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Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET on January 16, 2024
Even before the caucus began, Matt Wells was working the room. The 43-year-old wore an autographed Ron DeSantis trucker hat as he strolled up and down the aisles of the Washington High School auditorium in rural southeast Iowa, greeting neighbors and passing out DeSantis flyers. When it was time for three-minute speeches, Wells spoke from the podium without notes, his voice quivering with emotion. DeSantis “always backs up his words with action,” he told the crowd. “He will be a president we can be proud of.”
Minutes later, Wells’s hopes were dashed. DeSantis lost to Donald Trump in Wells’s precinct by five votes. The former president went on to win the Iowa caucus by nearly 30 points statewide, carrying 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties and beating his own 2016 margin of support by more than 25 points.
This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Trump had held a similar lead in opinion polls beforehand, and the only question was whether that margin would hold up if the snowdrifts and subzero temperatures kept caucus-goers frozen in their homes. Turnout was low, but by the end of the evening, that uncertainty was answered definitively: Trump is still the guy. But in second place, DeSantis led former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley by a mere two points, denying both a clear claim to the title of “Obvious Viable Trump Alternative.”
By clinging to second—despite polling in the days before the caucus forecasting that he could be pushed into third—DeSantis has lived to fight another day. Barely. “This is going to be a long battle ahead, but that is what this campaign is built for,” a campaign official told Fox News last night, trying to sound resolute if not exactly optimistic. “No shot,” an Iowa GOP strategist texted me at midnight.
DeSantis is being eclipsed in two directions, simultaneously. Trump continues to hoover up all the GOP votes, and Haley is consolidating the rest; even though she ranked third in Iowa, she looks poised to run a strong second to Trump in New Hampshire’s primary next week, with a shot at pulling off an upset. Which is probably why, according to the campaign, DeSantis will fly straight to South Carolina, where he will attempt to chip away at Trump’s double-digit lead and beat Haley in a state where she once served as governor. His path forward doesn’t make much sense—and, in any case, his efforts seem unlikely to make a difference.
“In my heart of hearts, I’d hoped …” Wells told me, trailing off as the statewide results were pouring in on TV. “It’s us. It’s the American people. We get the government we deserve.”
It’s been rare this election cycle to find a voter who really likes Ron DeSantis—not just his policies but the man himself. And Wells really does. He sees DeSantis as a Republican for the next generation: fiscally and socially conservative, a biblically “sound” family man who is devoted to keeping his campaign promises. Sometimes, I found myself thinking that Wells made a better case for DeSantis than DeSantis did for himself.
Wells, a small-business owner, has volunteered at more than 40 DeSantis events since March. He brought the governor and his wife to his church to meet his pastor. He recruited phone canvassers for DeSantis from all over the country. I first met Wells at the Iowa State Fair last summer, where he and the rest of the DeSantis posse were being pursued along the midway by a boisterous herd of men in Trump hats. They catcalled DeSantis, shouting, “Go home, Ron!” and “Smile, Ron!” Wells, who is short and stout, with a dark-brown goatee, tried to run interference. “You’re all a bunch of degenerates!” he yelled. The guys looked like they wanted to give him a swirly.
Since then, I’ve watched as Wells challenged Trump supporters online and in person. He seems to find some kind of perverse satisfaction in correcting media reports and taking on trolls. He confronted them in public, too, including one QAnon conspiracy theorist who’d accused Casey DeSantis of faking her breast-cancer diagnosis. Wells stopped attending meetings of the Washington County Republican Party in the fall, he said, because the chairman is a Trump devotee. (When I reached the county GOP chair by phone, he told me that Wells is “a toxic individual.”)
The primary has been this way since its start: ugly, mean, and probably a foretaste of the next nine months.
In the days before the big event, the candidates were made to suffer one final indignity of the Hawkeye State’s unglamorous process: arctic weather conditions. Driving sleet and snow made major highways temporarily impassable. Pines collapsed under the weight of the flakes, and oaks along the highway were dusted white like birches. The cold was even more extreme than the precipitation: Over the weekend, the temperature dipped well below zero in parts of the state, with a torturous –26 windchill. On Saturday, standing on a street in downtown Davenport, one of the Quad Cities along the Illinois border, I felt my cheeks burning.
Still, Iowans ventured out to watch Haley and DeSantis duke it out for second place. And so did the press corps. At times, in knotty-pine-walled restaurants and industrial-chic event centers across southeast Iowa, journalists were barely outnumbered by voters. The silliness was perhaps best captured in a moment at the end of one Haley rally in Cedar Rapids, when attendees scrambled from their seats to take a photo with her, and a horde of reporters followed in a mad dash for interviews. Somewhere in the melee, I tripped on a plastic cup, sending ice and brown alcohol shooting across the floor. Reporters rushed by, slipping on the cubes and thwacking me with their bags, as I knelt to clean it up. Over the loudspeakers, “Ants Marching” began playing at full blast.
