Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) visited Iowa on Friday. Nominally he was thee to pitch his new book but in reality he was there because, well, presidential candidates are expected to visit Iowa. As we have remarked numerous times already and will continue to remark going forward, DeSantis is quite smart. In particular, he (unlike Donald Trump) is capable of listening carefully to what his advisors tell him, analyzing their comments, and adjusting his behavior accordingly.
Specifically, DeSantis (again, unlike Trump) hates retail politics. He doesn't like talking to voters or donors. Florida is a big state with 22 million people. Those people do not expect to meet candidates for office. The way you win elections in Florida is to raise tens of millions of dollars and flood the airwaves in half a dozen major media markets with campaign ads carefully crafted by top media experts. DeSantis is good at that game.
That doesn't work in Iowa (or New Hampshire). There the voters do expect to meet candidates personally, ask them questions, and get answers. It is a standing joke in New Hampshire that one person asks another: "What do you think about candidate Jones?" and the reply is: "I don't know yet. I have met him only two times so far." Having to interact with the voters is something brand new for DeSantis. To his credit, he seems to have learned that this is necessary in Iowa and is trying to work on his retail politics.
Some things are easy. When a voter wants a selfie, all he has to do is stand there and force a smile. In his visit to Davenport on Friday, he stood around outside for 20 minutes allowing people to make selfies with him. He clearly didn't like it, as you can see in this picture taken in Iowa on Friday:
But the Governor is starting to understand that this is the price he has to pay to get the GOP nomination and he is doing his best. That said, there are other things he still has to learn. When one Iowan asked about his three young children, DeSantis didn't answer and turned the conversation back to policy. He has to learn that no matter how uncomfortable this may be, he has to show his human side—assuming he has one. Voters want this. He should probably also learn that if someone hands you a prop to hold for your selfie shoot, you should be wary. See what happens if you zoom in on the photo above:
More generally on this theme, he is going to have to spend some time campaigning in New Hampshire, which is a bluish state. That means there are plenty of Democrats there, especially in the more populous southern part of the state. Many people there don't like him and will come to meet him and heckle him. How he handles that will test him. If he orders security to evict them by force and they resist, that will become the news story, not his views on woke. He had better learn how to deal with opposition on the ground, and fast.
In his close-to-the-vest, let's-keep-the-focus-on-the-issues approach, DeSantis is the mirror image of Trump. Trump knows practically nothing about policy and just appeals to his base's basest emotions. DeSantis knows everything about policy and has no emotions. When DeSantis shows up at the Iowa State Fair later this year, he is going to have to eat pork chops on a stick, corn dogs on a stick, monkey tails, and funnel cakes—and pretend to like them. It's not going to be easy. In other states people are going to give him Polish sausages, hot tamales, knishes, Rocky Mountain oysters, fried Snickers bars, fried pie, grits, clam chowder, South Carolina BBQ, North Carolina BBQ, East Carolina BBQ, West Carolina BBQ and many other local delicacies. Failing to eat them with relish (or, in some cases, without relish) can cost him votes.
There is the (perhaps apocryphal) story about George W. Bush campaigning in Florida in 2000 at a Jewish senior citizens center. He said he was hungry and immediately someone handed him a bowl with two spherical objects floating in some liquid. He whispered to an aide: "What are these?" The aide said: "Matzoh balls." Bush grimaced and said to the aide: "Do I have to eat them?" The aide said: "Yes. The Jewish vote is important in Florida." Bush looked nervously at the bowl and said to the aide: "What other parts of the matzoh do they eat?"
Sooner or later, DeSantis is going to have his own "matzoh balls" moment and he better not blow it like Jerry Ford and John Kerry. In 1976, Ford was campaigning in San Antonio when someone handed him a plate of tamales. He bit into one without removing the corn husk and nearly choked. He didn't know the husk is not edible. This was the biggest news story that day. Ford lost Texas and many observers blamed it on the tamale incident.
In 2004, John Kerry was campaigning in Philadelphia and was hungry. He ordered a Philly cheesesteak. Good move. Then he said he wanted Swiss cheese on it (instead of Cheez Whiz). That incident got him labeled him as an out-of-touch globalist and may have cost him the election.
DeSantis does not have that "everyman" touch that Bill Clinton has. He will definitely try to learn and avoid blunders, but it won't be easy for him and he may be caught faking it at some point. It could be costly. (V)