Who (Still) Loves Ron DeSantis?

On Saturday afternoon, with just over six weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, Ron DeSantis told a story about how he once bravely stood up to the Special Olympics.

He was speaking atop a small platform in a partitioned-off section of a former roller rink in Newton, Iowa, dubbed “the Thunderdome.” The anecdote, like so many, had something to do with the tyranny of vaccine mandates. DeSantis said he had met a family at the Iowa State Fair, and that one of their children had wanted to participate in the Special Olympics, but wasn’t vaccinated. As it happened, the games were being held in Florida, where DeSantis serves as governor. “Well, we don’t have discrimination in Florida on that,” he said, meaning vaccination status. “So we were able to tell the Special Olympics, you let all the athletes compete!” People hooted.

This narrative followed a familiar arc: The Florida governor had confronted something he didn’t like, and, after a brief crusade, emerged victorious. DeSantis plays the part of a fearless maverick pursuing justice—even if that means picking a fight with a well-respected nonprofit. All year long on the campaign trail, self-awareness has seemed to elude him. “What you don’t want to do is repel people for no reason,” DeSantis told the room a little later.

Saturday’s speech marked the culmination of DeSantis’s 99-county tour of Iowa. The event may have been intended as a moment of triumph, but the crowd on this cold, dreary afternoon was, at approximately 400 attendees, not at capacity. Outside the venue, you could buy buttons that said RON ’24 HE’S KIND OF A BIG DEAL! with an illustration of DeSantis mashed up with Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. Other merchandise leaned harder into DeSantis’s culture-warrior reputation: SOCIALISM SUCKS, ANNOY A LIBERAL WORK HARD BE HAPPY, CRITICAL RACE THEORY with a no-smoking slash through it, and DESANTISLAND with the Disney D.

Is this angle working? Despite his GOP fame and high-profile endorsements, his polling average is trending in the wrong direction. He has more or less staked his candidacy on winning Iowa. But now he’s almost tied with former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the polls there, and elsewhere, for distant second place to former President Donald Trump. He may soon slip to third. His super PAC, Never Back Down, just fired its CEO, Kristin Davison, after nine days on the job. (She had taken over for the previous CEO, who had resigned around Thanksgiving, along with the group’s chair.) I asked Never Back Down what potential voters should make of all these changes. The group’s spokesperson sent a statement: “Never Back Down has the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the 2024 primary field, and we look forward to continuing that great work to help elect Gov. DeSantis the next President of the United States.”

One of Saturday’s warm-up speakers, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, attempted to humanize DeSantis for her constituents. She gestured to the importance of DeSantis achieving the “full Grassley”—a nod to Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, who visits all of the state’s 99 counties every year to meet voters. (DeSantis’s team temporarily rebranded the milestone as a “Full DeSantis,” with placards peppering the venue.) “Listen, Iowans want the opportunity to look you in the eye; they want the opportunity to size that candidate up just a little bit,” Reynolds told the room. “It’s also really important for the candidates—I’ve said it really helps them kind of do the retail politics.” She spoke of DeSantis and his wife taking in all of the state’s offerings over the past year—Albert the Bull, Casey’s breakfast pizza. “And I’m going to tell ya, I think they’re having some fun!” Reynolds said unconvincingly.

DeSantis did not appear to be fully enjoying himself in Newton. More than a few people have noted that his wife, Casey, is the more natural politician, and could herself be a stronger future candidate. As she introduced her husband on Saturday, he stood a few feet behind her, staring intensely into the back of her head. She was confident and effortless at the mic; Ron didn’t seem to know what to do with his eyes, or his mouth, or, especially, his hands. Clasp them loosely below his belly button? Put them on either side of his waist like Superman? He looked unsettled as he waited for her to finish.

When his turn to speak came, DeSantis began by trying to follow Reynolds’s lead. He recalled his visit to the Field of Dreams baseball field in Dubuque County. (“And our kids were there and everything like that.”) He fumbled the name of  a famous bakery and was swiftly corrected by many members of the audience. He offered his affection for other Iowa staples: ice cream, cheese curds. “We brought a whole bunch of cheese curds back to the state of Florida, which was a lot of fun,” DeSantis proclaimed. No means of pandering was off limits. Iowa, he declared “will begin the revival of the United States of America.” He hinted that, as president, he’d even move the Department of Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to Iowa.

Watching DeSantis up close as he lumbers through these moments of his campaign is almost enough to elicit sympathy. One of Saturday’s attendees, Caleb Grossnickle, a 25-year-old cybersecurity analyst from Ames, told me that he found DeSantis endearing. “I mean, he does seem a little awkward at times. But I think, honestly, it just shows that he’s a normal human,” he said. “He’s just a normal guy who’s trying to run for president, trying to make change.” Grossnickle told me that he was also interested in Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running as an independent.

One of DeSantis’s highest-profile Iowa surrogates, the evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, was arguably the most captivating speaker on the bill. “Let me bathe this thing in prayer,” he said. He then launched into an invocation that ended with “Lord, when he does win the Iowa caucuses and when he does go through and win the early states, make people know that this is of you, by you, and for you, Lord.”

Vander Plaats pointed out that voting for DeSantis is not the same as voting “against Trump.” But he also preached the need for a candidate who “fears God,” adding that “the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.” That noble idea morphed into a jab. “We need somebody to know that they fear God; they don’t believe they are God.”

