the ballot for the Feb. 8 Nevada caucuses—but the chance of anyone gaining momentum from that contest is minimized by the fact that Nevada is also holding a primary on Feb. 6, in which Haley will be on the ballot but Trump and DeSantis will not. (The Nevada primary awards no Republican delegates; only the caucuses count. But this bizarre situation is sure to cause confusion about who’s a winner or loser in the Silver State.)
Presidential hopefuls sometimes entertain the thought that even if they can’t win caucuses and primaries in terms of vote totals, they can do better than their raw numbers suggest by netting delegates through the arcane electoral machinery that awards the representatives who get the final say on the nomination at the Republican National Convention. This dream of winning after first losing is hallucinatory. And DeSantis is well past the point where he can afford to be unrealistic.
Voters in Iowa, courted for a year, made a choice on Monday that foreclosed on Ron DeSantis’s hopes for 2024. The sooner he admits that, and asks what went wrong not with his luck but with his campaign, the better off he and the party will be in the future. He has two more years to serve as Florida’s governor. That’s where his most important battles, and his victories, will be. By staying in the presidential race without a path to the nomination, he can only detract from Trump while harming himself. He won’t back down—but it’s time to bow out.