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Going into the Iowa caucuses, the campaign for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis felt comfortable there would be enough funding to stay in the Republican race through Super Tuesday in March.
But not even a week after a distant second-place finish behind Donald Trump in Iowa, the DeSantis campaign run was officially over after a single event. He did not even make it to the New Hampshire primary, ending things on Sunday, January 21.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill pic.twitter.com/ECoR8YeiMm
— Ron DeSantis (@RonDeSantis) January 21, 2024
The final number will be revealed soon, but estimates put the DeSantis campaign at having spent $130 million to secure 23,420 votes from Iowans (21.2% of the vote).
This has many political analysts calling the DeSantis campaign the worst-run campaign in Republican history, and it may have been the worst of any party had former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg not spent $1 billion of his own money for his disastrous 2020 presidential run on the Democratic side.
Where did things go so wrong for someone who was at one point the odds-on favorite at politics betting sites to win the 2024 presidential election, and does this hurt DeSantis’ future chances for a 2028 run?
We look back at the rise and fall of “Meatball Ron” as Trump would call him.
The Alternative to Trump?
DeSantis had a resounding win for reelection as the Governor of Florida in 2022. He received 59.4% of the vote, the largest in the state since 1982. Despite his attacks on Disney, DeSantis was very popular in the state and viewed as the rising star of the Republican party and a logical replacement for former president Donald Trump, who has many legal issues to face.
DeSantis will only be 46 on election day in November, has staunchly conservative views that are in line with Trump supporters, and is a vocal politician when it comes to fighting the culture wars with Democrats.
Would his shtick work as well outside of Florida in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania? That is unknown, but many expected DeSantis to run for president in 2024 and challenge Trump at the perfect moment to do so after bad results in the mid-terms for Republicans.
That is why many were surprised when DeSantis waited 6 months after Trump’s announcement he was running for 2024 to officially throw his hat into the ring too. The rollout of that announcement was supposed to be the 1st step in the DeSantis campaign, but it only turned out to be the 1st disaster for him.
The Disastrous Twitter Rollout
DeSantis officially announced his campaign for presidency on May 23, 2023. His choice of how he’d do this would backfire immensely. DeSantis chose to appear with Twitter CEO Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces, a streaming component to the popular social media app.
But technical difficulties plagued the live event with many viewers turning it off after DeSantis was unable to speak for 20 minutes. The event was a flop for both Musk and DeSantis. Any chance of a big boost right away was lost with that choice of venue as employees allegedly did not test the stress of the stream beforehand despite the expected higher volume of listeners.
Oddsmakers dropped DeSantis’ odds to beat Trump following the announcement debacle.
The Summer Without a Plan
After a series of campaign “resets” during the summer months of 2023, there was a clear lack of strategy from the DeSantis campaign from Day 1. Many voters still wanted Trump. They didn’t want Diet Coke Trump or a cheap imitation of Trump. DeSantis could not just parrot Trump and win over voters who can have the real thing.
But DeSantis was also very careful to not put down Trump for his shortcomings and go on the attack. He knows the Republican party is largely the Trump party now, and that devoted MAGA base is a huge part of the voting bloc DeSantis would need to win the nomination and run in November against Joe Biden.
This could have been a miscalculation as Trump never had any issues with attacking DeSantis right away, including the day of his Twitter Spaces misstep. Trump loves nicknames to dog his opponents with, and he ran through quite a few of them with DeSantis from “Ron DeSanctimonious” to “Tiny D” to, a personal favorite, “Meatball Ron.”
Trump was big on Ron DeSanctimonious, but Meatball Ron just rolls off the tongue much better. But Trump made no bones about putting down the competition, and he made the ultimate power move when he said he wouldn’t even attend the upcoming Republican debates where voters could hear the candidates go at it on the issues and each other.
The Debates Did Not Sway Voters
Another problem for DeSantis is that he’s just awkward and not very likable as a person. He looks uncomfortable among crowds of people, his laugh looks mechanical, and even just smiling does not come off as natural for him.
The oddities of DeSantis and his refusal to attack Trump came at a head over the 4 Republican debates that were televised live throughout the fall. We got to see DeSantis go at it with candidates Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, and a few other forgettable people early in the process like Tim Scott and Asa Hutchinson.
But without Trump, the main attraction for most, these debates fizzled out. Ramaswamy tried to be that boisterous, young voice on the stage, but he mostly just came off as the pompous entrepreneur. Christie was the only one to really attack Trump and take that role in the debate. Haley did maybe the best job of winning over moderates and undecided voters who were looking for an alternative to Trump, and being the only woman on the stage could not have hurt too.
Then there was DeSantis, who did not have any real viral moments, good or bad, from any of the debates. He kind of just went through the motions and did not do anything to separate himself from the pack or regain his position as a front-runner against Trump.
Maybe things would have been much better if Trump attended any of the debates, but DeSantis’ refusal to make Trump’s absence and flaws the story of the night was not helpful to his cause.
The Iowa Caucus
By all accounts, everyone expected Trump to win the Republican Iowa caucus vote in January. The telling part was going to be the margin and to see if DeSantis can close the gap, and if Trump would get under 50% of the vote.
But Trump ended up beating DeSantis by 30 percentage points, and most felt that was a decisive victory and left little path forward for DeSantis, who was expected to get walloped by Trump and Haley in the next event, the New Hampshire primary.
The End of the Campaign
Just days before the New Hampshire primary, the DeSantis campaign announced it had suspended its run for presidency. Between declining polling numbers, a lack of strategy, campaign in-fighting, and allegations of DeSantis’ wife spending millions on a private jet cause she won’t fly commercial, this thing was never taking off for Tiny D.
But in a surprise twist, DeSantis did come out and endorse Trump, the same man who has repeatedly insulted him for the last year. But we have seen this movie play out before with Trump and Republicans. They bash him, then they support him and vote for him anyway, knowing they cannot beat his stranglehold on the party since 2016.
DeSantis has repeatedly ruled out being Trump’s pick for vice president, but what does his future hold now that it’s over after $130 million was flushed down the drain?
DeSantis’ Outlook for 2028
At the end of the day, DeSantis could not replace Trump in the Republican party. They want the real McCoy back in office, and while DeSantis may be a younger, sharper-minded version of Trump, he doesn’t give off the “offensive grandpa at the dinner table who speaks his mind” vibe that Trump supporters love about Trump.
As some already suggested to DeSantis last summer, his best bet could have been to run a campaign to gain experience, bow out gracefully, endorse Trump to keep those voters happy, and try again in 2028. That may be what he ends up doing, but his best hope is that come 2028, Trump is out of the picture by any means necessary.
Trump would be 82 years old by the 2028 election. At some point, he will not be the figurehead of the GOP, but you have to assume he will play a pivotal role in determining who that next leader is.
That could be why DeSantis is still playing friendly enough with Trump to stay on his good side, but the truth is he could have just sunk his political future by jumping into this race. He should have just stayed on the side as the Florida Governor, fighting the “woke” culture war stuff he eats up, and peeking his head out by 2028 when Trump is maybe out of the picture.
There is a future where DeSantis can beat Trump for the party nomination, but it’ll be when he’s running against Eric or Don Jr.