Ron DeSantis leans on money, ground game to earn distant second in Iowa Caucus after Trump

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A distant second-place finish to former President Donald Trump in Iowa was enough to have Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis say his campaign “got our ticket punched out of Iowa” Monday night.

DeSantis defied polling that had him finishing third in the race to former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, allowing his supporters to claim that he is the leading alternative to Trump. Yet the 30-point defeat in a state where DeSantis had invested heavily and needed a strong performance also raised questions about whether the governor can get past Trump, who continues to have a fervent base of support.

More: Donald Trump cruises to early Iowa Caucuses victory despite spurning Iowa leaders

DeSantis earned 21% and Haley was a close third with 19%. Trump earned 51% of the vote.

DeSantis took the stage shortly before 10:30 p.m. Monday and was greeted by chants of “Ron, Ron, Ron."

In a brief speech to supporters gathered at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel, DeSantis said his campaign represents “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.”

Ron DeSantis criticizes national media for calling race for Donald Trump before caucuses ended

DeSantis' campaign cried foul after national media declared victory for Trump before the Iowa Caucuses were even over.

The Associated Press and other major news outlets such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC called the race for Trump about 30 minutes after the caucuses began at 7 p.m. Only a handful of precincts had race results reported by that point. (The USA TODAY Network relies on the AP to call races.)

The DeSantis campaign claimed the media was engaging in election interference, since not all caucuses had finished.

"It is absolutely outrageous that the media would participate in election interference by calling the race before tens of thousands of Iowans even had a chance to vote," communications director Andrew Romeo said. "The media is in the tank for Trump and this is the most egregious example yet."

When DeSantis took the stage Monday night, he said "the media was against us," and the crowd booed in agreement.

"They were writing our obituary months ago," he said. "They even called the election before people even got a chance to vote... But I can tell you, because of your support, in spite of all that that they threw at us, everyone against us, we've got our ticket punched out of Iowa."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as a supporter takes a selfie during the DeSantis campaign watch party on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as a supporter takes a selfie during the DeSantis campaign watch party on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines.

Is second place good enough for Ron DeSantis?

DeSantis was widely viewed as needing a strong second-place finish to continue in the race, and ideally wanted to keep Trump under 50% support. While he didn’t beat Haley by much and Trump finished with 51%, top DeSantis backers said Monday that the governor did enough to keep his campaign going.

“He’s solidly in second, so whatever narrative there was about him slipping to third or Nikki becoming the alternative has now been quashed,” said Jose Oliva, the former speaker of the Florida House, at the watch party for DeSantis.

Oliva argued that Trump’s performance still leaves him vulnerable.

“As this field narrows and it becomes a man-to-man race, then that’s when we’ll really see how people are feeling,” he said. “But as long as Trump remains at or around 50, you have half the electorate that’s looking for an alternative.”

Conservative talk show host Steve Deace introduced DeSantis at the party Monday by declaring: “This is not over."

“In fact tonight it is just beginning,” Deace added. “It’s a two-person race now. Iowa has made that very clear. There is no place for the last gasp of the Republican corporatist establishment Nikki Haley.”

Traditionally, politicos say there are "three tickets" out of Iowa for the top-three finishers. But DeSantis supporters said Monday that there are just two tickets, and one went to DeSantis.

“You punch two tickets out of the state of Iowa and Ron DeSantis is one of those tickets coming out of the state of Iowa,” said evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

Ron DeSantis embraced traditional caucus campaign, poured money and energy into Iowa

DeSantis launched his presidential bid in May with ambitions to run a national campaign, but recalibrated amid sinking poll numbers and missteps.

By July he was laying off staff after burning through cash too quickly, and in August he switched campaign managers. Meanwhile, Trump’s lead over DeSantis in national polls grew, and he retreated to Iowa to try to score a big victory that could generate momentum.

From then on, DeSantis centered his presidential campaign on Iowa.

