The DeSantis Fugue State

Ron DeSantis speaks to workers at a campaign office on January 12, 2024, in Urbandale, Iowa.
DeSantis is either munching his normal pills or simply falling victim to political delusion. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 17, 2024

After an underwhelming performance in Iowa, Ron DeSantis might have pivoted to face-saving measures to prevent the narrative, now taking form in Washington and Tallahassee, that he’s a Scott Walker-style political loser. DeSantis, who is only 45, could easily embark on a path that would set him up for a viable career in the Senate, say, or a cushy posting atop a conservative think tank, or perhaps another presidential run in 2028. Instead, his team is assuring donors and supporters that he’s taking his death march onward to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday, unfazed by the prospect of further tarnishing his political brand. DeSantis is either munching his normal pills or simply falling victim to political delusion. Even his wife and confidante, Casey, seemed to grasp the gravity of the loss in Iowa. She stood off to the side, away from the cameras, as he talked about punching his ticket to New Hampshire. 

But the reality is that DeSantis is also on track to get humiliated in New Hampshire next Tuesday. Despite having spent several days in the state this week, I’ve struggled to find a single DeSantis supporter. Voters I’ve talked to here do not care for his six-week abortion ban, or his culture warring with Disney and Florida’s school librarians. So, unsurprisingly, a recent Suffolk poll shows him at just 5 percent support in the state. (That same poll suggests that Haley also has an uphill battle, at 34 percent to Trump’s 50.) “DeSantis spends all of his time explaining, and that doesn’t work. People want to come to an event and they want to get hot. In New Hampshire, they want to get high; they want to come to a rally and leave it feeling excited and fired up, and you don’t get that at all with DeSantis,” said Drew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative New Hampshire think tank. “That’s a big reason why he’s not doing well here.” 

Team DeSantis thinks they can still alter this narrative by juicing the polls in South Carolina, carpet bombing the state with ads, and training their fire on Haley. “When Nikki Haley fails to win her home state, she’ll be finished and this will be a two-person race—and her donors are starting to come to the same conclusion,” said DeSantis campaign senior official Andrew Romeo in a statement.

The RealClearPolitics polling average for South Carolina currently shows Trump at 52 percent, Haley at 22, and DeSantis at 11. And in this media-driven campaign cycle—as evidenced by the fact that Haley almost beat him in Iowa despite his $200 million ground game—the DeSantis team desperately needs more media attention to keep him in the running. But if DeSantis insists on slouching onward to South Carolina, which is still over a month away, after getting pummeled in the three previous contests (Nevada is looking like a disaster for him as well), the storylines around his campaign will… not be kind. That is, if the media continues to cover the campaign at all.

Rubio Lessons

Those close to the governor fear that his quixotic plans will also hurt his political brand for the long term. “If it’s all about legacy, then [going] long is not good. If he hangs on, it will be bad, he will get hurt,” said a source close to the campaign. “It’s worse when you don’t know when to give up.” 

There’s concern that it will look like DeSantis’s ego is too big to accept the results. And of course, there are lessons to be learned from prior cycles. To wit: Perhaps Ted Cruz’s endorsement of Trump last night still mattered because he decided to drop out of the 2016 race when he was still winning states, long before John Kasich, who limped on until May. Kasich has been in political oblivion ever since. DeSantis might also look to the fate of Marco Rubio, another onetime rising star from Florida who held on for far too long, only to lose his home state. (Like Rubio, DeSantis appears headed for a shellacking in Florida, where Trump is currently leading him by 40 points, according to the RealClear average.) Rubio isn’t a nonentity—he’s still a senator, after all—but with his political capital diminished, he never got another shot at the presidency. (Indeed, he’s rumored to be looking for more lucrative options outside of the Senate—which could open a seat for DeSantis, who will be in between jobs when he’s term-limited out of office in 2026.) 

But DeSantis doesn’t appear to have absorbed those lessons. The day after the Iowa caucus, in a morning call with donors, his team presented a plan that would take them through Super Tuesday, in March—even though he’s not currently expected to win any upcoming state. (Well, they have touted his chances at winning the U.S. Virgin Islands, on February 8. I know, I know. Like how Mike Bloomberg spent $500 million to only win American Samoa.) The campaign also told donors they’ll do a head fake in New Hampshire, ceding the race to Haley in a state they claim they don’t want to win anyway. It’s unclear if he’ll even be in New Hampshire on election day. Then it’s on to South Carolina, where they can help Trump finish off Haley in her home state, even though there’s no path for DeSantis to win there either. 

The Bank Shot 

The DeSantis camp is also betting on a separate, bank-shot strategy that presupposes Trump is, for one reason or another, forced out of the race. The campaign has argued that Trump’s legal problems are mounting, and there’s a logical argument for keeping DeSantis in the running, ready and able to snatch his mantle if Trump is somehow disqualified. That entails picking up delegates along the way, enough to be able to present a plausible argument at the Republican convention this summer. 

Of course, Trump will never drop out because of legal problems—Trump is running because of his legal problems. Short of Trump landing in prison, this looks more like a ploy for DeSantis to collect another $5 million or so from donors so that he can sustain his countrywide tour as he fades into irrelevance. To continue on that jaunt, DeSantis—whose campaign was once one of the largest, with nearly 60 aides—will likely have to lay off more staff. The New York Times reported that his super PAC, Never Back Down, has been reducing headcount, including among its notoriously pit-bullish digital War Room.

In the meantime, DeSantis will need passable answers to the increasingly difficult questions he’ll face, including, “Why are you still in the race?” and “How do you perceive a path forward?” Easier said than done: “He’s going to look like a fucking clown,” the source close to the campaign said. “He’s not going to handle the question as gracefully as others have when they’re asking for the math.”

Then there will be the pressure campaign from supporters, influencers, and party leaders, alike, who will be telling him to get out. It belatedly worked on Chris Christie, who bowed out gracefully just before Iowa. But unlike Christie, whose searing attacks on Trump lifted his national profile, DeSantis can’t expect any grace from the media. Instead, he’ll be faced with the same catch-22 that has hobbled his entire campaign: He might distinguish himself by attacking Trump, but it’ll be too little, too late to move the needle with voters. And it’s virtually unimaginable that getting vicious will help him in South Carolina, where Trump’s lead has been unassailable, especially not without hurting his medium-term career in Republican politics.

But the most harrowing prospect of all for DeSantis is being ignored—that his inevitable exit will make as small a ripple as Mike Pence’s suspension. Maybe his name will be kept in the headlines by the Trump team, which seems to enjoy trolling DeSantis more than any other candidate. Indeed, in some respects, the pre-post-campaign shaming has already begun. As Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita told me at the Tara House Grill in Nashua, New Hampshire, last night, “They don’t give out participation trophies in the Republican nomination for president.”