DES MOINES, Iowa — Yes, the door-knockers roaming Iowa know you like Donald Trump. But have you considered he may not be quite the right person to get conservatives across the finish line in 2024? He did so much for us last time around, but would you really still vote for him if he’s a convicted felon by Election Day? And look, Democrats aren’t excited about Joe Biden, but you know they’ll turn out in droves to defeat Trump. Think about the down-ballot races!
Semafor spent two days shadowing canvassers with AFP Action, the organization affiliated with Charles Koch that has been working since February to build a grassroots operation that will help nominate someone other than Trump. (Stand Together, the network Koch founded, is an investor in Semafor.)
At first glance, the initiative seems to be an uphill battle, to say the least: Trump currently holds a massive lead against his opponents, not just in Iowa and early voting states, but in national polls, too. On Monday, the Des Moines Register survey — the state’s gold standard — found him with a 27-point lead and trending upward. Indictments, concerns about his age, you name it — voters just don’t seem to care (as other well-funded anti-Trump groups have found). But despite all of that, AFP Action, which has spent roughly $15 million in ad buys across various media in their effort to convince voters to move on from Trump, says they see a real opening for a rival to win.
“We’re finding that as many as more than two-thirds of Trump supporters are seriously concerned about his ability to beat Biden, the baggage he brings to a general election, and would be open to an alternative candidate,” AFPA spokesman Bill Riggs told Semafor.
For their work to succeed, one candidate would need to surge, Trump would need to stumble, and probably something totally unexpected would have to happen on top of that. But AFPA wants to make sure that should that moment come — and it may never come — when a candidate is competitive, getting renewed looks from the electorate, and enjoying an explosion of national media attention, they’ll be in place to make an endorsement and persuade and turn out voters in Iowa and beyond.
On the ground, it’s evident that AFPA’s argument has some merit. Residents in neighborhoods in Des Moines and Ames who answered their doors largely expressed a willingness to consider candidates besides the frontrunner — and some who listed Trump as their top choice expressed reservations.
“[Trump has] proven himself. The only thing that would hold me back would be if he is mired in legal troubles,” one voter said.
“I’d show my support to Tim Scott. The reason is, he doesn’t run a negative campaign,” according to a second.
“DeSantis, the thing about him is, he’s starting to act like a mini-Trump,” a third remarked.
“Maybe Haley — I’m gonna see how it plays out,” said a fourth voter.
“I guess at this point, I’m just kind of seeing what they have to say,” a fifth person said.
These kinds of voters are AFPA’s main focus: People who either want to move on from Trump, or those they describe as “soft” supporters, who like Trump but remain open to hearing out other candidates. The latter is particularly important in the effort to boost a non-Trump alternative — and, if door knocking is any indication, there seems to be a large pool of those voters.
AFPA’s door knockers are equipped with an app that allows them to target specific houses and voters and track their progress. They also come prepared with a script, asking questions about what voters’ top concerns are; how likely a voter would be to vote for Trump or one of his opponents if the primary were held today; whether the person plans to caucus in January; and an explanation of why they, too, are looking for the alternative to Trump. Over time, AFPA has people return to homes where voters expressed a willingness to pick someone besides Trump.
AFPA says they have already reached over 5 million potential Republican primary voters in various battleground states, and that the data will ultimately be used to try and recruit new voters — who want a fresh start from Trump — into the caucuses on Jan. 15. Perhaps even more important to their mission is planting a seed of doubt and convincing “soft” Trump backers that abandoning him is even an option. After all, the candidates themselves don’t seem to be getting it done so far.
I saw firsthand that AFPA’s idea of “soft” Trump voters is real. Sure, there are caveats — it’s a small sample size and we were in some of Trump’s weaker territory from way back in 2016 — but the majority of voters we spoke with over those two days didn’t seem all that interested in having him be their nominee again, even as many remained grateful for what he’d accomplished in his first term.
But there’s a big difference between observing that voters aren’t yet married to a specific candidate and actually getting those voters to ultimately pick a non-Trump alternative. This effort is made more difficult by the fact that conservatives currently have so many options to choose from. Voters we spoke with were interested in a range of candidates, from Nikki Haley to Ron DeSantis to Vivek Ramaswamy and beyond. AFPA staffers admit the number of candidates in the field is a problem. Like much of the non-Trump field, their hope is that most of them drop out early enough for the race to become about Trump versus a singular opponent who can unite the opposition.
Not all Trump opponents are the same, though, and their voters may not be compatible with each other if the field shrinks. The same Des Moines Register poll released on Monday found that 41% of voters who listed DeSantis as their first choice said that Trump would be their second option, for example. And so far, despite efforts from AFPA and Trump’s opponents, nothing seems to drag down his support.
Room for Disagreement
There are attack lines that work against the former president, according to my conversations with the group: For “soft” Trump voters, AFPA finds that the electability argument is key. For people already leaning against Trump, messages focused on his personality seem to be motivating.
Early state voters also tend to break late in the race. An AFPA spokesperson argued that around half of the Republican primary electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire believe that the primary “hasn’t begun” or has “just started.” That could explain why polls have been largely stagnant for months.
- There’s been a growing push for candidates to drop out and coalesce around Haley given her steady improvement in the polls. The New York Times’ David Brooks and the Washington Post’s George F. Will both made the case recently, with Will even noting he did so despite his wife’s work as an adviser to Tim Scott.
- At National Review, Dan McLaughlin argues that DeSantis is still the best Trump alternative despite a rough few months. “At the moment, at least so long as Donald Trump himself is on the ballot, the traditional, Reaganite conservatives — even when combined as a force with their longtime foes, the moderates — are a faction,” he writes. “And you can’t win a head-to-head primary with just a faction.”