Republican presidential hopefuls have spent more than a year visiting Iowa, braved the chilly weather to hold hundreds of events in the state’s 99 counties, and dumped, collectively, more than $100 million on campaign ads there.
And it’s all for the dubious distinction of who will finish second and third in the Hawkeye State’s GOP caucuses Jan. 15 – and even those top-tier showings might only give them the hopes of being the person waiting in the wings should the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, suffer a spectacular fall.
For decades, the mantra from the site of the country’s first presidential nominating contest is that “there are three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning that the state’s voters winnow the primary field for ensuing primaries.
But this year, former President Donald Trump is so dominant that his win there is all but assumed – so much so that the runners-up are loath to attack their primary foe for fear of alienating his fervent supporters.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that President Trump is going to win,” with the only open question of whether he gets past 50% of the vote in the caucuses and “who takes second place,” says GOP strategist Jimmy Centers, a former aide to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds who is now a principal with the public relations and strategic communications firm Cornerstone.
And even a strong second- or third-place showing doesn’t guarantee anything other than a legitimate hope of being Trump’s second in a political duel.
“It becomes a matter of expectations,” says Republican consultant Matt Gorman, vice president of the firm Targeted Victory. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, “has staked his whole candidacy on Iowa,” Gorman says.
“If he comes in third or does not meet expectations, it could be a tough morning for him,” Gorman adds, referring to Tuesday the 16th, after Iowa Republicans announce the results of their caucuses.
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DeSantis, who early on cast himself as a younger and less legally troubled version of Trump, has focused heavily on Iowa. Known for his hard-line stances against abortion and LGBTQ+ priorities, DeSantis could get a boost from an Iowa Republican electorate that is unusually socially conservative.
He’s facing a late surge, however, from former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who threatens to wrest the second-place spot from DeSantis and put his entire presidential bid in peril.
Meanwhile, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy – despite having twice completed what local pols call “the full Grassley,” visiting all of the state’s counties as veteran GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley is famous for doing – is struggling to move his polling numbers past the mid single digits. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is skipping Iowa entirely to focus on New Hampshire, while back-of-the-packers Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, and businessman Ryan Binkley barely register in the political conversation in Iowa.
DeSantis has earned the backing of both Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in the state. But even those plum endorsements aren’t moving Iowa Republicans from the Trump camp. And notably, the Trump campaign this week released a new TV ad, “Enough is Enough,” that singles out Haley for criticism on border control policy – suggesting Trump sees Haley as a bigger threat.
“Donald Trump is a lap ahead of the field,” says former Iowa Republican Party co-chairman David Oman, a former chief of staff to two GOP Iowa governors and a prominent Haley supporter. “Why Governor DeSantis is still running around talking about winning [Iowa] escapes me. He’s setting himself up for some real ‘splaining to do as they move to New Hampshire,” where Haley is edging up in the polls.
Iowa has long been an opportunity for candidates, a place where even a relative political unknown can win people over with hard work and one-on-one campaigning. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, was a long-shot contender when the then-Georgia governor headed to Iowa in early 1975, traveling to small towns and rural areas to woo voters. His win in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses in 1976 gave him the momentum to win in New Hampshire and beyond, culminating with a general election victory in November of that year.
But that equation hasn’t worked so well this year for GOP contenders.
DeSantis has held 107 events during that period, while Haley has appeared at 70. But still, Haley has been nipping at DeSantis’ heels, capitalizing on strong debate performances and campaign stumbles by the Florida governor. And Trump? Despite having clocked just 25 visits to Iowa in the past year and change, he’s way ahead of his challengers, planning to skip yet another GOP debate Wednesday to participate in a Fox News town hall.
“I think Trump is kind of baked into this,” says Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor. “There’s something about Trump that’s just different. His hardcore supporters are just passionate about him, in a way that’s not political.”
Trump will be in Iowa today as part of a last-dash series of “commit to caucus” events. He is not scheduled to be back in Iowa until a week from today, however – leaving his work week free for a busy litigation period for the four-times indicted former president. Legal motions are due Monday in his Georgia conspiracy case in Georgia, oral arguments are scheduled for Tuesday in the District of Columbia on Trump’s claim of presidential immunity from prosecution, and closing arguments are set for Thursday in a New York civil lawsuit against Trump.
The morning after an anticipated Trump win in the Iowa caucuses, a trial starts in New York to determine a second set of damages in a defamation case brought by writer E. Jean Carroll.
For the most part, Trump and President Joe Biden are in general campaign mode. A 2024 Trump campaign memo released to the media this week targets Biden alone and slams legal efforts to remove Trump from primary ballots without mentioning any of his primary foes by name.
The Biden-Kamala Harris campaign has ramped up its general election push, with the president delivering a speech today to mark three years since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The event is cast as a campaign event and not as a White House event, as was done on previous observations of the day.
The campaign on Saturday is also releasing a 60-second TV spot on “the existential threat our country’s democracy faces from the MAGA extremism that now defines the Republican Party,” tying the Jan. 6 riots to Trump.
Monday, Biden will deliver remarks at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine Black parishioners were gunned down by a white supremacist in 2015. Harris is also scheduled to visit South Carolina, the state that propelled Biden to the Democratic nomination in 2020. She will also be traveling to campaign on abortion rights, which remains a potent political issue after a 2022 Supreme Court ruling reversing the guaranteed legal right to the procedure.
Iowa Democrats won’t have their traditional first caucuses Jan. 15, instead hosting party gatherings that day and holding a mail-in contest, with the results to be announced Super Tuesday, March 5.
And while the GOP winner is all but assured in Iowa, the state has still played a key role in the primary process.
“Iowa has done its job already, which is to narrow the field,” Schmidt says, noting that a slew of former GOP contenders – including former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and other lesser-known presidential hopefuls – have already left the race after failing to gain traction in Iowa.
Until and unless Trump has a major stumble that unravels his campaign, however, the GOP field may already be narrowed to one.