On the Saturday before the Iowa caucus, Ron DeSantis stopped in the small city of Atlantic for a meet and greet with roughly two dozen voters and two dozen reporters. It had been scheduled to coincide with a rally for Donald Trump in town a few hours later so that reporters could see DeSantis and then dash back to see Trump with time to spare. That was before the weather intervened. It wasn’t cold in Iowa. It was Siberian. The mercury dropped well below zero and the windchill meant that leaving any skin exposed to the elements for more than a few minutes presented a legitimate health risk. Trump, who was flying in from Florida, canceled his rally. DeSantis, who had spent months doggedly stumping the state, did not.
The event was held in the backroom of a restaurant on the town’s snow-swept main drag. Because the restaurant was closed, attendees were fed McDonald’s cheeseburgers that the campaign had picked up in two bags of thirty from one of the few establishments open in town.
However, even when his campaign event was literally the only thing happening in Atlantic, DeSantis wasn’t able to draw everyone in the town. Two LDS missionaries who lived upstairs from the restaurant came down to see what the hubbub was about. They liked DeSantis but didn’t stick around to see him — although they did grab campaign baseball hats as souvenirs.
Even before the event, DeSantis had to endure one more petty humiliation. As his wife joked about the weather, a left-leaning comedian stood up to present him with a participation trophy. The room initially filled with some laughter and even DeSantis’s wife seemed to guffaw. Then the comedian added “you’re probably going to lose the election,” and DeSantis, who had initially stood there befuddled in a long black overcoat and blue jeans, seemed to come to life and pushed the comedian gently away. “I don’t do participation trophies,” he said as Casey moved to stand between the two before security guards hustled the interloper out of the room.
A comedian tries to give Ron DeSantis a “participation trophy” during a campaign stop in Atlantic, Iowa on Saturday.
Photo: Getty Images
Eventually, DeSantis made his pitch. Not only did he re-up his now standard critiques of his opponents: “Donald Trump is running for his issues. Nikki Haley is running for her donor’s issues. I’m running for your issues,” DeSantis tried to argue that, despite the polls, everything could still change on caucus night.
“This is the opportunity for Iowans to be able to set the stage for the rest of the election cycle. And you know, obviously, the media has an agenda with who they want. you have different stuff with narratives, you guys can bust all that up Monday night.”
Hours later, the Des Moines Register released its highly anticipated final poll of the caucus, confirming DeSantis had fallen into third place behind Nikki Haley and more than 30 points behind Trump, making those words sound more like a vain hope than a confident prediction.
The restaurant backroom was filled with committed DeSantis diehards like Richard Marriott of Atlantic, who was a precinct captain for the campaign and boasted that he had received a thank you call from DeSantis’s wife Casey for his work. Marriott praised DeSantis for having “a proven track record.” In contrast, he said of Trump, “I voted for Trump … but something about him is scaring me. So I’ve been looking elsewhere. Something isn’t right. I’ll put it that way.”
Skepticism about Trump lingered among the DeSantis devotees. One attendee, Andrew Rees, said he didn’t even cast a ballot for the former president in 2016, leaving the top of the ticket blank. In contrast, he praised DeSantis as “a good strong leader” and “someone we’re not going to be talking about.”
These were the voters who had stuck with DeSantis even as his poll numbers had tumbled in recent months amid an unending barrage of negative attacks from Trumpworld. It wasn’t supposed to go this way, to put it mildly. At the beginning of 2023, DeSantis was a conservative darling. With Trump damaged by the failures of a host of candidates he’d supported in 2022, along with the lingering effects of January 6, DeSantis seemed poised to be his successor. He had a $100 million superPAC behind him and laudatory coverage from much of the conservative media. It didn’t last. Trump’s indictments rallied the conservative base around him and DeSantis’s campaign fell victim to excessive expectations and his own failure to appeal to voters.
Now the Florida governor is falling into third place in Iowa despite having exhaustively campaigned in the state, crisscrossing each of its 99 counties. Despite the fact that Trump lost in Iowa in 2016, the former president seems poised to win the state by an overwhelming margin this time. DeSantis had hoped to use the solidly social conservative state to land the first punch on the former president. Instead, he’s already on the ropes before the first votes of the 2024 presidential primary have even been cast.
On Saturday, the Florida Republican still seemed undeterred as he campaigned in the frigid snow and his support in polls continued to drop like the mercury. Napoleon didn’t give up after Russia, either. Like DeSantis, he still had to face his Waterloo.