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Updated Jan 14, 2024, 2:15am EST
politics

Hecklers compete with scarce voters in frozen Iowa

Reuters / Kyle Mazza
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The Scene

ATLANTIC, Iowa – Donald Trump’s Republican opponents returned to the trail on Saturday, facing sub-zero temperatures but no new snow. They also faced pranksters.

At a stop here, where the the Super PAC that supports Ron DeSantis, Never Back Down, bought McDonalds cheeseburgers for around 30 potential voters, DeSantis was interrupted by The Good Liars, a liberal-leaning comedy duo. “Nothing’s going to stop us,” said the candidate’s wife, Casey, before being interrupted by Davram Steifler.

“Real quick, before we get started – thank you, everyone!” said Steifler. “I want to present to you this participation trophy.”

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A dozen cameras rolled as Steifler attempted to hand the candidate his prize. Some in the Republican crowd laughed, quieting after Steifler told DeSantis he was “probably not gonna win the election.” DeSantis blocked the trophy with his hand.

“I don’t do participation trophies,” he said, beckoning a security guard as Casey DeSantis put herself between the prankster and her husband. “Sorry, buddy.”

The DeSantises, joined by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, and social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, went ahead with the program. Steifler’s partner, Jason Selvig, slowly moved between the press corps and the DeSantis team. When he attempted to speak, guards sprung into action and hauled him out of the room.

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“He was not from Atlantic,” DeSantis said. He told the crowd about a protester who’d interrupted an event in Ames the day before, shouting about his donations from the energy industry: “They’re charging the stage and complaining about fossil fuels in the middle of a blizzard.”

Winter storms have thinned candidate’s crowds this week, but each candidate on the ground – Trump canceled his Saturday schedule – had dealt with unwelcome interruptions.

Vivek Ramaswamy repeatedly quieted climate protesters at a stop in Des Moines, telling them they weren’t being “productive,” and blowing their chances at asking real questions. Nikki Haley, whose campaign has more firmly controlled attendance and media access, ignored a question from a man working with pro-Trump social media influencer Laura Loomer – would she return a donation from LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman “in light of the Epstein documents?”

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Haley does not take questions while meeting voters after her event, as journalist Michael Tracey found when he attempted to ask the candidate a question about U.S. military strikes in Yemen; he was removed, and told not to return, before she could respond.

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David’s view

I’d thought this week’s weather might pre-empt the usual caucus circus – the pranksters and hecklers who put themselves between candidates who don’t want to go off message, and reporters thirsty for spontaneous weirdness. Well, no.

The Good Liars, who’d shown up to tweak Democrats four years ago, delighted pro-Trump influencers this time. Video of the “trophy” exchange was shared widely on Saturday, a coup for comedians who have spent hours conducting oddball interviews of Trump supporters. MAGA Twitter, part of the conservative media that DeSantis has griped about, has delighted in footage of the candidate being mocked or confronted.

“This is [what’s] wrong with the college system right there,” DeSantis said in Ames, as the climate protester was wrestled to the ground.

Ramaswamy has made the most of the interruptions; his campaign, which streams all of his events, highlighted how he’s dealt with hostile questioners or protesters, talking them down instead of removing them. The campaign’s recording of the candidate debating gender surgery with “an LGBT protester” has 1.3 million views on YouTube.

He’d also criticized Haley and DeSantis for keeping out Laura Loomer, who on Friday followed the Florida governor in the lobby of his West Des Moines hotel. (“When are you gonna drop out?” she asked him. “Don’t you think you’ve already wasted enough of people’s money?”)

Trump, who has traveled with Secret Service protection since 2015, is kept away from this sort of embarrassment. He arrived in the state on Saturday night, checking in to the Hotel Fort Des Moines and then sitting for a friendly town hall interview conducted by Attorney Gen. Brenna Bird.

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Notable

The Des Moines Register Iowa poll, a quadrennial benchmark, found Trump ending the campaign with 48% of the caucus electorate, Haley with 20%, and DeSantis with 16%.

Haley is drawing support from Democrats and independents — a potential advantage in small, early votes but a liability as the election moves into large states with primaries closed to Republican electorates.

The cold could make an already unrepresentative process even less representative,” the AP suggests. “Elderly Iowans, the backbone of the caucus, are wondering how they will make it to their sites Monday. Political types are mentally downgrading their expected turnout and wondering who a smaller, harder-core electorate will favor.”

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