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The Iowa caucuses, Florida and the fate of DeSantistan

by David Silverberg

Tomorrow is the day of the long-awaited—or long-dreaded, depending on your perspective—Iowa caucuses.

As this is written the Hawkeye State is being battered by a brutal blizzard and plummeting temperatures. Because caucus-goers must make their preferences known in person (they don’t actually fill out a ballot but submit slips of paper) attendance—or lack thereof—will greatly affect the outcome.

The general expectation is that former President Donald Trump will win in a blowout. That’s the way the polling has been going. But given Mother Nature’s intervention there could be a surprise, or surprises. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) might beat Trump or do much better than expected. Former South Carolina Gov. Nimarata Nikki Randhawa Haley could get “smoked” as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie predicted—or she could smoke DeSantis or even Trump.

The state of Florida is going to be affected by the outcome, given that there are two Florida men running against each other. That impact will extend beyond the question of who will be the Republican presidential nominee; Floridians may feel the effect of this distant contest in their everyday lives.

So it makes sense to go beyond just the presidential horserace aspects of the contest and weigh the impact of possible outcomes on the Sunshine State.

The respective standings of the Republican presidential candidates in Iowa as of today, based on aggregations of polls by ABC/ The chart shows Trump at 51.3%, Haley at 17.3%, DeSantis at 16.1% and Ramaswamy at 5.7%. (Chart: 538)

Florida Man 1: The White House or the jail house

Despite his high-profile residence in the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Donald Trump has had surprisingly little impact on his adopted state. He rarely weighs in on state politics or policies except to insult and denigrate its governor whom sees as an ungrateful traitor.

Trump is preoccupied with his presidential bid, staying out of jail and keeping his financial empire intact. If he wins Iowa he simply goes on to the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23 and then follows the trail to the nomination at the Party convention on July 15 in Milwaukee, Wis. Other than little bumps along the road for trials, appeals and potential disqualification for insurrection, it’s a pretty straightforward progression as long as he stays out of jail.

This should not have a direct impact on Florida or its legislative session now under way. If Trump becomes president he will establish himself as dictator and presumably favor Florida in his decisionmaking, although this is never to be taken for granted with Trump.

However, one area that should concern Floridians, especially in the Southwest, is his pledge to “drill, drill, drill” starting on day one. While oil platforms are unlikely in the waters immediately off of Mar-a-Lago (after all, he wouldn’t want to spoil the view), they could be permitted in the eastern Gulf off Southwest Florida, something that Floridians have fought for years. If Trump decided to allow them, there they would be—and in a dictatorship, Southwest Floridians would have no recourse or appeal. That’s life under a tyrant.

There is another Florida possibility that’s unconnected to either Iowa or the presidential campaign. It’s been raised by Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, and that is that Trump could lose Mar-a-Lago in a court judgment. If that happened, he might cease to be a Florida man and take up residence in a federal prison or abroad.

If he left Florida one way or the other, it seems unlikely that Floridians would feel any impact of his departure or absence in their daily lives—although traffic might improve around Mar-a-Lago.

Florida Man 2: The fate of DeSantistan

Far more significant for Floridians is the fate of the state’s governor. Here, the impact of the Iowa caucus outcome is likely to be felt at street level.

It needs to be remembered that at stake in Iowa is not just the future of DeSantis, his presidential ambitions and his political campaign. Rather, the Iowa results will be the first step in telling the world whether America wants to be Florida, or more specifically, DeSantis’ Florida—what has been called DeSantistan (with thanks to Diane Roberts of Florida Phoenix for the term).

It’s not just DeSantis being judged in Iowa; it’s everything that DeSantistan has come to mean: the book-banning, vaccine-denying, woke-stopping, gun-toting, immigrant-hating, teacher-bashing, college-crushing, abortion-ending, vote-restricting, media-taunting, Disney-destroying, Trumplike tropical culture that defines this peculiar peninsula right now.

If DeSantis wins in Iowa he’ll be able to claim validation for his cultural crusade. It will be a triumph all the sweeter for the long odds and unexpected outcome. He’ll be able to argue that the DeSantian model is attractive to the American public at large (even if it’s endorsed by just a handful of frostbitten Iowans) and he will take it to the next stop in New Hampshire. He will pursue his cultural agenda, touting it as a model for the entire country. He will strive to make America DeSantistan.

Within the confines of the Sunshine State, the state legislature, with its Republican supermajority, is likely to remain cowed and subservient in the face of a possible DeSantis presidency. After all, a President DeSantis would bring many potential benefits and rewards, both for the state and for the legislators personally—and also nasty, petty penalties for defiance or apostasy.

As they did last year, the legislators will likely “stay the course,” as DeSantis called on them to do in his State of the State address last Tuesday, Jan. 9. They will probably continue to enact his priorities while each one jockeys to prove him or herself more DeSantian than the others. It will mean a continued race to the right and into further depths of abortion prohibiting, educational inquisition, voter suppression, science denial and cultural crusading. Bills to these effects are already under consideration.

However, if DeSantis is defeated in Iowa that could all change—and the bigger the defeat, the bigger the change.

The definition of “defeat” is variable: a loss to Trump would not be surprising but a loss to Haley, especially a big loss, would be crushing and personally humiliating. Imagine, losing to a girl!

A decisive defeat could end his presidential campaign altogether. Numerous observers, including the wickedly wise Karl Rove, have pointed out that Iowa is a “do or die” moment for DeSantis. If he loses he will still likely limp to the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary, where there is an actual vote. But a loss in Iowa will send him to the Granite State wounded and crippled.

