For Trump and his potential 2024 GOP rivals, it’s all about Iowa
DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump was in Iowa on Monday. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida made his first visit last week. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina have each made recent trips. And on Saturday, former Vice President Mike Pence will speak.
Even though Democrats have chosen to snub Iowa in 2024, the state has never been more important to Republicans in the race for the presidential nomination. For a Republican, it took a do-or-die feel – the first real-world test of Mr. Trump’s strength or vulnerability.
No former president has sought to regain the White House in modern times. A defeat or even an unconvincing victory for Mr. Trump in the caucuses of the state, the Republican pitching contest early next year, would signal a near fatal weakness for his campaign, according to GOP strategists in and out of state. . For this reason, his challengers and Mr. Trump himself are paying close attention to Iowa.
“I don’t see a formula where Trump loses Iowa and it doesn’t really hurt him and his chances as a candidate,” said Terry Sullivan, who led Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Even though Mr. Trump easily carried Iowa to the 2016 and 2020 general elections, Republican campaigners in the state said a 2024 caucus victory was not assured for him, although he remained the frontrunner.
Last week, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found Mr Trump’s appeal was eroding: If he is the nominee in 2024, only 47% of Iowa Republicans would definitely support him in the general election. . That was a double-digit drop from the 69% who in 2021 said they would definitely support him.
“For the former president, winning the Iowa caucuses is everything,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential leader of evangelical voters in the state. “If he loses, it’s ‘game on’ for the nomination” for everyone, he said. “If he wins the Iowa caucuses, no one will stop him.”
After Democrats decide that Iowa’s almost entirely white and largely rural population is unrepresentative and replace South Carolina as the launch state for their 2024 primaries, Republicans are adopting the traditional role of the state as a testing ground.
The Trump campaign has hired experienced heads of state and plans to build an Iowa caucus infrastructure that signals its desire for an overhaul from 2016, when Mr Trump was shocked to finish second in the caucuses.
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At the time, the politically inexperienced reality TV star had believed that large crowds at his rallies would easily translate into a flurry of huddles. Instead, he lost to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Mr Trump was so angry he flew out of Iowa without thanking his local staff, later tweeting baselessly that Mr Cruz had won because of ‘fraud’ – a glimpse into his approach after he lost re-election in 2020.
Trump advisers have said they have no intention of repeating the mistakes of 2016. “We have a serious political operation in the state of Iowa, directed and coordinated with extraordinarily capable professionals who know what they’re doing,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump campaign adviser. “We’re doing this because, one, we’re serious, and two, we’re here to win.”
Mr. Trump has hired as State Director Marshall Moreau, who pulled off an upset victory for the Republican attorney general in Iowa last year. He also hired as director of the first voting states Alex Latcham, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. Mr Latcham witnessed Trump’s clumsy effort up close in 2016.
“We have the advantage of learning from this lesson,” Mr Latcham said.
Unlike a primary election, a caucus is a low-turnout rally that forces voters to brave a typically chilly winter night for hours of speeches and voting in their local constituency.
In 2016, Trump staffers in Iowa — including a former “Apprentice” candidate — signed up volunteer organizers, but failed to teach them how to join caucuses or even provide them with documentation to leave at their door. Trump’s headquarters in suburban Des Moines was dark many nights when his rivals had dozens of volunteers working on the phones.
Trump advisers have said things will play out differently this time. They highlighted Mr. Trump’s first visit to Iowa on Monday as the 2024 candidate. The campaign said it was tracking the names and emails of thousands of people who registered to attend and have filled the packed house, seating 2,400 people, in Davenport, Iowa.
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“The real campaign work begins when the president is on the move,” Mr Latcham said. “We will continue to hire these people consistently every day through February.”
Mr. Trump has also bowed to campaign traditions he once shunned. During his Davenport appearance, he answered unscripted questions from the audience for 20 minutes. Prior to the rally, he paid an unannounced visit to a Machine Shed restaurant, a popular Iowa chain.
One of Mr Trump’s rivals, Ms Haley, a former United Nations ambassador to the Trump administration, has visited Iowa twice since entering the race last month, and on both visits, she engaged voters at length, leaning into the one-on-one. style of campaigning that helped her win elections as governor of South Carolina.
Restaurant dates are a not-so-subtle way in which Mr. Trump’s advisers in 2024 want to draw a contrast to his likely chief rival, Mr. DeSantis, who is fighting a wooden reputation.
“In the past, large gatherings worked,” said Mr. LaCivita, Trump’s senior adviser. “It’s definitely a different campaign than 2016. It’s a different era. We’re going to do a mix of retail politics and large-scale gatherings.
A national Republican strategist, Kyle Plotkin, had a contrary view of Iowa’s importance to Mr Trump, noting that even if he lost there, his die-hard supporters – about 30% of Republicans in national polls – would be enough for him . to prevail in a field of challengers dividing the opposition votes.
Iowa GOP activists said Mr. Trump maintained a fervent base of supporters, but many Republicans were open to an alternative, especially one they considered more electable.
“I think Trump is preferred, but I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag,” said Steve Scheffler, one of two Republican National Committee members from Iowa.
Gloria Mazza, the Republican chairwoman of Polk County, the largest county in the state, said of the GOP base, “Are they looking for someone else? They could be.”
And Mr. Vander Plaats, the leader of Evangelical voters, who form a large Republican bloc in Iowa, said many were wide open to an alternative to Mr. Trump. “My fear, and that of many other people, is that we are concerned about how America has largely made up its mind about Donald Trump,” he said. “I think it’s time to get behind the next leader who can win in 2024.”
Mr Vander Plaats said evangelicals had not forgotten that Mr Trump blamed the large Republican losses in the 2022 midterms on the candidates putting too much emphasis on the “abortion issue”.
“It showed a character thing with Trump that he blamed the pro-life movement,” Mr Vander Plaats said. “If you’re trying to win the Iowa caucuses, I wouldn’t put that base under the bus.”
If Mr. Pence enters the race, as is widely expected, the Trump campaign could struggle to reduce the former vice president’s appeal among evangelical voters. And Mr. Pence could adopt a strategy of camping out in Iowa – spending most of his time in the state putting on a strong show in caucus.
“Mike Pence could do very well in Iowa,” said Rick Tyler, one of Mr. Cruz’s top aides in 2016. “I don’t think Trump stands a chance in Iowa this time, because he offended the evangelical base so much.”
Maggie Haberman contributed report.