Caucus voters wanted extremism, but they didn’t want Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis and company at his caucus night watch party. Photo by Nikoel Hytrek/Starting Line

By Nikoel Hytrek

January 16, 2024

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came in a distant second place at the Iowa Caucuses, failing to beat former president Donald Trump while running on a similarly extreme platform.

Both advocate extreme anti-immigration actions at the US Southern border, are anti-abortion, and love to use government power to go after people who oppose them.

On Monday, Iowa Republicans clearly rallied around Trump and his extremism and gave him 51.1% victory. In addition to his extremism, Trump also faces 91 criminal charges and was found liable of rape by a jury.

Yet, despite doing his best to position himself as a younger and more effective Trump, DeSantis couldn’t pull off it in Iowa where Trump maintains a tight grasp on the Republican base. The Associated Press called the race for Trump 30 minutes after precincts opened and before many began voting.

Early on, DeSantis was seen as tough competition for Trump, but he failed to convince a majority of Iowa Republican voters to swing his way, earning only 21.2% of the vote, 30 points behind Trump.

DeSantis, who gained Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement in November, narrowly beat former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who trailed him closely with 19.1% of the vote, for a disappointing second-place finish.

At his caucus event at the Sheraton hotel in West Des Moines, DeSantis’ supporters milled in and around the room with drinks for more than an hour waiting for him to speak. When the music finally died down and speakers took the stage, the crowd began to chant “Ron, Ron, Ron” while waving campaign signs.

When DeSantis himself finally took the stage a little after 10:30 p.m., he thanked the supporters and explained what his second-place finish meant about his appeal.

“People want to have hope for this country’s future, and that’s what we represent,” DeSantis said. “We represent a chance to reverse the madness that we’ve seen in this country, to reverse the decline of this country and to give this country a new birth of freedom and a restoration of sanity.”

Restoring sanity is a common part of his campaigning, along with more typical lines about the economy and balancing budgets by slashing spending.

DeSantis campaigned largely on his career in Florida and his successes in “restoring sanity” by banning books, restricting the way Black history is taught, and removing rights for LGBTQ people—particularly transgender Americans—among other things. He calls this advocating parental choice in education.

DeSantis also campaigns on strict immigration policies. Multiple times he said would militarize the US Southern border and order military members to shoot “smugglers” who illegally cross the border with migrants without specifying how they would discern between the two. He also wants to end the Constitutional law that anyone who is born in America—or an American territory—is an American citizen.

Though he doesn’t talk about it at general events, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida and has said he would, as president, sign any abortion ban Congress put on his desk. That would make abortion illegal across the country, even in states where people have voted to protect abortion rights.

All of the Republican candidates have promised similar actions.

In general, DeSantis also downplays climate change and opposes efforts to mitigate it. He said he would dismantle all of President Joe Biden’s efforts to fight it.

At a precinct at Crossroads Park Elementary School in West Des Moines, the surrogate for DeSantis said she agrees with his whole platform and is impressed by his successes in Florida. She also said she believed his promises to get revenge on opponents and crack down on public education.

“Ron DeSantis knows how to get the job done, and is running on our issues,” she said.

The surrogate said that includes cutting federal spending, declaring a national emergency and shutting down the US Southern border, bringing “a reckoning to bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci for shutting down our lives and livelihoods,” and ensuring ” our children are educated and not indoctrinated.”

In his address Monday night, DeSantis complained about media outlets calling Trump’s victory so early. His campaign called it “election interference.” DeSantis said the call was evidence of how the media has always been against him, which ignores fawning headlines such as “Is Ron DeSantis the Future of The Republican Party” in The New York Times and “Can Ron DeSantis Displace Donald Trump as the G.O.P.’s Combatant-in-Chief?” in The New Yorker and other similarly glowing profiles about the then-rising GOP star.

“They were just so excited about the fact that they were predicting that we wouldn’t be able to get our ticket punched here out of Iowa,” DeSantis said.

He praised and thanked his supporters for delivering the second-place victory with their hard work.

Reynolds, who went all in on DeSantis, gave quick, celebratory remarks before DeSantis took the stage and said the work is just beginning.

“This man doesn’t quit, he’s in it for the long haul,” she said. “Watch out America, Ron DeSantis is not done.”

New Hampshire is next on the presidential primary calendar. DeSantis is polling at 7% there, trailing Haley by 21 points and Trump by 37 points.

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].



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