Vander Plaats with Mike Huckabee in 2008. Those kingmaking days are past.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Whatever you think of the man and his bigoted worldview, there’s no question Iowa conservative Evangelical poohbah Bob Vander Plaats has a very good record in contested Iowa Republican presidential caucuses. The head honcho of the powerful Family Leader organization earned his “kingmaker” reputation by backing three consecutive caucus underdogs who wound up winning: Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016. If you talk to knowledgeable Iowans, they’ll tell you that BVP (as he is commonly known) is better at picking winners than at actually making their victories possible. But the fact remains that when he plays the pundit, it makes some sense to listen. And now, in the wake of his endorsement of Ron DeSantis, Vander Plaats is predicting a real January shocker in Iowa, as Mediate reports:
Bob Vander Plaats, a top evangelical leader in Iowa, told the Blaze’s Steve Deace on Monday that he believes Iowa Republicans “will rise up” against former President Donald Trump when they head to the polls in January …
“The number one hurdle for Donald Trump is I’ve never met a dad or a mom or a grandpa or a grandma who have told me they want their son or daughter, grandchild to grow up to be like him. That’s a big deal” [said Vander Plaats].
“Trump deserved to lose my endorsement. Matter of fact, I’ve never endorsed him. But he proved he was not worthy of the endorsement of me, of the ministry, and by extension, the broader body [of Christ]. And I believe Iowa will rise up. I believe Iowa will send a message on January 15th because I think they’re seeing it through this as well. This is smoke and mirrors. This is not leadership our country needs,” he concluded.
He didn’t come right out and predict a DeSantis victory, but that was the clear implication.
So is there any chance DeSantis will follow in the wake of Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz as Vander Plaats–endorsed underdog Iowa Caucus winners? Not unless something really changes in the 2024 race, and very soon.
The earlier BVP endorsees were not initial favorites to win the caucuses. But they had all made decisive moves toward victory by this point in the runup to actual voting.
In 2008, a late November Des Moines Register poll (then as now the gold standard for Iowa polling) showed Huckabee leading Mitt Romney by five points. Despite Romney’s heavy spending in Iowa, Huck also led in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages.
In 2012, Rick Santorum executed a very late surge, mostly at the expense of early right-wing favorite Newt Gingrich. But in late November, even as he was polling at 6 percent in the Des Moines Register survey, Santorum only trailed eventual archrival (and ultimate GOP nominee) Mitt Romney by 12 points and more than doubled his support in December polling. The final RCP averages had Romney at 23 percent, Ron Paul at 22 percent, and Santorum at 16 percent. The sweater-vest-wearing Pennsylvanian won in an upset, but against relatively weak front-runners.
In 2016, Trump and Cruz alternated as leaders in most of the polls taken during the runup to the caucuses. In an early December Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey, Cruz actually led Trump by ten points. Trump narrowly led in the final RCP polling averages, but by less than five points. Cruz’s win was considered an upset, but a mild one, particularly given the amateurish nature of Trump’s Iowa campaign.
Compare all these situations to Iowa right now and there’s not much evidence a DeSantis shocker is in the works. Trump leads him in the RCP polling averages for Iowa by 30 points (47 percent to 17 percent). The former president has registered over 40 percent in every Iowa poll since June. And the real mover in Iowa at present would appear to be Nikki Haley rather than DeSantis; she was tied with the Florida governor in the last Des Moines Register/NBC News survey. That same survey, moreover, showed Trump supporters more locked in with their preference and more enthusiastic than backers of either DeSantis or Haley. Trump has also learned from his 2016 experience and has built a solid organization in Iowa.
The Iowa Caucus is an opportunity for DeSantis to overcome the widespread perception that his campaign is headed straight to the boneyard. His late endorsements by Vander Plaats and Iowa governor Kim Reynolds likely helped raise sagging morale, and he he sacrificed his standing in other early states to build an organization that could turn out supporters on Caucus Night. His Iowa strategy is very much based on the plodding county-by-county retail politicking that worked for Huckabee and Santorum, and has mostly been staffed by veterans of the 2016 Cruz campaign.
But at present, the only Iowa upset DeSantis can anticipate is to beat Nikki Haley for second place and survive for at least eight days until New Hampshire, where he’s currently running a poor fourth in the polls. Iowa isn’t going to “rise up” against the man who has helped turned the state into a Republican bastion; its voters — and particularly its GOP caucusgoers — are no more likely to care about Trump’s “character” than they were when they gave him a nine-point general-election victory in 2016 and then an eight-point victory in his 2020 losing cause.
The legend of Bob Vander Plaats the Iowa kingmaker is likely to take a big hit on January 15. We’ll see if he manages to spin whatever his candidate does into a moral victory.