Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida suspended his campaign for president on Sunday and endorsed former President Donald J. Trump, marking a spectacular implosion for a candidate once seen as having the best chance to dethrone Mr. Trump as the Republican Party’s nominee in 2024.
His departure from the race just two days before the New Hampshire primary election leaves Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, as Mr. Trump’s last rival standing.
Mr. DeSantis’s devastating 30-percentage-point loss to Mr. Trump in the Iowa caucuses last Monday had left him facing a daunting question: Why keep going? On Sunday, he provided his answer, acknowledging there was no point in soldiering on without a “clear path to victory.”
“I am today suspending my campaign,” Mr. DeSantis said in a video posted after The New York Times reported he was expected to leave the race, adding: “Trump is superior to the current incumbent, Joe Biden. That is clear. I signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, and I will honor that pledge. He has my endorsement because we can’t go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear.”
Mr. DeSantis had flown home to Tallahassee late Saturday after campaigning in South Carolina. He had been expected to appear at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon, but it was canceled.
Even before Mr. DeSantis made his announcement, Mr. Trump had begun speaking about his candidacy in the past tense. “May he rest in peace,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. DeSantis at a Saturday evening rally in Manchester.
Last week, Mr. DeSantis had started signaling that he might be looking to exit the race, casting his eyes forward to the 2028 election and conceding that Mr. Trump had won an overwhelming victory in Iowa.
Chaos punctuated the last days of his campaign, just as it had the first, when he kicked off his campaign with a widely mocked and technically marred livestream event on Twitter. Over the weekend, Mr. DeSantis’s schedule was in constant flux, as he flew between New Hampshire and South Carolina with little notice, postponing events and finally canceling his appearances on the Sunday morning political shows.
Mr. DeSantis’s endorsement of Mr. Trump was as quick as it was perfunctory. The Florida governor offered no rationale for supporting Mr. Trump other than the former president had support from most Republicans in the polls — and that he wasn’t Ms. Haley. Mr. DeSantis also couldn’t resist taking one last shot at his party’s front-runner, recycling criticism of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
In throwing his support to Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis seemed to be trying to unite the conservative wing of the party behind the former president while ignoring the fact that he was bending the knee to a man who had ridiculed him as if it were a blood sport.
After announcing his run for president in May with lofty expectations, Mr. DeSantis and his campaign proved a costly flop, spending tens of millions of dollars in concert with well-funded outside groups to little apparent effect.
Mr. Trump’s constant mockery — about everything from Mr. DeSantis’s facial expressions to his choice of footwear — degraded his image as a confident conservative warrior. Over the course of his campaign, Mr. DeSantis’s national poll numbers fell by roughly half, a seeming indictment of both his skills as a candidate and his strategy of trying to run to Mr. Trump’s right. A vaunted turnout and canvassing machine paid for by his super PAC, Never Back Down, hardly seemed to make a dent in the race.
At points, it felt as if Mr. DeSantis was careening from one embarrassment to the next, as his campaign dealt with setbacks like mass layoffs and the fallout from producing a social media video that featured a Nazi symbol.
In Iowa, his brash promise to win proved empty. Instead, he barely beat Ms. Haley, whose more moderate image seemed a poor fit for the state’s socially conservative Republicans. Pouring resources into Iowa starved Mr. DeSantis’s efforts in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two of the other early nominating states, where his poll numbers cratered. His loss of support from both voters and donors meant that there was little point in continuing on to more inevitable defeats.
While he had started the year leading Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, polls now showed Mr. DeSantis in a distant third place, drawing around 6 percent of the vote.
Both Mr. DeSantis and his allies seemed to be running perilously low on money. No pro-DeSantis ad had run on New Hampshire television since before Thanksgiving.
On the night of his defeat in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis had tried to spin his performance into a positive, saying that as the second-place finisher he had “punched his ticket” out of the state.
As it turned out, that ticket was valid for less than a week.
By dropping out before New Hampshire, Mr. DeSantis saved himself from a catastrophic defeat on Tuesday, stopping a long, slow political bleed.
There was no avoiding how bad it would be. Mr. DeSantis had campaigned lightly here, and in the days after Iowa he suggested he would focus instead on South Carolina, which would not hold its primary for another month. Never Back Down started laying off staff members.
But Mr. DeSantis’s downfall had begun in Iowa, where he staked his entire campaign.
