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Inside the Run-Up to the Iowa Caucus

Do even Trump’s opponents really believe they can win?

Credit: Evan El-Amin

With mere days before the Iowa caucus, the former President Donald Trump, frontrunner for the Republican nomination (and, per more and more polls, for the presidency), spent Tuesday morning in a DC court room as his legal team attempted to fend off charges brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith. Meanwhile, Governor Ron DeSantis returned to his home state of Florida to deliver his State of the State address. By evening, DeSantis was back in Iowa for a Fox News town hall, just like the one the network hosted Monday with former South Carolina Governor Nimarata “Nikki” Haley. 

The pair faced off one-on-one in a CNN debate Wednesday night in Des Moines; they will spend every waking minute campaigning in their final push for Iowans’ votes. Trump, on the other hand, has plenty of surrogates on the ground, but won’t be in Iowa until he holds two of his trademark rallies on January 13.


As things currently stand, Trump has a commanding lead of more than 30 points, on average, over the rest of the field in Iowa. The former president seeks to prove that the race was over before it started—the nomination process is but a formality. DeSantis, who has essentially tied the fate of his campaign to his performance in Iowa, is less than a point ahead of Haley in second place. Meanwhile, Haley has opted to bet big on New Hampshire; nevertheless, she has in recent weeks poured millions into Iowa in a last-second scramble for second place. The goal: to make her the clear Trump-alternative candidate.

Generating momentum in these early states is important, especially for those candidates facing lingering questions about their viability, but the curious formats and demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire make the first two stints of the primary race treacherous terrain full of twists and turns for any presidential hopeful. The American Conservative spoke to Republican strategists about what surprises may or may not be coming around the corner.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, unpredictable upsets are commonplace, and the results rarely predict who will receive the nomination come the convention. The last time the Iowa caucus winner went on to secure the GOP nomination in a contested primary was in 2000. George W. Bush captured 41 percent of the vote—is that the Trump campaign’s benchmark for success? In 2008, the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee captured just over 34 percent of the vote while Mitt Romnmey came in second, almost ten points behind. The eventual nominee, the former Arizona Senator John McCain, got 13 percent of the vote because, as he did in 2000, he somewhat stayed out of Iowa and relied on a strong performance in New Hampshire, a state with a high number of independents and college graduates. In 2012, the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum barely edged out Romney. In 2016, Cruz won Iowa, followed closely by Trump and Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio. With a forecasted high of negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit, the winner this year might just be the weather.

In total, 40 delegates are up for grabs in Iowa on Monday: 25 at-large delegates, 12 congressional district delegates, and 3 RNC member delegates. Beginning at 7 pm local time, Republican voters will show up to their caucus sites, where they will first vote on who among them will preside over the night’s proceedings, which can last hours. Individuals, typically associated with the grassroots operations of their chosen candidate’s campaigns, will give speeches on behalf of their candidates. While the format encourages conversation and persuasion among the precinct’s caucus goers, when it comes time to vote, voters will be given a blank sheet of paper, not a ballot with a list of names, and write the name of who they want to vote for. When the statewide results are tallied, the delegates are allocated proportionally to the top candidates.

“A caucus is not a primary. You don't show up to vote and then just leave in five minutes or however long it takes to get to the ballot box. It's an all day event,” Republican Strategist and Founder of the 1776 Project PAC Ryan Girdusky told The American Conservative in a phone interview. Girdusky said the caucuses are “very geared towards organization and towards precinct captains and towards people who have a history of running the show,” something candidates such as Cruz, Santorum, and Huckabee have managed to use to their advantage in Iowa despite not going on to win the nomination.


Creating the grassroots organization necessary to perform well in each individual precinct, however, is more difficult than it seems. “People generally assumed the caucus is made up of a subset of primary voters—not all primary voters go to the caucus but all caucus-goers vote in the primary. This is in fact not true,” the Republican strategist Luke Thompson told TAC. “Each caucus, about a third of the caucus is entirely new. There’s considerable drop-off caucus to caucus, and that’s not just because people move and die but because you’re being asked to go sit in a high school gymnasium for an extended period of time in some of the worst weather imaginable.”

In 2024, campaigns are also faced with another problem: The last contested GOP primary was eight years ago, making it difficult to predict voter behavior.

“Somebody may have gone to the last ten caucuses, but that person is probably pretty old and might not come out to this one. Likewise, if somebody didn’t go to the 2020 caucus, because there really wasn’t one, does that make them a less reliable caucus voter? Statistically, it’s not meaningful. So, you have to go back eight years to predict their behavior,” Thompson explained. “Eight years is a long time in the lifecycle of a human being.”

The caucus’s intrapersonal format presents other obstacles, or opportunities, too. “In the caucus, people are toggling in and out in a nationwide information struggle while campaigns are building an organizing apparatus in Iowa specific while debating and deciding how much resources to commit to it,” Thompson claimed. 

