Iowa Is a Big Problem for Trump
Iowa Republicans aren’t buying and the math for the GOP caucus is going to be scrambled because the Democrats have killed theirs.
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON 2024 has flipped. Again. At first, Trump was toast. Then Ron DeSantis was a juggernaut. Then the New York indictment supercharged Trump while DeSantis was revealed to hate puppies, small children, and humankind in general.
So now Trump, having turned the party of Lincoln into the party of Rasputin, cannot be defeated by any mortal Republican—only by Joe Biden in the general.
Perhaps. But I spent a few days in Iowa last week checking in with old friends from my decades working in state Republican politics. I had a useful captive audience of Iowa pols and operatives when I gave the annual Culver Lecture at Simpson College in Indianola, and I met other local politicos in Des Moines. In each chat, the take was unanimous: They told me that Donald Trump is going to lose the Iowa caucus. Some of them predicted a third-place finish.
“Of any ten strong Trump people I know from 2016,” one youngish field wizard told me, “at least half are gone.”
Iowa’s GOP regulars think Trump is a certain loser against Biden, I was told, and the state’s powerful evangelicals agree; they are looking for a younger, more authentic champion. They see the stakes as being so high in their war against the secular left that a slow general election pony like Trump seems a foolish bet.
So that’s what Iowa’s hacks are saying. Now let’s review the numerical facts.
IN 2016, DONALD TRUMP RECEIVED 24.3 percent of the Republican caucus vote, leaving him second behind Ted Cruz. Trump received 45,429 votes out of about 187,000 votes cast. Most of the party mechanics I talked with think his support has significantly waned since.
While the Iowa Democratic caucus is now gone, having been stripped of its first-in-the-nation status, the Republican contest will remain huge national news. On caucus night, Trump will be hoisted onto a livestock scale and his true political strength weighed for all to see, bovine style. And the scale doesn’t lie; for the allegedly all-powerful King of the GOP, losing could expose real weakness.
Here is a significant factor to consider: When the DNC axed the Iowa caucuses, they left the 172,300 Democrats and independents who participated in 2016 with nothing to do on caucus night. Experienced local pols in both parties will tell you never to underestimate the importance of the caucuses to Iowa’s political culture, where participating is seen as an important civic duty.
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Because they’re worried about caucusless Democrats showing up for the Republican caucus next February, Iowa’s GOP-controlled House is moving a bill to make it harder for non-Republicans to caucus. This would be a significant change. Historically, the Iowa GOP made it easy to just show up at the caucuses and register as a Republican because this was a prized party tool to gain new registrants. Now they’re less worried about making new Republicans than contamination from Democrats.
But even if the worried wing of the state GOP succeeds in creating new obstacles (like a 70-day pre-caucus registration requirement), plenty of Democrats will still be willing to become independents or even Republicans for a day so that they can participate—in Iowa, changing your party registration is easily done online.
“We can’t let Donald Trump continue to dictate the Republican party,” one Democrat told me. While some giggling Democrats might enter the caucuses as fake MAGA warriors on the assumption that Trump would be a weaker opponent for Biden, I’ll bet a prize hog that the overwhelming majority of any visiting, non-GOP caucus voters will be on a civic mission to stop Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.
The math here could be quite interesting. If 15 percent of the 172,300 Democrats and independents who participated in the Democratic caucuses in 2016 were to show up at the GOP caucuses next year, that would be over 25,000 new votes—which is about half of what the winning Republican candidate usually gets.
That could be a pretty big hidden normie vote.
THE OPERATIVES I SPOKE TO all believe that Iowa is wide open. Nikki Haley is a frequent early visitor (I saw her scuttling across my hotel lobby twice), and her stump is getting solid reviews, but she is struggling to zero in on a message more powerful than her generic list of base-pleasing applause lines. The revelation that Haley dramatically inflated her initial campaign fundraising report has sparked doubts about whether or not she can raise enough money to fully compete.
Tim Scott—now an official presidential campaign explorer—is attracting interest from the evangelicals who make up a large and influential chunk of Iowa’s GOP. (Note to Sen. Scott: Widen your appeal. You need party regulars, too. The 150-percent-pure-evangelical approach is a proven way to win Iowa only to lose New Hampshire and then the nomination. Ask former Presidents Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum. Scott could learn much from George W. Bush’s successful evangelical-plus-sunny-uplifter strategy from 2000.)
Ron DeSantis has yet to offend Iowans the way he’s lost the first-to-panic Republican donor class, so Hawkeye operatives think he is still in the hunt. But doubts are growing. DeSantis will have to really shine in the second-look process that begins this summer. (Note to Gov. DeSantis: Dale Carnegie was born in Maryville, Missouri, just 16 miles from the Iowa state line. They have online courses. Wouldn’t hurt.)
Potential contenders Glenn Youngkin and Brian Kemp haven’t popped up on Iowa radar screens. Mike Pence is a known quantity, but hasn’t sparked much talk. Yet.
This early vacuum is completely normal; Iowa caucus voters sample early but decide very late. Any caucus pro will tell you the last 40 days of the contest are everything, and the early polls are near meaningless. (A year before the 2016 GOP caucus, Scott Walker and Rand Paul led the Des Moines Register poll.)
While Trump may be badly damaged goods in Iowa, he remains a real threat to the others. A desperate, feral Trump could be a catalyst, potentially hurting other candidates more than helping himself. His competition will need to become effortlessly adept at slapping back Trump’s gusher of “people are saying” smears and innuendos. Expect to hear about DeSantis, whiskey, and high school girls; Scott’s bachelor status; and even smears about Youngkin’s name. (“YoungKIN! Sounds like a Chinese name. Maybe he’s a Chinese robot. I hear people are talking about it.”) Idiotic? Sure, but these candidates should remember linguist George Lakoff’s famous example: “Don’t think of an elephant! Now you are thinking of an elephant.” Trump’s smears, while puerile, untrue, and outrageous, cannot be ignored.
Much has yet to happen in the campaign. But Iowa Republicans are very much open for business and shopping for a new face. And should Trump indeed lose Iowa, he’ll be a bleeding target on the road to New Hampshire, and the race will be upended.