More than other candidates’ rallies, Haley’s felt warm. Her voters are the kind of people who are eager to talk to reporters, people who sigh and say, “I’m just looking for a candidate who can bring us all together.” These Iowans supported the former UN ambassador because of her foreign-policy experience, they told me, but also because they found her refreshingly competent. She’s “somebody that’s really smart and really experienced and qualified,” Jane Fett, a financial manager from Long Grove, told me in Davenport. “It takes my breath away to bring that back to politics.” DeSantis is too conservative for them—not a unifier.
A few registered Democrats went to Haley rallies, too, which made sense, given that her supporters are more likely to prefer Joe Biden over Trump. These are people who are exhausted by Trump’s antics but yearn for more youthful political leaders; they planned to reregister as Republicans on the day of the caucus in order to vote. Haley “unites, and she also brings hope,” Jerry Stewart, a former Biden supporter wearing a black Hawkeye sweatshirt, told me. “This is going to sound far-fetched, but she brings hope like Obama did.”
Some voters still seemed undecided just days before caucus night. Outside the Olympic Theater in Cedar Rapids on Friday, I listened as two men discussed the merits of Haley versus DeSantis as the GOP nominee. “I’m twisting his arm for Nikki,” Lyle Hanson said. His friend, Scott Garbe, nodded, before unleashing a darting series of thoughts that only an Iowan, overwhelmed at the national significance of the task before him, could have:
“She’s electable, and I don’t think DeSantis is. He’s not going to get a crossover vote, an anti-Trump vote. When Haley goes against Biden, or when Haley goes against—I’m not saying this right. She’ll get the anti-Biden vote. When Trump goes against Biden, Biden’s going to get a lot of anti-Trump vote. There isn’t going to be an anti-Haley vote. So that’s why she’s going to win.”
That was not supposed to be the calculation that Iowa voters were making. The DeSantis campaign began last May with promise. Here was a governor who had finally put some respect next to Florida’s name, his allies said. He’d cut taxes and promoted school choice. He’d proved his leadership ability with Hurricane Ian—in a smart pair of go-go boots. He was Trump minus the chaos and the nutty tweets, right-wing pundits said. Remember the fuss? The conservative parents’-rights group, Moms for Liberty, was so excited about DeSantis that its founders gave him a ceremonial sword.
DeSantis adopted a maximal ground campaign in Iowa: He spent millions and set up a get-out-the-caucus team rivaling, experts say, that of Senator Ted Cruz, 2016’s surprise caucus winner. DeSantis also earned the endorsement of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and the evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. To prove the wisdom of this all-in strategy, DeSantis needed to soar to victory in Iowa, and he told reporters he would. “I think it’s going to help propel us to the nomination,” he said on Meet the Press. Instead, the campaign is plummeting to Earth like a plug door off a Boeing Max 9.
What brought him down? As many have noted, the governor lacks personal warmth and much capacity for small talk. He is seemingly unable to stand naturally; his hands are always slightly raised, as though he’s wearing too many layers, like Randy in A Christmas Story. DeSantis has an unsettling habit of licking his lips when he speaks, and his smile never quite reaches his eyes, which seem full of terror.
“You can almost hear the thoughts in the back of his head: “How am I losing? Why am I not connecting?” the Iowa GOP strategist told me. The heel lifts haven’t helped. At an event in Davenport two days before the caucus, DeSantis passed me on his way to the bathroom, waddling stiffly in a pair of shiny black boots.
A few DeSantis supporters told me they actually liked his lack of charisma. “He’s not running for Miss America,” Ross Paustian, a farmer from Walcott, Iowa, told me in Davenport. Wells put it even more simply: “He’s not fake.” Yet even the governor’s fans were not predicting victory, days before the caucus. “Trump is going to win,” Gloria King, a DeSantis supporter and retiree from Davenport, told me on Saturday. Her enthusiasm was entirely for Casey: “She was like, so cool! The coolest. She should be running!”
Perhaps the crumbling of the DeSantis campaign could be blamed, at least in part, on Trump and his allies, who, very early on, had carpet-bombed the Florida governor with abuse and mockery. The former president made up nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron” (an insult less easy to parse but goofily evocative). He recruited Florida lawmakers to endorse him and taunt their governor.
Even in Iowa, Trump and his allies were relentless. Two days before the caucuses, a comedian handed DeSantis a “participation” trophy at a campaign rally. “He’s special, he’s unique, and he’s our little snowflake,” the provocateur announced, before security guards dragged him away.
Last night, Wells stood up once more for his candidate. A few days ago, he’d told me that he not only expected DeSantis to beat Trump, but that DeSantis had to beat him. “The one thing that I have really learned this cycle is that it’s going to be a contest of work versus a cult of personality,” he said. The only way to break the narrative, he said, was to win the caucus.
Instead, I watched in real time as Wells came to the realization that so many others already have: His party and its members are not who Wells wishes they were.
After the caucus was over, Wells drove two hours on dark roads to Des Moines to say farewell to his friends on the DeSantis campaign. He called me from the road, sounding more dejected than he had when he’d left. For 30 minutes, he sighed and paused and quoted the Bible (“Our people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge”). Wells wouldn’t vote for Trump or Biden in the fall, he said. But he might move to Florida.
This article originally stated that a Trump fan awarded Ron DeSantis a “participation” trophy at a rally. In fact, it was a comedian who did so.