Although the results did not reflect it, Mr. DeSantis ran the same playbook there that Republican candidates used to win the last three contested caucuses.
Mr. DeSantis visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, answered countless questions from voters and earned the endorsements of two key figures, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
“Nobody worked harder, and we left it all out on the field,” Mr. DeSantis said on Sunday in his dropout video.
His strategy was based on an assumption that Republican voters could be split into three buckets, based on their feelings about the former president: Those who would always back Mr. Trump, those who would never back Mr. Trump, and those who liked Mr. Trump and his policies but were ready for a new standard-bearer for the party, perhaps someone younger and carrying less baggage. It was that third group of voters Mr. DeSantis set out to win. Once he did that, the theory went, the never-Trumpers would follow.
But Mr. DeSantis struggled to explain why those soft Trump voters should choose him over Mr. Trump. For much of the campaign, he barely tried to draw a contrast, instead focusing on his record in Florida. Voters repeatedly questioned him about when he would forcefully challenge the front-runner, even into the campaign’s last days.
Eventually, Mr. DeSantis settled on an argument that Mr. Trump had failed to enact much of his conservative agenda, and that only Mr. DeSantis could give Republicans the victories they craved. But that rang hollow to many G.O.P. voters, who believed Mr. Trump had been an effective president unfairly stymied by liberals and “the deep state.”
“Trump stood up for the people,” said Brett Potthoff, 30, an engineer from Sac City, Iowa, who considered caucusing for Mr. DeSantis but ultimately said he would support Mr. Trump. “Everyone was trying to ax him for fake stuff.”
Mr. DeSantis’s failure with white evangelical voters was especially notable, given how hard he pushed to win them over. Last year, he signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida that outlawed the procedure at a time before many women know they are pregnant. Mr. Trump criticized the law as too harsh, and Mr. DeSantis tried to use abortion as a wedge issue to sway conservative Christians away from the former president.
It didn’t work. Many anti-abortion leaders and voters adored Mr. Trump for appointing the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, a goal of their movement for decades. They could not be moved from his side.
While Mr. DeSantis gained little with evangelicals, he lost greatly among centrist voters, as well as wealthy Republican donors with more moderate social views. His decision to cede the center helped create a lane in the race for Ms. Haley, who used a more measured tone on abortion. It also made it difficult for him to recreate the broad coalition that gave him a 19-point re-election in Florida, which he had built with support from women and independents, as well as Hispanic voters.
Still, some things seemed to be out of Mr. DeSantis’s control. Running against Mr. Trump, who essentially had the benefits of incumbency, was no easy task. And in another era, Mr. Trump’s indictments in four criminal cases would have seemed to benefit Mr. DeSantis. But far from diminishing the former president’s standing with Republicans, the charges actually rallied the party around him.
Mr. Trump was not the only candidate to hammer Mr. DeSantis with negative messaging. Ms. Haley, who had run well behind Mr. DeSantis for most of the race, also pilloried him incessantly.
In the end, no candidate faced more in negative spending than Mr. DeSantis.
That didn’t stop Mr. DeSantis and his team from promising a commanding performance in Iowa all the way up to caucus night. His aides pointed to the roughly 40,000 Iowans who had signed cards committing to caucus for him.
But on a bitterly cold evening, just over half that many people showed up to support him.
Stumble at the starting line
Mr. DeSantis and his team made a host of their own mistakes, even before he entered the race.
After his dominant re-election in 2022, with his poll numbers not far behind Mr. Trump’s, Mr. DeSantis sat on the sidelines. Instead of immediately beginning his bid for president, he decided to wait until after Florida’s legislative session, where lawmakers passed a host of conservative laws intended to win him credit with the right. That delay allowed Mr. Trump to set the narrative that Mr. DeSantis was weak and a traitor to the MAGA movement.
Then, instead of announcing he would run at a traditional rally — surrounded by his family and cheering supporters — Mr. DeSantis chose to declare his candidacy during a live-streamed conversation with the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk on X that crashed so frequently it left him the target of ridicule. The May 31 kickoff was widely seen as a disaster that set the tone for the coming weeks.
Money soon started to run low. Big donors had been turned off by Mr. DeSantis’s gaffes, his strident social conservatism and a series of bizarre social media videos, one of which included the Nazi symbol. His campaign, built to mount a national fight, was quickly deemed bloated and unsustainable. By late July, Mr. DeSantis fired more than a third of his campaign staff. Iowa became the campaign’s sole target. Many of the remaining staff members were ordered to relocate to Des Moines.
