By Gram Slattery and Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) – Ron DeSantis’ path to victory in the Republican primary race is now in deep trouble and he risks funding problems going forward after failing to deliver a breakthrough performance in Iowa on Monday, analysts and people close to his nomination effort said.
Despite pouring much of his campaign’s time and resources into Iowa, the first state to hold a presidential nominating contest, DeSantis finished almost 30 points behind former President Donald Trump, and he barely beat former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley for second place.
A year ago, DeSantis seemed to pose a serious threat to Trump’s hold over the Republican Party.
But the Florida governor’s polling numbers have since plummeted and he is especially weak in some other key states after taking a strategic decision to dedicate most of his time and resources to Iowa.
That leaves him with no obvious route for a comeback.
He now moves on to New Hampshire, where he has spent relatively little time in recent months and where he is polling in a distant third behind Haley and Trump. That state holds the next nominating contest, on Jan. 23.
DeSantis is also trailing both Trump and Haley by substantial margins in South Carolina, the home of another pivotal nominating contest in late February.
Kirk Jowers, a veteran of five Republican presidential campaigns who is advising multiple major DeSantis donors this cycle, suggested the game was over.
“The Iowa results confirm a compelling consensus that Trump will be the nominee and there is nothing anyone can do about it absent an act of God or the courts,” Jowers said.
“Accordingly, there is no amount of funding or volunteer work that will lift DeSantis or Haley over Trump.”
One source working for the DeSantis nomination effort, asked about the path forward, said the governor would likely face problems funding his campaign, though he stopped short of implying there was any immediate cash crunch.
“I don’t think the money will be inspired,” he said, requesting anonymity as he was not permitted to speak to the media.
Some of the governor’s allies, meanwhile, struck a more optimistic tone, and the governor pledged to fight going forward at an event in West Des Moines on Monday night.
And independent analysts acknowledged that while the night was not a success for DeSantis, it could have been worse: Most recent polls showed him finishing in third.
Roy Bailey, one of DeSantis’ top fundraisers, said the campaign had the cash to go at least through Super Tuesday, when a series of Republican nominating contests will be held on the same day in early March.
“He’s going all the way,” Bailey said. “He got his ticket out of here.”
DeSantis, who was once seen as Republicans’ best shot at moving past Trump, finished in Iowa with about 21% support, nosing out Haley, who was backed by 19% of caucus-goers.
Trump received the support of over 50% of caucus-goers, a dominating performance that keeps both DeSantis and Haley from credibly claiming any form of victory.
Still, the stakes were highest for DeSantis, thanks to quirks in his campaign strategy and that of his main outside Super PAC.
DeSantis had concentrated his campaigning in Iowa to a significant degree. According to a tally conducted by ABC News and polling and analysis website 538, he had held 154 campaign stops there through Jan. 11, versus just 32 in New Hampshire.
Haley, by contrast, stopped in New Hampshire 54 times and in Iowa a comparatively modest 77 times.
Several people close to DeSantis or his campaign told Reuters in recent months that they believed Iowa’s conservative and religious population offered the governor the best shot of a breakthrough.
He visited all of the state’s 99 counties and assiduously courted the backing of Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds.
While DeSantis’ team sought to downplay expectations in Iowa in recent weeks, donors and people close to the governor privately said they believed he needed to significantly outperform expectations to maintain a clear lane going forward.
One reason for the urgency, they said, was to generate needed momentum heading into New Hampshire.
The ultra-conservative, Trump-adjacent brand DeSantis hoped would court Iowa’s rural farmers and Evangelicals has proved a tough sell in New Hampshire, which has a long history of moderate Republicanism and leans left on some social issues.
DeSantis’ support sits at 5.8% in New Hampshire, according to an aggregation of polls maintained by 538, while Trump is at roughly 43% and Haley has the support of 30% of likely primary voters.
“They made a strategic decision some months ago that Iowa would be more fertile territory for them. That meant less time in New Hampshire, less resources spent in New Hampshire,” said Jim Merrill, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
“I think that New Hampshire wasn’t a natural fit for him,” he added.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Whitefield, New Hampshire, and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; Editing by Kieran Murray and Raju Gopalakrishnan)