For the first time in a long time, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was being fêted as a winner, and he hadn’t even won.
As he took the stage in the Sheraton ballroom, the Iowa crowd thundered his name and pounded the floor. “We love you!” someone yelled. “We love you, too,” he said.
The news was just breaking that DeSantis had been called as the second-place finisher in the state, only slightly ahead of former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. And that was good enough for him.
“You helped us get a ticket punched out of the Hawkeye State,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but I can tell you this: As the next President of the United States, I am going to get the job done for this country.”
The result means that the DeSantis campaign will continue into New Hampshire and beyond. After the governor poured almost all his resources into Iowa, and appeared to be going nowhere fast in the other early voting states, he needed a strong showing here to give him the momentum to carry on.
“Anyone on the ground here would have told you Donald Trump is gonna win the caucus,” Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican consultant, told TIME Monday afternoon. “The race is for the second-place finish. If he gets second, no matter what the margin is, he did his job.”
Second was good enough to punch his ticket, but it may be a ticket to nowhere.
DeSantis hit one mark that he had to: not coming in third. But he fell short elsewhere. Some of his surrogates suggested he had a chance to win outright, and others anchored expectations for a Trump success at the sky-high threshold of 50%. Trump ended up surpassing that, a victory even on his rivals’ terms. DeSantis is walking away with almost the same number of delegates as Haley. And he has no reason to expect better results in the next few early voting states. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, DeSantis is barely in the running in New Hampshire, clocking in below 6% support, with Trump over 40% and Haley earning around 30%. He’s doing only a little better in South Carolina: 12%, to Trump’s 55% and Haley’s 25%. His path to the nomination remains unclear.
What is clear is that he’ll be sticking around to forge it. His campaign pointed to his speech as its statement on the results and his plans going forward, with stops scheduled Tuesday in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Based on the reaction at DeSantis’ watch party, his fans didn’t need much more. They roared when right-wing radio talk show host Steve Deace said, “It’s a two person race now. Iowa has made that very clear. There is no place for the last gasp of the Republican corporatist establishment, Nikki Haley.” They bellowed when Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said, “He’s in it for the long haul. He’s ready to keep going. … We’re sending him to New Hampshire. We’re sending him to South Carolina. Watch out, America, Ron DeSantis is not done.”
Waving signs that read “God Over Government” and “Don’t Mess With My Kids,” DeSantis’ most ardent supporters really seemed to believe he is going to be the next President of the United States.
But as they left the party, attendees became more measured. “Historically, you got to either get first or second in Iowa to win the nomination,” said Luke Posegate, a 22-year-old DeSantis volunteer. “I would have liked to have a little bit better scoreboard. I had hoped that the margin of victory would have been a little bit closer between President Trump and Governor DeSantis.”
Posegate added that he thinks DeSantis’ path to the nomination involves Trump getting kicked off the ballot when he’s convicted on criminal charges. He added that he was proud that the governor had lost to Trump by only two votes at the caucus location where Posegate had spoken on DeSantis’ behalf.
Hours earlier, another nearby caucus site, Eternity Church, seemed representative of the way Monday’s results would go and the governor’s challenges going forward. Outside, supporters had stuck both DeSantis and Trump signs in the snow. Inside Trump caucus captains wore their white and gold hats, while DeSantis volunteers in neon orange handed out fans. Given the former President’s firm support in many rural areas and the governor’s middling success in the evangelical northwest, DeSantis needed to do well in population centers just like this. According to data from the Des Moines Register, voters there ultimately went ever-so-slightly for Trump.
Until about a month ago, hospice nurse Audrey Scott thought she’d be supporting the governor. But seeing his campaign flame out recently, she changed her mind. “I was DeSantis because I felt Trump—I just got annoyed with all of his words and calling people nicknames,” she said. “But you need someone that’s strong and relentless, that’s going to just take all the crap that he takes and be able to still move his agenda forward. So I feel like DeSantis is a little bit more quiet and might not have the strength to challenge what we need him to challenge.”
She also ended up preferring Trump’s more-direct style. “I feel like DeSantis just has vague answers, more political, whereas Trump just says it the way it is,” she said. “I’m blunt. I like that he’s blunt.”
Even likely DeSantis voters sounded lukewarm. Leslie Peterson, a commercial lending banker at Eternity Church, said just before the caucus began that she was “kind of leaning towards DeSantis.” What did she like about him? “That he’s not Trump,” she said. But even then, minutes before the caucus began, the woman who called DeSantis “a strong leader” and “a family man” and said of Trump, “I just don’t like him as a person,” would not rule out lining up behind the former President.
“If the state’s gonna back him as our Republican candidate, then I’ll go with it,” she relented.
After seeing Trump’s dominance Monday night, the rest of the country might just go with it, too.