It is not an “easily predicted or linear process,” Thompson added. But that also presents some candidates with an opportunity. “Candidates look viable longer than they might in a primary. In a statewide primary, even with many well funded candidates, it tends to clear down to two, two and a half, viable candidates going into Election Day. But because the caucus is the first of many contests, the incentives for people to cluster behind a winner are far, far fewer because you can come in second in the caucus and still win the whole thing—as Donald Trump did in 2016, as Mitt Romney did in 2012.”

If recent past is prologue, however, on the ground organization in Iowa might not be everything. “Back in 2016, Trump had literally no organization whatsoever in Iowa, and he came in a very close second place,” Girdusky said. “Rubio and Cruz had the organization skills, had the energy, had the money. Trump just had the energy and the message and that was enough to switch over a lot of people who either never caucused before or were less inclined to caucus and they were not as organized. So it's not mandatory to win, but it definitely helps.”

No candidate has more to lose in Iowa on Monday than DeSantis. He’s held around 200 campaign events in Iowa, visiting each of the 99 counties. The Florida Governor’s campaign apparatus has spent nearly $2 million on advertisements in the Hawkeye state, too.

Thompson explained why DeSantis is all in on Iowa. “If you’re DeSantis, New Hampshire you know out front is not going to be great territory for you. DeSantis always had to go all in on Iowa. He had no other choice because he's not a great fit for New Hampshire. New Hampshire tends to be a Yankee secular state that doesn’t care that much about the culture war.”

Thompson characterized the DeSantis campaign’s efforts to spend time and money looking to Super Tuesday states as “[putting the] cart thoroughly before the horse.”

“DeSantis’s entire plan hinged on going the distance in Iowa, and if not winning, coming in a close second,” Thompson continued. “DeSantis has to do extremely well in Iowa to be viable as a candidate. Period.”

Yet DeSantis’s organizational push, despite the aforementioned difficulties, could pay dividends. Girdusky told TAC that the Florida governor’s bet “on proven caucus-goers who have a history of organizing will benefit him over people who are not as inclined or supportive yet don’t have a long voting history. People without a voting history tend not to vote, while people who have a long voting history tend to vote. That’s just the way it always goes.”

“So, DeSantis having the organizational skills and the precinct captains and the highly organized ground troops, for lack of a better word, will benefit him in a case where there's a low turnout election,” caused by sub-zero temperatures, Girdusky added. In that scenario, there is a “very small chance” that DeSantis pulls off a “miraculous upset,” Girdusky claimed. Then the question for DeSantis becomes “where do I go next?”

“I don’t know where DeSantis goes next. Does he go back to Florida and wait for that election to happen? Possibly. Does he try to do a strong showing in South Carolina? Maybe,” Girdusky told TAC. 

“DeSantis always required this to be a two man race between him and Trump,” Girdusky continued. “He never managed to close the gap enough to scare off the Tim Scotts, the Nikki Haleys, the other people who jumped in.”

Haley has never had much riding on Iowa. Like McCain before her, she’s playing for a strong showing in the New Hampshire open GOP primary—the only state primary since Democrats have refused to hold one. Haley hopes the Granite State’s independents (the largest political affiliation in the state), made up of many college-educated voters, will give her the upset over Trump. Nevertheless, Haley has poured almost $2 million into advertising late in Iowa to target DeSantis.

The million dollar question for Haley come Monday: “Is she going to be Rubio or Ben Carson?” Thompson said. For the Rubio scenario, Thompson said Haley, like Rubio in 2016, could “beat expectations” because those expectations are tempered. “If she overperforms, then it will have been a great move to sort of flirt with Iowa and then pull back. If she winds up in single digit territory, or, frankly, comes in behind Ramaswamy, then I think the decision to play in Iowa at all and spend several million dollars will get second guessed,” Thompson told TAC.

“My suspicion is she winds up somewhere closer to Carson,” because “the hard reality is that Nikki is just not a great fit for Iowa,” due to some of her “socially liberal” and “fiscal” policies. The suspension of former New Jersey Christ Christie's campaign on Wednesday isn't expected to help Haley much in Iowa, given Christie is polling at just over 3 percent. Where it could pay dividends, however, is in New Hampshire.

“If [Haley] was smart, she would have pulled out of Iowa completely, and said to her supporters, ‘Support DeSantis, caucus for DeSantis. I’m gonna stay in New Hampshire’—essentially what John McCain did in 2008,” Girdusky told TAC. “Had she done that, and not spent millions attacking DeSantis in Iowa, DeSantis would have had to spend millions actually starting to attack Trump rather than her.”

