CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – When Nikki Haley walked into an arts district event space here, with a pared-down version of her stump speech, half a dozen chairs were empty. When Ron DeSantis rallied with two of his best-known Iowa endorsers in the Des Moines suburbs, two dozen out-of-state college students had grabbed the best seats.
After a year of campaigning, canvassing, and pricey advertising, Iowa’s caucuses are coming to an unsuspenseful end. Public polls show DeSantis and Haley deadlocked for second place as she looks toward New Hampshire, where the race is actually competitive. Snow and freezing temperatures have shrunk crowds and lowered expectations for the Monday vote, when wind chill in some areas will reach the negative 20s.
“It’s not the most pleasant, but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to cast a vote that has more impact,” DeSantis told members of the Northside Conservative Club on Monday — keeping part of his public schedule, alongside Gov. Kim Reynolds, while Haley scrapped a trip to vote-rich northwest Iowa. (She replaced them with tele-town halls, while DeSantis canceled late afternoon events north of Des Moines.)
“We don’t know what the turnout’s going to be,” DeSantis explained. “It could be much smaller than what it’s been, in, you know, the ‘16 cycle. That’s possible.”
DeSantis and Haley spent Wednesday night in combat, emptying their oppo files, both portraying the other as a liar who couldn’t win the nomination. But they are closing in very different ways: Haley as the candidate who’s only showing up in Iowa on the way to the real race in New Hampshire, DeSantis as the conservative trying to keep Iowa relevant by showing up everywhere.
Haley has kept a lighter schedule, speaking for 20 minutes in major population centers, taking no questions, and posing for selfies with potential caucus-goers. She doesn’t talk about winning the state; she talks about cutting spending, defending Ukraine, and how the country will be watching on Monday night for Iowa voters’ advice.
“I’m from South Carolina,” Haley said in Cedar Rapids. “We’re an early state, too, and we love the fact that candidates come in. But boy, we love it when they leave.”
DeSantis has continued to hold town halls, spending an hour at each stop answering questions. A candidate who once boasted about his ability to run around the “legacy media” now does “Morning Joe” hits and ask-anything press gaggles — even knocking Haley’s campaign for, this week, telling reporters to step back and stop talking with voters 15 minutes before she arrived at her events.
“If you put your foot in your mouth every other day, if you’re scared to take questions from the media and voters and all these other things, you are not going to be able to handle what’s coming for you in a general election,” DeSantis told voters on Thursday night in Clive, just outside Des Moines.
Do voters, especially Republican voters, care how much their candidates field questions? In my interviews, it didn’t sound that way. Some of the DeSantis and Haley voters I talked to — and all of the Trump voters — said that they’d skipped Wednesday night’s CNN debate. DeSantis, whose political skill set does not include a poker face, didn’t feign enthusiasm when an undergrad from Ohio asked how he could heal the political divide, or when a man visiting Ankeny from California asked whether implementing his policies at the federal level would really be the same as implementing them in Florida.
Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s campaigned at least twice in all 99 Iowa counties, was keeping an even busier schedule than DeSantis. He wasn’t looking ahead to New Hampshire. In his closing stops, he’s looked further down the calendar, conjuring a scenario where DeSantis and Haley, who cannot beat Trump, team up and replace Trump as the nominee.
“They want to narrow this down to a two horse race between Donald Trump and a puppet who they can control,” he explained in Cedar Rapids on Thursday. “They will then eliminate Trump and trot in their puppet.” He would stay in the race, he explained, not because he was about to win Iowa, but because the MAGA movement needed an insurance policy in case of any pre-convention skullduggery.
“If you want to save Trump, a vote for me is actually the way to do that,” Ramaswamy said. It was, he admitted, “counterintuitive.”
The View From VOTERS
Ramaswamy’s theory didn’t sound odd to his audience. Some had watched Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar drop out of the 2020 Democratic primary just in time to help Joe Biden surge. As the candidate walked to his bus, one voter showed me a text message she’d gotten from a friend — a clip from conservative activist Charlie Kirk’s podcast, speculating that DeSantis and Haley would collude to stop Trump.
“It’s all a scam,” said Troy Johnstone, who said he was worried about Trump being forced off the ballot. “Hitler did the same thing — attack and arrest your political opponents. That’s what Biden’s doing. And they call Trump a dictator?”
Trump’s voters said they saw no real challenge from Haley or DeSantis. They knew he’d win Iowa. They were more concerned with what his opponents would do, after the caucuses, to deny him the nomination.
“They’ve tried to stop him, and stop him, and stop him, and that man has not given up,” said Wanda Beltramea, a Trump supporter from Cedar Rapids. She’d largely ignored the rest of the GOP field, and was aghast when one canvasser showed up at her home suggesting that Trump might be struck from the ballot — which she couldn’t imagine. “It’s in God’s hands. God has the final say.”
Iowans voting for Haley and DeSantis were split on the question. Some believed that Trump’s behavior had disqualified from the job. But another, popular view, was that he was too damaged, and whatever they personally thought of him, they needed a back-up plan.
“I just don’t think he’ll be able to get anything done, because of all this garbage that’s going on,” said Alice Schenkelberg, as she waited to hear Haley speak in Cedar Rapids. “I mean, the guy won’t have any time to be president.”
- Elsewhere in Semafor, Shelby Talcott and I talk to a range of Iowa voters about their options, from MAGA voters who never quit Trump to never-Trumpers gravitating toward Haley.
- In Politico, Jonathan Martin surveys Nikki Haley’s crowds to identify her problem in Iowa: “I struggled to find a single attendee in the suburban strip mall tavern who was not a college graduate.”
- In the Des Moines Register, Brianne Pfannenstiel looks at the whole state to explain where votes will come from, and where Trump’s opponents need to run up the score to stay relevant.