Ron DeSantis is running a textbook Iowa caucuses campaign. Trump still seems like he's going to completely blow him out.

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is behind in Iowa, has received major endorsements in the state.

  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats are backing DeSantis.

  • But Trump, with his enduring hold on the GOP electorate, appears likely to win the caucuses handily.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has bet his political future on Iowa. Once former President Donald Trump's best-positioned primary foe, his reeling campaign remains hopeful it can rebound in the state that kicks off the GOP presidential nominating process and that has a history of rewarding hopefuls that slog through months of campaigning.

On paper, DeSantis should be reaping the rewards.

Just before Thanksgiving, Bob Vander Plaats, a major Iowa evangelical leader, endorsed the governor. The positive news came on the heels of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' backing. In endorsing DeSantis, Reynolds largely broke with recent precedent of the state's Republican governors remaining neutral before the caucuses. Over the summer, the top two legislative leaders in the state also threw their support behind DeSantis. And early next month, per CBS News, DeSantis is set to complete the "full Grassley," meaning he will have visited each of the state's 99 counties.

Still, for all his momentum, polling shows DeSantis lagging Trump by double digits. DeSantis would need a virtually unprecedented swing to overcome the former president's advantage.

Why has DeSantis continued to lag in a state where he should be performing better?

Trump continues to defy traditional political rules

In an Iowa State University/Civiqs poll released earlier this month, Trump held on to a significant lead, besting DeSantis 54%-18%, with former UN ambassador Nikki Haley at 12%. And as of November 29, Trump also maintained a wide advantage in the FiveThirtyEight's weighted polling average of the Iowa GOP caucuses, with the former president averaging nearly 45% support, with DeSantis at 17.5% and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley at 15.3%.

Former President Donald Trump remains at the top of the GOP presidential pack in Iowa.Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trump reacted with his characteristic pique to DeSantis' endorsements, but trashing Reynolds hasn't slowed him down in the slightest.

Despite holding only 17 events in the state since March, the former president is on track to win the caucuses by a margin not seen in any other recent cycle that didn't feature an incumbent president.

Trump made the better bet.

In Iowa, the caucuses are supposed to be a Grant Wood painting in the age of Midjourney, a deliberately local affair in a country where elections have been utterly nationalized. It's their primary selling point for contenders: in Iowa, any hopeful is supposed to have a chance to win if they just work hard enough. Iowa caucus winners carry the day not through an expensive media war, but achieve a victory paved in VFW halls and Pizza Ranch backrooms and high school football games.

But no candidate is like Trump.

As journalist Ben Jacobs documented, the former president has seemingly maintained a fandom akin to a rockstar. ("Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have partisans. Donald Trump has fans," he recently wrote.)

The dilemma of the political outsider

There is still time for DeSantis. Past caucus winners, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all experienced a polling bump right before their wins. But none of the trio trailed like the Florida governor does now. They also were not running against a primary foe like Trump.

DeSantis' best hope is likely a low-turnout night in which the party activists show up and Trump loyalists stay at home. In 2016, Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders both received harsh lessons on how the caucuses can be difficult for outsiders. Since then, Trump has largely taken over the GOP to the point where even the widely-recognizable DeSantis is marketing himself as an outsider. Iowa Republicans also owe some credit to Trump, whose presidency accelerated the state's realignment. Now, the state that voted for President Barack Obama twice appears on pace to become another North Dakota.

The bad news is that, as Ron Brownstein pointed out over the summer, betting it all on Iowa rarely wins in the long run.

Neither Cruz, Santorum, or Huckabee went on to win the GOP presidential nomination. No recent nominee has failed to win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada. But winning just Iowa is not a panacea either.

Iowa has never mattered because of what's decided on caucus night. Only a small portion of delegates are awarded. It matters because in the true Ricky Bobby fashion, it's first. As such, journalists around the world descend on churches, high school gyms, and any number of other locations to watch the process unfold. If it sounds like a media circus, that's because it is.

There's only one candidate who has spent decades navigating media circuses. And he remains in the driver's seat in the Hawkeye State with the caucuses less than 50 days away.

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