Trump soars, DeSantis takes distant second over Haley, Ramaswamy drops out

DES MOINES, Iowa — The fight for second fiddle plays on, but the Iowa caucuses were full of hints that the music will eventually stop for candidates not named Donald Trump.

In the short term, the former president won a bonus on top of his commanding first-place finish: Because his two leading rivals finished so close to each other for runner-up in Iowa, the war between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley promises to continue into New Hampshire and beyond.

DeSantis signaled his intention to stick it out earlier by planning a visit Tuesday to South Carolina — which holds its primary more than a month from now. His second-place Iowa finish will only reinforce that decision, giving his team and allies an argument to raise more money. But the margin was too close for comfort or joy.

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Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Haley, who had less riding on her performance in Iowa, missed a chance to knock DeSantis out. Still, she is turning to much friendlier terrain in New Hampshire, where some polling shows her within shouting distance of Trump.

But the potential seeds of destruction for each of Trump’s opponents were planted beneath the ice-covered cornfields of this state. They are among the four takeaways from what may be the last first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

Don’t call DeSantis ‘The Comeback Kid’

The good news for DeSantis in Iowa was that his base remained enthusiastic enough to brave the cold and make him the runner-up. The bad news here is the same for him as it is across the rest of the country: He’s down to his most committed voters because he has lost almost everyone else.

There’s no obvious place on the map for him to follow up Iowa, where he attended hundreds of events and super PACs backing him spent tens of millions of dollars, with anything resembling a victory. He trails Trump and Haley by wide margins in New Hampshire. Trump is expected to clean up in the Nevada caucuses, in which Haley isn’t participating. South Carolina has long been Trump country, and Haley is the state’s former governor.

That means DeSantis is going to have to keep his donors and supporters on board for what promises to be a brutal stretch between now and the end of February.

Just staving off attrition may be too much to ask for a candidate who once looked like a bona fide threat to Trump and ended up scrapping to edge out Haley in Iowa.

Bill Clinton famously declared himself “The Comeback Kid” after a surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1992. DeSantis can rightly claim his finish Monday night as something of an upset — Haley led him by 4 points, 20% to 16%, in the final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll. But it’s hardly a harbinger of success.

Unless DeSantis finds a way to start picking off chunks of voters from both Trump and Haley in states where he trails badly — and “unless” is doing a ton of work there — he won’t be The New Comeback Kid.

Haley’s Biden problem

Haley is the undisputed favorite of “Never Trump” voters — Republicans, independents and crossover Democrats — in Iowa, New Hampshire and many other states.

But she’s running for the nomination of a party that is still firmly in Trump’s thrall.

In the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom pre-caucus Iowa poll, 43% of Haley supporters said they would cast ballots for President Joe Biden in November if he was matched up against Trump. Just 9% of Haley backers said they were extremely enthusiastic about supporting her.

The results in Iowa, where muted turnout may have hurt her finish, appeared to reflect a softness in her support. That could well be because so many of the voters who favor her over her Republican rivals aren’t members of the GOP.

Here’s one reason she can’t rely on such a coalition to carry her to the nomination: About a quarter of the delegates will come from states with closed primaries — open only to GOP voters — according to an NBC News analysis of state-by-state rules published by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Moreover, entrance polling found more independents favored Trump than Haley in Iowa, though by a smaller margin than Republicans.

To have a chance at beating Trump, Haley would have to begin appealing to more Republican voters, along with her current base. And she would have to do that even as Trump and DeSantis portray her as being closer to Biden than she is to the GOP base.

Image: Nikki Haley
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley greets supporters at Drake Diner in Des Moines, Iowa.Carolyn Kaster / AP

MAGA fans prefer the original recipe

Vivek Ramaswamy, who came in fourth in Iowa, found out the hard way this month that Trump doesn’t like being attacked or threatened — not one bit.

For months, Ramaswamy touted himself as the next-generation version of Trump while assiduously heaping praise on the original.

That put him in a bind: His fans were Trump fans. It also created a problem for Trump, who wanted to avoid losing vote share to Ramaswamy.

Over time, Ramaswamy developed a harder edge talking about Trump. He said in a radio ad that the MAGA movement must “outlive” Trump, and his camp printed up T-shirts that read “Save Trump, Vote Vivek.”

By the weekend, Trump’s team had seen enough. Senior adviser Chris LaCivita posted to social media that Ramaswamy was the race’s “number one FRAUD.” Trump made several posts against Ramaswamy, too.

Like all break-ups, the end was abrupt. Like many, it was also a long time in coming. Ramaswamy got the worse end, finishing well under 10% of the vote.

With no chance of winning the nomination — and plenty to risk in angering Trump for a 38-year-old candidate who may have an eye on a long political future — Ramaswamy shut down his campaign Monday night and promptly endorsed Trump. That appeared to pave the way for a reconciliation.

The end of Iowa?

Biden, who never performed well in Iowa, ended the state’s role as the first contest in the country for Democrats.

Now Trump is dropping hints that it might be the state’s last rodeo for Republicans.

Trump hasn’t explicitly threatened the status of Iowa’s caucuses. And he has gotten a split verdict from Iowans — they narrowly favored Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas over him in 2016 but favored Trump on Monday with roughly double the share of the vote he got eight years ago.

Still, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to endorse DeSantis didn’t sit well with Trump. Iowa governors typically stay out of caucus fights to promote the state to all candidates. Trump hasn’t forgotten the snub, and he has made little secret of his taste for retribution.

Noting that his decision to name then-Gov. Terry Branstad to an ambassadorship paved the way for Reynolds to take the state’s top job, Trump connected the state’s position on the GOP nominating calendar to what he sees as a betrayal by Reynolds.

“I don’t do quid pro quo,” Trump said at a rally Sunday in Indianola, Iowa. But “I just thought it was very disloyal,” he added, before he dangled a veiled threat: “I gave you first in the nation!”

What Trump giveth, he could also take away — whether he wins the presidency and controls the Republican National Committee or loses and continues to exercise influence within the party.