A 46-year-old attendee from Ottumwa, Iowa, named Jeremy had brought his daughter along to see DeSantis up close. He told me that he’d twice voted for Trump and would vote for him a third time if he gets the nomination, though he admitted he finds him “distasteful.” DeSantis, he added, is his favorite candidate, and “more of a classy person.”

Later in the afternoon, I approached Vander Plaats in the back of the room. I asked him about his line relating to the type of person who believes they are God. Vander Plaats said he was referring to “the left.” I also brought up how DeSantis seemed to lack interpersonal skills, and asked if he thought that was a fair criticism of the man he had endorsed. “I think it’s overhyped,” Vander Plaats said, but he didn’t outright dismiss the notion. “Right now, I think Americans want a real leader to get things done versus, you know, Hey, do I want to sit on the couch with them and watch a football game?

Yet some people really do love him. In my conversations with attendees, many of them pointed to DeSantis’s follow-through as the core of his appeal. A 55-year-old supporter named Todd Lyons told me that he and his wife had driven four hours west from their home in Normal, Illinois, that morning to be there. They’d never seen DeSantis in the flesh. “He says he’ll do something and he does it,” Lyons said. “As opposed to with Trump, you see a tweet where he’s going to do something and talk about how amazing it’s going to be and then he wouldn’t follow through.” Even if DeSantis doesn’t get the nomination, Lyons told me he planned to write in the governor’s name on the ballot. Anne Wolford, a 74-year-old retiree from Grinnell, Iowa, told me that she had liked South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, but he had just recently dropped out, and now she was interested in DeSantis. “I think we’ve got to have somebody that’s got the gumption to go head-to-head with China, Russia, and North Korea. And I think with his military background, he can maybe achieve that.”

Two nights earlier, DeSantis exhibited his gumption in a TV debate with Governor Gavin Newsom of California. At one point, DeSantis brandished a “poop map” purportedly showing the places in San Francisco where human feces could be found on streets and sidewalks. (Practically the entire image was tinged brown.) In Iowa, DeSantis posited that Newsom was carrying out a shadow campaign for the presidency. “We cannot assume that they are actually gonna run [Joe] Biden,” he said. He seethed at the Democratic establishment. “We are not gonna be gaslit by people who think we’re dumb,” he said a little later.

During his stump speech, he spent a good deal of time talking about the pandemic. He promised that Anthony Fauci, now in retirement, would face a “reckoning” over all things COVID-19. But even the demonized Fauci serves as a symptom of a larger disease, in DeSantis’s worldview. The field of medicine, he warned, has been infected by a “woke ideology,” and Harvard Medical School doctors “basically take, like, a woke Hippocratic oath.” (DeSantis holds degrees from Harvard and Yale.) He also punched down, endorsing the idea of imposing fees on remittances that foreign workers send back to their home countries. He believes these are the ideas that will win him the presidency.

DeSantis attacks Trump more than most of his competitors (with the exception of Chris Christie), but he’s also assumed the role of Trump’s primary target. Nearly every day, the Trump campaign sends out press releases attacking DeSantis, with one recurring item that it calls the “kiss of death.” A sample from Friday mocked his stature: “KISS OF DEATH: Small Expectations, Smaller Candidate.” On Saturday morning, hours before DeSantis’s big achievement of stumping in every county, the Trump campaign sent out a preemptive press release: “Republican candidate for president Ryan Binkley, who is polling at 0%, outperformed Ron DeSantis by becoming the first person to visit all 99 counties in Iowa earlier this month.”

It’s hard to understand what DeSantis’s real plan is, as Trump is still so far ahead in the polls. In an emailed statement, DeSantis’s deputy campaign manager, David Polyansky, said, “The collective firepower of Team DeSantis remains unmatched” and that the campaign “will carry the support of the most robust turnout operation in modern Iowa history into success on January 15.” Even if DeSantis wins the Iowa caucuses or comes in second, though, that doesn’t necessarily predict a victory in the New Hampshire primary. That state’s motto—“Live free or die”—is out of sync with what DeSantis has done in Florida, using the government to impose book bans and a six-week abortion limit. If by some chance Trump were to lose New Hampshire, it would probably be to Haley, not to DeSantis—and such a victory would position Haley for more success in her home state of South Carolina.

In Newton, leaning against the rear wall was a 66-year-old man, in a Kangol-style hat and a University of Iowa pullover, named Vern Schnoebelen. He’s the lead singer and harmonica player of a band that had played the Thunderdome the night before. He told me that he and his friend had snuck into the VIP section, where the bar was, earlier that afternoon. He had come out on Saturday not because he loves DeSantis but simply because he lives nearby and this seemed like a big event. He told me that, come caucus time, if Trump is running away in the polls, he’ll intentionally support the candidate in third or fourth place to encourage them to stay active in the party. “I don’t want them to lose heart,” he said. “We never know what’s going to happen with Trump. Who knows what’s going to come out of the woodwork?”

He told me that he had voted for Trump twice, and would support whoever became the GOP nominee, Trump included. I asked whether anything about Trump’s various indictments bothered him. “No, I think it’s all a fallacy,” he said. “I think most of it’s made up.”

That’s what DeSantis is competing with. He’ll have to try not to lose heart.

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