“Second sucks and third is even worse,” a then 20-year-old Tiger Woods bragged to interviewer Curtis Strange before his now immortal PGA Tour career even began more than a quarter-century ago.
I recall seeing/hearing Woods say these words at the time and immediately surmised the immense hype surrounding the 3-time U.S. Amateur champion about-to-turn-pro had gone to his head. Strange had won the U.S. Open championship a couple times (back-to-back in the late 80’s) and had experienced more than his share of triumphs and tragic failures on the toughest golf tour in the world. Strange basically replied to the outwardly presumptuous neophyte, “after you’ve been out here a while, you’ll find that second ain’t so bad.”
Without belaboring the point, Woods went on to wage a heck of a career (not finished yet? We still don’t know), including reeling off fourteen major championship victories in a little over eleven years before his 33rd birthday. We all know what happened next. Tiger’s world imploded when news of his personal weaknesses and marital transgressions got out and subsequently ruined his legendary focus, and, together with a horde of devastating injuries and a pain-killer addiction, derailed his quest to best legend Jack Nicklaus’s majors’ record. Tiger Woods could’ve been the best, but he undeniably got in his own way.
How does Tiger’s tale relate to the 2024 Republican presidential primary campaign? With Donald Trump having opened up what appears to be an insurmountable lead in the race to determine the party’s next nominee -- to take on broken-down old goat senile Joe Biden or whomever the Democrats manage to dredge up to sustain their objective to ruin the greatest country human minds ever created – Trump’s GOP competitors are quickly diminishing expectations while suggesting that maybe a runner-up finish in an early state primary or caucus wouldn’t be so awful after all. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, long considered Trump’s main challenger, is apparently resigned to a second place (at best) result in the upcoming (in four months?) Iowa caucuses. Is Ron serious that a runner-up placement wouldn’t be terminal to his hopes? In a piece titled “DeSantis camp on Iowa: A ‘strong second’ is good enough’”, Sally Goldenberg wrote at Politico:
“Ron DeSantis’ team says it would be satisfied with a ‘strong second-place showing’ in Iowa, as the Florida governor intensifies his campaign in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. ‘We believe it’s already a two-person race,’ a top DeSantis campaign official granted anonymity to discuss strategy told POLITICO. ‘But the reality is, on the ballot there are other choices, and our goal is to get this down to a two-person race on the ballot, especially as we head into South Carolina and beyond into March.’
“Speaking ahead of DeSantis’ [last] weekend trip to Iowa, the official said ‘a strong second-place showing gives us an opportunity to go in[to] New Hampshire and show success.’
“Expectations-setting is a tried and true element of every campaign, and DeSantis’ team remains bullish about his ability to make up ground. But coming four months before the first votes are cast in Iowa, the sentiments from the DeSantis campaign official reflect the yawning gap that’s emerged between the Florida governor and former President Donald Trump in both national and Iowa polls.”
Far be it from me to question the DeSantis campaign – and I don’t, really – but the quotes in Goldenberg’s article could’ve just as easily been attributable to any political candidate’s campaign staff, save for Donald Trump’s. The interviewees are full of optimism and perceived patience with a heavy dose of reliance on a few factors – like the fact 12,000 Iowans have pledged to caucus for DeSantis – as a comfortable rock to rest upon.
What else would you expect from them? We’re still a virtual political lifetime away from Caucus Night and we’re not even done with summer. The leaves may be starting to turn, but fall hasn’t arrived yet. And here’s guessing that Iowa’s farmers are busy gearing up for the harvest, praying for favorable weather and markets rather than worrying about the difference between DeSantis’s and Nikki Haley’s platforms.
Those mired in the political bubble have difficulty understanding that real people have lives outside the few minutes a day they might spend fussing over the GOP presidential race. But these distractions could conceivably work in DeSantis’s favor because, when the work’s all done and folks start concentrating on the future, they’ll be prepared to consider a newcomer.
It’s one reason why voter contact is vitally important now, and follow-up efforts are just as critical in the coming months. DeSantis’s vaunted ground game could start showing results after the third or fourth contact, with fence-sitting caucus-goers realizing “Hey, they didn’t forget about me.” Do the others (namely Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Mike Pence) possess the same sort of expensive get-out-the-vote machines?
