Jun 5, 2023, 7:17am EDT

Trump’s absence looms large in Iowa


Sign up for Semafor Principals: What the White House is reading. Read it now.

Title icon

The Scene

DES MOINES, Iowa – Eight GOP presidential hopefuls worked the room at Saturday’s “Roast and Ride”, introducing themselves to likely caucus-goers with no spotlight-hogging by Donald Trump. But the former president still loomed over the first Republican cattle call of the summer.

“Make America Great Again” signs lined the path to the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Volunteers wearing “MAGA COUNTRY’' shirts gave out business cards with QR-codes to sign up for Trump. When Nikki Haley said she wasn’t doing “shortcuts” to win the caucuses, and Mike Pence denounced the “siren song of populism,” voters and reporters could guess who they were talking about.

According to Sen. Joni Ernst, the host (and lead rider) of the motorcycles-and-BBQ fundraiser, Trump turned down an invitation to speak in person. A pro-DeSantis PAC claimed on Sunday that Trump promised, but never delivered, a video message; a source familiar with the situation confirmed their account, while the Trump campaign denied it.

“Obviously, as president, he has other considerations to think about, whether he does a multi-candidate event or not,” Ernst told reporters, referring — perhaps subconsciously — to Trump’s old job in the present tense.

Title icon

Shelby and David’s View

The candidates who showed up in Des Moines did plenty of good for themselves.


DeSantis, who stepped on some of his applause lines, spent a long time mixing with voters — some of it outside a bus (that he signed with the help of his 3-year-old daughter, Mamie) rented by his allied Never Back Down super PAC. A leather-clad Pence got credit for making the motorcycle ride to the venue that most candidates skipped. “I roasted on that ride,” he joked, promising to bring back Trump-era policies and prosperity (“and then some”) and previewing his announcement speech next week.

Tim Scott and Nikki Haley shared their personal stories and the overlapping lesson they’d learned — that America isn’t racist. “The truth of my life disproves the lies of the radical left,” said Scott; “America is not racist, we’re blessed,” said Haley.

But offstage, the hottest topic was still the frontrunner who hadn’t even bothered to show up.

“Obviously, Trump leads by quite a margin,” Sen. Chuck Grassley told Semafor. “But nobody can take Iowans for granted, and a lot of things change, because people spend so much time here.”

DeSantis in particular was hounded with questions from the press about his main competitor — what message did it send that he showed up to Iowa, but Trump didn’t? Could he respond to Trump declaring he didn’t “like the term woke”? And what were his thoughts on the former president’s praise of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?


That last question seemed to draw in the most candidates. “Kim Jong Un is a murderous dictator,” DeSantis told Fox News. “Whether it’s my former running mate or anyone else — no one should be praising the dictator in North Korea or praising the leader of Russia, who has launched an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine,” Pence also told Fox News offstage. “You don’t congratulate a thug,” Haley added.

For Trump, the absence was likely strategic: Showing up could serve to legitimize the slew of candidates vying to take him down. It’s the same logic that has some close to him encouraging him to skip the debates.

Voters were clearly interested in the buffet of options available to them; one woman, upon being approached by a Trump volunteer, even bluntly declared she wasn’t “for Trump”. But it wasn’t clear that there was an overwhelming next choice, even as DeSantis clearly generated the most excitement in Trump’s absence.

Notably, some of Saturday’s loudest applause went to candidates who Trump sees as non-threatening. Trump welcomed Scott into the race with no insults, and has praised Ramaswamy for having “only good things to say” about him. (One reason Chris Christie will enter the race tomorrow is his frustration in how most of the field happily co-exists with Trump.)

Title icon

Room for Disagreement

“Ninety-nine percent of life is about showing up,” DeSantis reminded a volunteer backstage after his speech.

There are signs he could carve out a path in Iowa if Trump isn’t careful: He locked in dozens of endorsements from Iowa legislators before entering the race, and is trying to pry off voters who like both candidates but want a younger, disciplined president. DeSantis spent significant time meeting voters face-to-face throughout Saturday’s event.

Title icon

The View From A Voter

Ingrid Sephler, a retired nurse, came to the event as a fan of Haley who wanted to learn more about DeSantis. She “loved Trump,” she said, but was looking at her options. “We supported Trump when he was in there,” Sephler said, “but my kids hated him because he’s a name-caller, and he tweets stupid stuff.”