Fueled by $82.5 million that DeSantis had raised for his reelection bid and transferred over from a state committee, the Never Back Down super PAC flooded Iowa with door knockers as part of the most robust ground game mounted by any candidate. DeSantis also spent much of the $35 million he raised in his campaign account in Iowa.

DeSantis held events in all 99 Iowa counties. He played catch at the Field of Dreams, flipped pork chops at the Iowa Pork Tent and took a family picture with the Butter Cow. And he won the endorsement of powerful Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and Vander Plaats.

2024 Iowa Caucuses: Results by precinct

DeSantis logged 138 announced public events across Iowa during his campaign, according to The Des Moines Register's Candidate Tracker.

The caucus tested whether DeSantis' ground game in Iowa — those seven-and-a-half months of hand-shaking, door-knocking and driving — could match the fame and fervor of Trump.

Although Trump won Iowa by a huge margin, DeSantis' supporters at the Sheraton were jubilant with a second-place finish.

“Watch out, America!" Reynolds cheered. "Ron DeSantis is not done!”

DeSantis dismissed poll results, predicted strong caucus finish

DeSantis entered the race last year looking like the candidate best positioned to take on Trump in Iowa, but the Florida governor had stagnated in the polls, failing to gain any ground over his first Iowa Poll showing in August, when he earned 19%.

An Iowa Poll of 705 likely Republican caucusgoers was conducted Jan. 7-12, and DeSantis slipped to third place, with 16% choosing him as their first-choice candidate.

More: How the Iowa Caucuses work, who can caucus and where to caucus

For weeks, DeSantis and his endorsers repeatedly told Iowa audiences not to trust poll results. Deace, the conservative talk show host and DeSantis endorser, said Saturday that “psy-op polls” and “biased media” will not determine who the Republicans nominee would be.

“What's going on in here is real. This is real buzz, the likes of which, this late in the process, I've never seen,” Deace said during a Saturday visit to the Never Back Down office. “I've been on several campaigns in Iowa that won and they did not have the energy that we have right now on this campaign.”

A person takes a photos as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a packed room Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, at the Never Back Down Campaign Headquarters in West Des Moines.
A person takes a photos as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a packed room Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, at the Never Back Down Campaign Headquarters in West Des Moines.

But DeSantis and his campaign staff were careful not to set any concrete expectations for caucus night. When asked by reporters whether he'd be happy with second place behind Trump or if there's a caucus night result he's aiming for, DeSantis respond only that he would "do well" in Iowa.

Amidst a blizzard on Saturday, DeSantis' endorsers were ready to aim high, telling the audience that they believed DeSantis would win the caucus outright.

"I can tell you without hesitation: With the energy, the motivation, just what we're seeing as we travel the state: This guy is going to be the winner of the Iowa Caucus on Monday night," Reynolds said. "So fire up, keep this energy, we can't let down. It is game day. We got to carry it across the finish line, leave it all on the field.”

More: Everything you need to know about the Iowa caucuses ahead of the 2024 presidential race

DeSantis hoped ground game enthusiasm would counter extreme cold

The DeSantis kids — Madison, Mason and Mamie — saw snow for the first time on the Iowa campaign trail.

Iowa sent them off with the ultimate winter weather, complete with sub-zero temperatures and nearly 2 feet of snow.

At the Never Back Down office on Saturday, DeSantis told a crowd of supporters that they would never experience an election "as meaningful as this one is going to be," urging them to brave sub-zero temperatures to caucus on Monday night.

“They can throw a blizzard at us, and we are gonna fight. They can throw wind chill at us, and we are gonna fight," DeSantis told the cheering crowd. "They can throw media narratives at us, and we are gonna fight. They can throw fake polls at us, and we are gonna fight. We are going to fight because we are going to turn this country around."

Brianne Pfannenstiel contributed reporting.

Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How Ron DeSantis steered his way to distant 2nd to Trump in Iowa Caucus