DeSantis reckoned Republicans had tired of Trump – he was wrong

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A year ago, Ron DeSantis was being touted as the next potential Republican president.

He was Donald Trump without the “chaos”, as he put it. Deftly waging, and winning, America’s culture wars without the dysfunction and drama that had plagued Mr Trump’s presidency.

On paper, the self-styled “anti-woke” governor of Florida appeared to have found a magic formula to turn around the string of electoral losses the GOP has suffered in the last few years.

He offered a less polarising – and younger – iteration of Mr Trump.

His landslide re-election in Florida in 2022 turned the purple swing state into a ruby-red bastion.

Replicating that success nationally, Mr DeSantis and his wealthy donors reasoned, could power him along the road to the White House.

They invested tens of millions of dollars into an operation to make him Mr Trump’s heir apparent.

He also had a powerful ally in America’s conservative media market. The Murdoch-owned Fox News gave him a regular billing, and the New York Post proclaimed him “Ron DeFuture”.

But there was a fatal flaw in the plan. Mr DeSantis had reckoned on a Republican Party that had tired of the 77-year-old, criminally indicted Mr Trump.

Staked all on Iowa

It took just one state to vote in the party’s nomination contest to shatter that illusion.

Iowa, a state where Evangelical Christians decide the victor, was supposed to be where Mr DeSantis delivered a body blow to Mr Trump’s claims to invincibility.

The 45-year-old governor had bet everything on winning here.

He championed family values with his central casting wife and children in tow, and a dedication to service as he stressed his military career.

But the conservative Right, which had rejected the thrice-married Mr Trump here in 2016, now flocked to him. He won Iowa by more than all his rivals put together.

He won the Midwestern state by more than all his rivals put together.

Mr DeSantis, as he admitted in his Sunday night address, had no remaining “path to victory”.

He is polling in the single digits in the wealthier, and more politically moderate, New Hampshire, which votes next, on Tuesday.

Mr Trump holds a commanding lead in the next few states, and Mr DeSantis’s backers, who frittered away tens of millions of dollars in Iowa, have run out of cash.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could be said Mr DeSantis’ presidential bid was over as soon as it started.

A disastrous live social media launch alongside Elon Musk last May called into question the very essence of Mr DeSantis’ appeal: to be Mr Trump without the mayhem.

In the months that followed his bid hemorrhaged cash, and senior staff.

Mr DeSantis’ decision to quit the race before Mr Trump gains an insurmountable lead may be aimed at securing a position in a potential second Trump administration.

All that stands in the way of Mr Trump gaining the nomination is Nikki Haley, his former UN ambassador, who is making her final stand in New Hampshire, but is heavily trailing the former president in national polls.

Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, gestures to indicate a two person race during a campaign event at Exeter High School in Exeter
Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, gestures to indicate a two person race during a campaign event at Exeter High School in Exeter - Al Drago

The Florida governor’s second term ends in 2026 - two years shy of the next presidential election.

Like many Republican presidential candidates before him, Mr DeSantis may well try again in 2028.

His embarrassingly early withdrawal this time around can offer a number of lessons which Mr DeSantis, a keen student of history, will no doubt study carefully.

Political obituaries have already raked over the failures of financial, and personnel, management.

The biggest lesson of all, though, is the reminder that personality matters more than policy in presidential races.

Mr DeSantis’ declining poll numbers have shown that the more time voters had to get to know him, the less they seemed to like him.

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