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By the time Ron DeSantis pulled up his anchor from Iowa on Jan. 15, it was pretty clear to anyone watching that the Florida Governor was likely enjoying the high-water mark of his bid for the White House. Sure, he came in second place in the lead-off caucuses. But he had done so with the backing of the state’s popular Governor, and boasted the top money haul of anyone running for the GOP nomination. Ultimately, though, DeSantis trailed former President Donald Trump by 30 points despite heavy spending: the DeSantis campaign spent about $3 million on ads and his super PAC dumped $35 million, essentially burning about $1,500 per eventual supporter in the state.
This was, as they say, a whole lot of money set on fire without a lot to show in the ash.
Put simply: there weren’t a whole lot of reasons for DeSantis to summon optimism as he wrapped his work in Iowa, a legitimate operation that saw him visit every one of the state’s 99 counties and win not one of them.
So, on Sunday, DeSantis bowed to the reality of the 2024 dynamic and suspended his campaign, effectively ceding the MAGA lane to its creator. His exit puts Trump one leg closer to a third nomination in eight years and perhaps within striking distance of another four years in the White House.
"I can't ask our supporters to volunteer their time and donate their resources when we don't have a clear path to victory," DeSantis said in a video posted on social media, two days before the New Hampshire primary in which polling showed he was likely to come in a distant third. "Accordingly, I am today suspending my campaign."
As he left the trail, DeSantis seemed resigned to falling in line for the good of the Republican Party. “Trump is superior to the current incumbent, Joe Biden. That is clear," DeSantis said. "I signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, and I will honor that pledge."
To say that DeSantis’ campaign is one of the worst in history is a stunning statement, but one that isn’t easily proven false. His launch via a glitchy Twitter rally—replete with server meltdowns, hard-right rhetoric, dodgy facts, and a cameo from Elon Musk himself—proved that the executive competence aura around DeSantis might be more hallucination than halo. Once officially a candidate, DeSantis proved an awkward fit for the hagiography that preceded him. Yes, DeSantis crushed his re-election bid months earlier, but what worked in Destin didn’t always translate to Des Moines.
The campaign itself oozed inauthenticity, and it was evident at every put-your-finger-in-the-air moment. DeSantis went to war on fronts as varied as inclusive corporate policies, diversity-focused coursework, college free speech, bathrooms and locker rooms, even Mickey Mouse’s self-governance at the Magic Kingdom. Availing himself as the quartermaster of the culture wars seemed like a good choice—until it wasn’t.
The Trump, But Less Bad pitch went only so far. They never crafted him as Trump, But Better. The candidate being sold didn’t match the hype, and voters knew it instantly. Money woes, staff infighting, strategy brawls, even wardrobe choices befell DeSantis’ orbit. While counting on Trump’s supporters to transfer their loyalty to him, DeSantis was careful not to lay too tough a case at his former ally’s feet. Somehow, he expected defections to happen automatically without any effort at persuasion. DeSantis understood Trump’s ability to turn on former friends without any compunction. DeSantis knew loyalty was not in Trump’s toolbox, so he didn’t count on lingering familiarity for any protection.
Ultimately, DeSantis couldn’t make the case why MAGA-styled Republicans would line up behind his facsimile when the original article was just as viable—at least for now. Polls showed an utter indifference to Trump’s looming legal challenges among Republicans, and Trump is not incorrect when he says every case and lawsuit brought against him only hardens his supporters’ resolve to have his back. From that reality, DeSantis never was able to ding Trump for realities that would have disqualified other candidates, those who are beholden to the rules of political gravity.
Every Republican dream candidate ultimately faces this sort of crash. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was supposed to have been a political behemoth who won three statewide elections in four years. No one was tougher than Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had the policy knowhow and the national buzz to run a technocratic machine. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had the organization and the gold-plated name to deliver him the nomination. All flamed out. Bigly.
Since the Tea Party revolution of 2010, the Republican Party is looking for a nihilistic streak that found its personification in Trump. Everyone else trying to win under the old rules has been turned back and exiled. The candidates didn’t figure it out until it was too late in 2016. Ultimately, the fight came too late this cycle and with too little urgency behind it.
Which is why, the race now finds itself down to a two-person grudge match: Trump versus Nikki Haley, his one-time top diplomat to the United Nations. Trump is running as the original MAGA nihilist while Haley is pitching herself as an alternative to burning-it-all-down indulgence. It’s not much of a glamorous dichotomy, but it’s what Republicans are left with.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.