Back at home DeSantis would still be governor of Florida for the next two years but his standing in the state would be vastly diminished. He would no longer be the face of the future with the potential to provide great rewards or significant punishments.

Indeed, this year the Florida legislature is showing some signs that the extreme DeSantis-Make America Great Again (MAGA) fever is beginning to break.

For example, a bill to ban abortion in virtually all instances (House Bill 1519) is getting the cold shoulder from Senate President Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) and House Speaker Rep. Paul Renner (R-19-Flagler and St. Johns counties), the top lawmakers in both houses. Similarly, a bill to virtually end mail-in balloting and require more hand counts of ballots (Senate Bill 1752)—pet peeves of Trump and 2020 election deniers—received a similarly cold reception from Passidomo.

The cooling of ideological ardor, combined with the governor’s prolonged absence from the state while campaigning elsewhere, has apparently loosened DeSantis’ hold on the minds of state lawmakers. A decisive defeat in Iowa could actually awaken them from their cultic thrall and evolve a spine in some of them, despite party demands for complete submission.

After a beating in Iowa and the end of his campaign, DeSantis would likely return to Tallahassee, lick his wounds and govern for the next two years but without the presidential urgency and drive that has propelled him so far. As he stated in his State of the State speech, he would stay the course and continue with existing policies, likely without the bombast and drama that has marked him to date.

However, he would also be governing in the looming shadow of a possible Trump presidency and while Trump may be forgetful of land values and real estate appraisals he never forgets an enemy or a perceived turncoat. If Trump wins, DeSantis would likely be targeted for arrest and imprisonment on Jan. 20, 2025, the first day of a Trump dictatorship. (Trump probably wouldn’t wait for the following day to order DeSantis’ arrest but would have him seized on some pretext after taking the inaugural oath at noon.)

In the event that President Joe Biden is re-elected there would be none of the truly dire consequences for DeSantis and the state. The governor would continue denouncing Biden from the safety of the Governor’s Mansion for two years and then play baseball, cogitate in a think-tank or practice law while awaiting his next presidential chance in 2028, secure in the expectation that there would be another chance because the election would be held as planned.

Grassroots Floridians will likely feel the impact of a DeSantis defeat in a more moderate legislature and less draconian laws, somewhat freer democracy (or at least less restrictive balloting), and less hatred, prejudice and rage against citizens who fall outside the governor’s political base.

By contrast, a DeSantis win in Iowa will likely see more efforts by Florida Republicans to force political unity on the Florida population to guarantee solid backing for his continued quest for the nomination and general election. The totalitarian impulse is strong in the Sunshine State. After all, last year there were calls to officially make Florida a single-party state. Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-11-Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties) introduced a bill to outlaw the Democratic Party based on its 1860 support for slavery (conveniently overlooking Republican support for keeping slavery in the states where it already existed). Republican Party Chair Christian Ziegler announced that the Party’s “work is not done until there are no more Democrats in Florida.”

Today Florida is still a multiparty state, there are still Democrats voting in it and Christian Ziegler has been expelled from the Party chairmanship. Now the fate of Florida’s political culture rests in the frozen mittens of Iowa Republicans.

As for Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Floridians are unlikely to feel any shock waves if these candidates somehow emerge from Iowa’s icy grip. They have not had an impact on Florida to date and unless one of them succeeds to the presidency, it’s hard to see any state impacts from either of them.

Of caucuses and confusion

In 2020, six Democratic candidates entered the Iowa caucuses to jockey for the presidential nomination. In a surprise, Peter Buttegieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, received the largest proportion of votes and the most delegates after a confusing, delayed result that took several days to sort out. In the end it didn’t matter because Joe Biden became the nominee and the 46th President of the United States.

The results of the Republican Iowa caucuses this year could be similarly confused. We all may not know for days who won or in the end the results may be inconclusive. Ultimately, they may not matter at all.

There’s also one other possible outcome: if he somehow loses, Trump will no doubt declare that he actually won, the caucuses were rigged and the results are invalid. He’ll blame the weather, illegal migrants, and George Soros.

It could happen. After all, this scenario has occurred before. And his MAGA cultists will no doubt believe him.

Sidebar: A caucus mystery solved?

In American political parlance, “to caucus” means to “gather” or “confer” and “a caucus” means a gathering or conclave.

The origins of the term “caucus” are obscure. When this author was researching his book Congress for Dummies in 2002, he discovered there was no definitive etymology for the term. Some observers thought it was originally a Native American term. That seemed unlikely because the word sounded Latinate. Other sources believe it derived from colonial drinking clubs or from shipbuilding caulkers “caucusing” together.  

On a visit to Scotland last summer, this author became aware of a Scottish drinking cup called a Quaich (pronounced “quake”). According to Scottish sources, the word is Gaelic and means a cup of friendship or comradeship. It was a Celtic variation of a low-class Latin word for cup, which happened to be “caucus.”

So the American political term “caucus” may derive from the time of Roman Britain and Latin’s influence on language throughout the isles. As people gathered to drink and share cups, they also shared thoughts and concerns. Perhaps Scottish settlers brought their quaiches and the even older term for cup to the New World. In the centuries since, the word has evolved to its current political meaning.

This is a theory, of course. Someday, perhaps some sharp linguistic graduate student will definitively nail down the sources and proofs. But it makes sense and it’s pleasant to think of a caucus as a group of friends gathering together to share a common cup of spirits, conversation and good cheer. It’s a warm image particularly appropriate to the frozen fields of Iowa.

At any rate that’s the explanation this author most enjoys, so he’s sticking with it. Slàinte Mhath!

Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on January 14, 2023.

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