The only candidate seemingly immune from the quadrennial dance is Trump himself, though you can bet his campaign hirelings are working overtime with texts, calls and advertising themselves. And yes, Trump will be busy enough dealing with his upcoming court appearances and perhaps even resting so he can do a lot of gladhanding in the Hawkeye State. Trump’s lead is big enough where he can all-but count on a victory on Caucus Night, so the former president doesn’t need to concern himself with whether a second-place finish would be “good enough”.
A second place for Trump in Iowa would, in Tiger Woods’ vernacular, “suck”. And sure, third place would be worse for a man who can’t afford to lose, lest doubt creep into conservatives’ brains like a serpent through a hole in a foundation.
But the non-Trump candidates’ expectations and potential value in an Iowa runner-up are quite different than the leader’s, especially if DeSantis were to separate himself from the others in his own right. The day after the caucus votes are tabulated (only the Democrats take days or weeks to declare a winner), if Trump’s margin of victory was somewhat underwhelming, there’s a good chance the establishment media would focus more on who came in second rather than Trump’s victory itself.
I know, that’s hard to imagine, but it could happen.
The corporate media couldn’t care less about repeating a “Trump is still winning even if he’s a felon” storyline, so they’d pause, at least for a day or two, to dwell on the potential budding horserace in the GOP. They’d still want Trump to win, mind you (because they consider him damaged and doomed in the general election), but they also see kind of a two-fer developing by slobbering over Trump-the-certain-jailbird possibly having to deal with an intra-party challenger in addition.
The media talkers and gossipers got this scenario in 2016 when Ted Cruz eked out a narrow win in Iowa over Trump and then-establishment favorite (passing Jeb Bush at that point) Marco Rubio, with the New Yorker gracefully conceding on Caucus Night (and then returning to his standard “the election wasn’t fairly run” fallback position). Cruz gleefully declared victory and proceeded to fall flat in New Hampshire.
A similar pattern could ensue early next year. If DeSantis were to somehow win in Iowa, it wouldn’t automatically mean he’d be primed to repeat in The Granite State. New Hampshire loves outsiders and “moderates”, which isn’t a good combination for the Floridian. Therefore, a second-place finish in Iowa (to Trump) would merely guarantee DeSantis remains viable at least through South Carolina.
Being realistic, all of the not-Trump candidates would rate a second-place result in Iowa as “good enough”. To them, second place wouldn’t suck, and even a close third wouldn’t be worse. What’s the old political axiom? That Iowa won’t essentially reveal who will be the next party nominee, but the caucuses will expose who it won’t be. Is the old line of thought that four candidates emerge from Iowa with a fighting chance and still relevant? I don’t see it that way any longer. Donald Trump changes everything.
Vivek Ramaswamy would be thrilled with second-place in Iowa, as would Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, or… again, all the others. It’s almost as though most politics watchers will toss out winner Trump before the ballots are even cast to see who follows him. A huge Trump victory – with well over 50% -- would also heighten calls for the not-Trump competitors to get out of the race and consolidate behind the almost-certain eventual nominee.
Likewise, if DeSantis made it competitive in the first-to-vote state, it would send alarm bells ringing throughout Trump world, though I still don’t see the “only Trump” bloc ever detaching itself to then reattach to the Florida conservative – or anyone else, for that matter. It’s difficult to envision how Trump loses the long race even if one or more competitors manages a close second in the first month.
If voter behavior history holds, conservatives and Republicans will get beyond the early states to vote for whomever they want in their state’s primary. It’s far from a “national primary” election, and certain candidates might do better closer to home, but generally speaking, the one with the lead going into the voting usually comes out the winner regardless of a stumble in Iowa or New Hampshire. Conservative candidates (like DeSantis) tend to do better in Iowa but then have trouble carrying the purported momentum beyond The Granite State.
With Trump’s lead appearing to have staying power, it’s no surprise the not-Trump candidates are revising their expectations downward and making the argument a second-place finish in Iowa wouldn’t be that bad. Unlike with the young Tiger Woods, second in a political primary campaign doesn’t necessarily suck -- and it could even provide hope that the race might turn around later on. Could it happen?
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