At the same time, Never Back Down, which had been promoted as his secret weapon, fell into turmoil. Officials at the campaign and super PAC debated strategy in a series of contentious memos that were made public because campaign finance law banned the two organizations from coordinating strategy behind closed doors. A fistfight nearly broke out between the group’s board chair, a college friend of Mr. DeSantis’s named Scott Wagner, and its chief strategist, Jeff Roe. Soon after, five top officials at Never Back Down either quit or were fired, followed by Mr. Roe. Mr. Wagner, a lawyer with little political experience, took over.
The chaos at both the campaign and super PAC undercut Mr. DeSantis’s narrative that he was a competent, no-drama executive. And it exposed how little he trusted anyone outside a small circle of advisers and friends, and what limited experience many of those aides had at the presidential level.
Mr. DeSantis also struggled on the campaign trail. Despite a compelling personal story, he hardly talked about his biography. He shunned the news media. He found it difficult to connect with voters and his awkward moments went viral. His most common response to learning a voter’s name was an excited “OK!” He tended to speak in hard-to-follow acronyms, referring to obscure topics that were mainly of interest to Republican ideologues, like “E.S.G.” and “D.E.I.” Polling showed that most voters cared more about the economy and immigration.
At his first major event in Iowa after the New Year, a time when voters generally start paying closer attention to the race, Mr. DeSantis opened his speech with a lengthy criticism of the accreditation process for universities.
The lecture didn’t seem to land. In a question-and-answer session afterward, one confused voter asked what the governor had been talking about.
“I think you were saying the word ‘predators,’” said Patrica Janes, 64, of Johnston, Iowa.
“Accreditation,” Mr. DeSantis explained. “Accreditor.”
Mr. DeSantis did adjust over the course of the campaign.
After the staff layoffs, he began running more of an underdog-style race, traveling up and down Iowa to stop in small towns and take voter questions. He talked to reporters daily and sat for interviews with the major television networks.
“It felt like he was censoring himself for a long time,” said Cody Ritner, 26, a DeSantis supporter from Decorah, Iowa, after hearing Mr. DeSantis late in the campaign. “He got a lot better when he started loosening up.”
The atmosphere at his events improved, too.
Still, some of Mr. DeSantis’s stubborn tendencies remained. He continued using his donors’ money to pay for private planes instead of flying commercial. His campaign barred New York Times reporters from attending events for more than a day in response to a critical article. His office did not invite Florida state lawmakers who had endorsed Mr. Trump to an annual Christmas Party at the governor’s mansion, even though all had received invitations the year before.
As a candidate, Mr. DeSantis also rarely seemed able to drive the day’s narrative. It was something he had done so effectively as governor, for instance when he transfixed the national media and outraged the left by having his administration fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
But in the presidential race, the force of Mr. Trump’s personality blotted out everything else.
Life after defeat
Now, Mr. DeSantis — who had been seen as an all-powerful figure in the State Capitol — faces a return to Florida, his stature diminished.
Still, he has nearly three years left as the governor of the nation’s third-largest state, as well as a proven history of securing the passage of his legislative agenda. And his favorability ratings generally remain high among Republicans nationwide.
As he digested his loss in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis argued that he had made a strong “impression.” He said he heard from a number of voters who had declared their allegiance to Mr. Trump this time around, but said they would support him in 2028.
There was some evidence to back that up. Despite the bruising contest, many Trump supporters had kind things to say about Mr. DeSantis.
Karen Kontos, 65, walked away from a DeSantis event in Ames, Iowa, last month impressed by the candidate and holding a yard sign bearing his name. She had no intention, however, of caucusing for Mr. DeSantis, whom she compared to a younger version of Mr. Trump.
“They think alike,” she said. “I like DeSantis. He has good ideas.”
But, Ms. Kontos added, “he’s not Trump.”
On Sunday, even Mr. Trump offered an olive branch to his vanquished rival.
Speaking to supporters at his New Hampshire campaign headquarters, Mr. Trump said he would no longer refer to Mr. DeSantis as “DeSanctimonious,” a derisive nickname he had used for months.
“That name is officially retired,” Mr. Trump said.
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Grimes, Iowa, and Michael C. Bender from Manchester, N.H.