NEWTON, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign is announcing the completion of a longtime campaign pledge Saturday: touring all of Iowa’s 99 counties, a milestone for a campaign that has devoted significant resources to the first-in-the-nation contest.
The statewide tour, colloquially called the “Full Grassley” in a nod to Sen. Chuck Grassley, is part of the DeSantis campaign’s battle for a first-place finish in the caucuses, despite former President Donald Trump maintaining a stubbornly wide polling lead — and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley coming from behind to challenge DeSantis’ place in the pack.
On paper, DeSantis has made significant strides in running a traditionally successful Iowa campaign, racking up influential endorsements and dedicating significant time, personnel and financial resources to the state. But the 2024 contest comes with a hitch previous successful caucus campaigns haven’t had to battle: a former president on the ballot, multiple state and federal indictments notwithstanding.
Despite having held only 26 events in Iowa since launching his third bid for the White House, Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in most Iowa polls. And while the DeSantis campaign, with significant super PAC help, has stayed focused on Iowa, it remains unclear just what the traditional Iowa playbook counts for in this unusual modern campaign against Trump.
Presidential candidates have long sought to follow Grassley’s tradition of spending time in every Iowa county to shore up support and build a reliable network of caucusgoers — and prove their investment in the state. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum squeaked out an upset GOP caucus win in 2012 after completing his own shoe-leather tour of Iowa. Four years later, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz used the same road map as he edged out a win over Trump.
But the tour isn’t a surefire path to victory: Neither Mike Huckabee nor Santorum could recreate their past winning momentum after completing 99-county tours in 2016. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann came in sixth place in 2012 despite hitting all of Iowa’s counties after a hasty 10-day bus tour just days before the January caucuses. This year, pastor Ryan Binkley claims to have been the first Republican candidate to canvas every county and is not registering in the polls.
This year, DeSantis has crisscrossed Iowa largely on the campaign bus belonging to his first super PAC, Never Back Down. A typical day saw the bus shuttle DeSantis between four to seven stops, often featuring one or two larger “meet and greets” where the Florida governor would deliver his full stump speech and take questions from Iowans. The rest of the day would then be punctuated by the briefer visits to local coffee shops, small businesses and farms.
Not all stops were created equal, particularly when it came to the potential for interactions with future voters. DeSantis’ visit to Wright County was a private tour of a local butcher shop with the owners, which took no more than 15 minutes. He didn’t interact with voters beyond the handful of employees present in the shop.
Other events, though, were designed to draw significant crowds, even in rural counties far from Des Moines. One stop in the town of Red Oak — home to Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, with a population of just under 6,000 — drew more than 100 attendees at a local history museum for a “meet and greet” event, leaving just standing room for those who arrived late.
Of DeSantis’ 99 county visits, 87 of the first stops in a new county were open to the press, according to an NBC News count. Never Back Down hosted another nine private events for DeSantis that served as his first visit to a new county, including a mix of church services, private farm tours and events with local elected officials. The campaign hosted another three such events that were closed to reporters.
In some cases, a handful of closed-press events were shared on DeSantis’ social media accounts. For others, like the private gatherings with state legislators arranged by the super PAC, few details have emerged about the event attendees or formats.
“The Republican winners of the last three Iowa caucuses all completed the ‘Full Grassley’ because they knew Iowans expect their candidates to show up and earn their support,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement to NBC News.
“Winning an Iowa caucus requires a strong combination of outworking and out-organizing the competition and that’s been the Ron DeSantis model. This historic milestone is just another example of how no one in the race is coming close to matching Ron DeSantis as we hit the deciding stretch,” he added.
Inside the sprint to the caucuses
Still, the DeSantis playbook in Iowa hardly stops at the “Full Grassley.”
In November alone, DeSantis bagged endorsements from two of the state’s key Republican leaders: popular Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical power broker Bob Vander Plaats.
Since making her support official at a rally just four weeks ago in Des Moines, Reynolds has made at least nine appearances on the campaign trail alongside DeSantis, including Saturday’s celebration — introducing the governor at events, taking selfies with supporters, and perhaps most importantly, urging audiences across the state to show up to caucus on Jan. 15.
DeSantis has also touted Vander Plaats’ network of supporters as a “pretty powerful machine” that may prove crucial for turnout on the big day.
But with just over a month to go until Iowans officially caucus, hundreds of miles of Iowa highway in the rearview mirror, and influential Iowans at his side, DeSantis still faces a major climb to challenge for victory.
The most recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey — which measured voter sentiment before DeSantis’ recent endorsements and the completion of his 99-county tour — showed Trump with a 27-point lead over DeSantis and Haley in second place.
The battle for a podium finish in the caucuses has grown increasingly competitive in recent weeks, as Haley has seized on momentum from strong debate performances and endorsements of her own from the likes of Americans for Prosperity and other groups.
Haley, though, has held just 27 events in Iowa compared to DeSantis’ 108 stops since May 23, when NBC News started tracking daily events. She has focused more on Iowa’s early-voting first cousin, New Hampshire. As the second candidate to officially enter the race, Haley launched her campaign back in February and her team claims 60 events held in Iowa.
“Poll after poll show Nikki Haley is the best challenger to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. She’s second in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — a stark contrast to Ron DeSantis’ Iowa-or-bust strategy.” Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson with the Haley campaign, said in a statement.
DeSantis supporters hope his time spent on the ground in Iowa will solidify his standing over Haley despite her recent gains.
DeSantis “gets to hear what people in the Midwest are saying — and how they feel, what they believe, and how they react to all these different things going on in the world right now,” said David Hansen, an independent voter from Waterloo who attended DeSantis’ 98th county visit in Plainfield.
Hansen, who was interested in Sen. Tim Scott and is now considering caucusing for DeSantis, expressed hope that touring the state in its entirety meant the governor was committed to communities like his.
“It feels like he might stay here and look out for us more,” Hansen posited.
Shawn Robinson, a DeSantis supporter from rural Audubon County, echoed that sentiment, saying that rural Iowans feel like they need to be included in the electoral process.
“It’s really high on [Iowans’] importance level to kick the tires,” he said, questioning other candidates not making the effort to visit smaller counties. “Are you even serious about Iowa? And meeting the people? Because I think that’s how everybody feels around here, you need to meet the people,” he added.
Trump, for his part, has made a fraction of the visits to Iowa and has covered nowhere near the same amount of ground as DeSantis. But he can lean on years of support built up inside the Republican Party, as well as his typical swipes at those in the GOP who have lined up against him.
Reynolds and Vander Plaats have also caught the former president’s ire for throwing their support behind DeSantis as part of an effort to block Trump’s shot at the 2024 GOP nomination.
“He’s more known for scamming Candidates than he is for Victory,” Trump wrote about Vander Plaats on his social media platform Truth Social, simultaneously deriding DeSantis as “a Candidate who is going nowhere.”
In a separate post, he held Reynolds in similar low regard, claiming she had forfeited her popularity by throwing in with DeSantis.
Though Trump mocks the traditional Iowa playbook and taunts DeSantis’ endorsers, Audubon County GOP Chair Heath Hansen balked at the idea that Trump had upended the importance of retail politics in Iowa.
“I would caution somebody trying to draw new norms out of what is probably an anomaly with [Trump’s] personality,” Hansen said. “He is a larger-than-life figure.”
And David Hansen, the Waterloo voter who listened to the governor speak in Plainfield at his penultimate “Full Grassley” stop, acknowledged that he liked what he heard from the candidate — his first time seeing him in person.
As the governor neared the end of his monthslong tour all around the Hawkeye State, Hansen offered up a piece of optimism: “Can’t hurt, right?”