Haley should have stayed in New Hampshire, Girdusky claims, because she actually stands a chance of winning. Because there will only be one primary in New Hampshire, lean-Democrat independents could be turning out for Haley in large numbers. “She’s going to have a number of supporters who will not be voting Republican in the 2024 general election, but will be voting for Nikki Haley [in the primary]. She has this relationship with Chris Sununu, the very popular governor, and she's played New Hampshire very, very well,” Girdusky said. “New Hampshire is the home of political upsets. It’s the place where John McCain beat George W. Bush in 2000. It is the place that Pat Buchanan beat Bob Dole in 1996.” It could happen again, this time with Haley.

“If Christie drops out, she's going to win New Hampshire,” Girdusky told TAC Tuesday. “If he's actually serious about stopping Trump, he has to drop out because he’s not going to be the nominee, and all of Christie’s supporters are going to move to Haley or most would move to Haley, and that will give her the numbers necessary to win, and win fairly strong in New Hampshire,” Girdusky continued. Nevertheless, even if Haley picked up every one of Christie’s voters, she’d still be trailing Trump, according to RealClear polling data.

“If there is in some world where DeSantis can pull off an upset in Iowa and Haley can pull off an upset New Hampshire, and Trump goes into South Carolina losing the first two states, some soft Trump supporter may be sitting there and saying, ‘I’m gonna give these other people another look.’”

Though his bid was entirely about preventing Trump from getting the nomination, Christie is skeptical. Just before Christie dropped out of the 2024 race, the former New Jersey governor was caught on a hot mic saying Haley is “going to get smoked—you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”

To Christie's unspoken point: New Hampshire’s sizable contingent of independents is not just made up of college-educated voters who claim they are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and will pull the lever for Haley. “You also have a very fiery, libertarian, grassroots, populist component of the independent electorate in New Hampshire as well,” Thompson claimed.

“Independents were a big reason why Donald Trump crushed in 2016 in New Hampshire. He just cleaned up with them,” Thompson told TAC.

“In many respects, Trump is seen as moderate on key issues, especially around entitlements and things like that, in ways that just the national press is blind to. They don’t see that Trump’s moderation on the welfare state was a huge asset to him in the Republican primary. But it was in 2016. It may be so again if you wind up with a Nikki Haley, Donald Trump [in a] functional head-to-head going into New Hampshire because Haley has said repeatedly, ‘We need to cut Social Security,’ and that’s going to hurt her in a state where you've got a decent number of tax refugees at or approaching retirement from other New England states,” Thompson explained. “They haven’t all become snowbirds in Florida.”

One very prominent northeasterner changed his residency to Florida in 2019. Trump, running as a pseudo-incumbent, is seeking to cut the hearts out of his challengers in these early contests. That pseudo-incumbent status “can be a bit of a prison,” Thompson told TAC. 

“Even though you’re not the president, in order to project your president-ness, you have to travel with the regalia, if you will. And that's expensive. Yes, it's expensive in terms of time and effort and staffing and energy. It's expensive in terms of raw dollars. Throwing a Trump rally is not cheap. Yet, at the same time, having Donald Trump just show up at a Pizza Ranch in front of 16 people begins to diminish the appearance of incumbency.”

Trump, Thompson said, has managed to strike somewhat of a balance by meeting people on the street around important campaign events, such as “walk[ing] into the McDonald’s and orders McFlurries for people.”

Whether voters feel Trump has found that balance is another question. “These early state primary and caucus goers is that they take their politics very seriously. It is almost a sport to them, and they take it seriously when they get to meet a candidate over and over and over again,” Girdusky claimed. “And Trump hasn't done that groundwork like he did in 2016. Remember, in 2016 he was giving helicopter rides to children at the Iowa fair. He hasn't done that groundwork.”

“All the other candidates can go out there and eat meat on a stick until they’re blue in the face, press the flesh, meet with every tiny, little micro-group in every corner of the state, and nobody sees that as beneath their station. But it would be, I think, unnerving to see the former president, running essentially as still the president, sitting down with eight people for some bad coffee at a church banquet hall on a Tuesday morning,” Thompson said. “You can ho and hum and talk about the Iowa way all you want, but that’s just the reality of the optics of politics.”

The other obstacle facing the former president in Iowa: the weather. In 2016, it was one of the fairest days the January Iowa caucuses have ever seen, Girdusky pointed out. Even though “Trump led in the polls in Iowa going into 2016,” Cruz won, he noted.

“Don’t underestimate the idea of voters being lazy or just not wanting to show up in cold weather or bad weather—especially the voters who are least likely to vote,” said Girdusky. “Those without a college degree, those with a very low voter history are those who support Trump usually. And so it’s not impossible that on election night we see a surprise.”

Nevertheless, the advantages of pseudo-incumbency have served Trump well thus far, given his massive lead in the polls. “Anybody would prefer to be a pseudo-incumbent because it gives this great power projection, it has fundraising advantages, and there’s genuine momentum advantages,” Thompson claimed. 

“If Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the fat lady can sing. It’s over. If he loses, they go till he wins. They live to fight another day, he lives to fight another day,” Girdusky said. At least until Monday, “it’s Trump's election to lose—not really their election to win.”


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