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Updated Nov 21, 2023, 5:37pm EST
politicsNorth America

The sputtering effort to stop Trump in Iowa

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley speak with Bob Vander Plaats at the Thanksgiving Family Forum on Nov. 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jim Vondruska/Getty Images
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The Scene

Sitting side-by-side at a wooden table at a forum with “discerning Christian voters,” three Republican presidential candidates compared the time they’d spent meeting Iowans.

Nikki Haley told the Iowa Family Leader’s audience that she’d “lost count of how many town halls” she’d had. Ron DeSantis was about to visit his 98th of the state’s 99 counties — “we’re going to save that 99th for a big, big announcement.” Vivek Ramaswamy talked about the apartment his family had rented in Des Moines, becoming “native Iowans,” as his son Karthik goofed around on his lap.

The next day, 100 miles away, Donald Trump rallied 2,000 supporters at a high school and promised to return to Iowa “four or five times, maybe six times” before the Jan. 15 caucuses.

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This was Iowa, eight weeks out from the first presidential primary contest — Trump doing only what he had to, and three far-behind rivals who had to try everything. Tim Scott’s exit from the race freed up big donors (ex-Trump adviser Gary Cohn, Citadel founder Ken Griffin) who are now eying Haley after missing her first funding rounds. But DeSantis still presents himself as the only Trump challenger who can compete in Iowa — credible with evangelical voters, backed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“He doesn’t need to hold off Haley in Iowa,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Des Moines who endorsed DeSantis this summer. “It’s only a two-person race. Only one candidate has the standing to win: Trump. And only one candidate has the organization to win: DeSantis. Haley is no threat on the ground to alter that. Especially within the Family Leader base.”

But the DeSantis operation is treating Haley like a threat. Never Back Down, the super PAC that’s run ads, paid for field operations, and staged town halls for DeSantis, began attacking Haley with paid messaging last month, highlighting times when the former South Carolina governor welcomed Chinese businesses to the state. Fight Right, a new pro-DeSantis group, has reserved $500,000 in ads that will start on Thanksgiving, also targeting Haley.

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The airwaves are far from full: Since the end of September, the super PACs supporting Trump (MAGA Inc.), DeSantis (Never Back Down), and Haley (SFA Fund) have spent only around $4 million apiece on TV advertising. But one reason Fight Right exists, according to NBC News, is that Never Back Down’s anti-Haley messaging, like its prior anti-Trump messaging, was ineffective.

“The numbers are showing that Nikki is the very clear alternative to Donald Trump,” said state Sen. Chris Cournoyer, Haley’s Iowa campaign chair. “Her numbers are rising in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. I think that DeSantis, even with his 99-county tour in Iowa, is just stagnant, and her message is truly resonating.”

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David’s view

The Iowa campaign is unfolding under nearly ideal conditions for Trump, the first choice for most caucus-goers and second choice for most DeSantis voters. Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats brought up that fact at his own event, asking the Florida governor the “biggest question” he’d been hearing: “Why doesn’t he wait his turn?” (Vander Plaats is expected to endorse DeSantis today, which his rivals saw as inevitable after DeSantis-related groups gave $95,000 to the Family Leader.)

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DeSantis’s answer hasn’t changed all year: He wins and delivers, Trump loses and falters. “I have laid waste to the Democratic Party,” he told Vander Plaats. “They are a carcass on the side of the road.” In Iowa, where his support among Republicans has stabilized around 17%, he casts Haley as a spoiler, explaining that Trump’s attack strategy — the ex-president’s PAC has only gone after DeSantis — “shows you who the threat is.”

But no candidate truly threatens Trump in Iowa, who has built and held a lead since DeSantis entered the race six months ago. At this point in the 2016 cycle, 55 days before the caucuses, Trump led Ted Cruz by 3 points; a late surge and solid evangelical support helped Cruz win by 3. Fifty-nine days out from the last Democratic caucuses, Pete Buttigieg held a 3-point lead over Bernie Sanders, which the Vermont senator would erase, before a botched count that convinced Democrats it was time for another state to vote first.

In an average of all Iowa polls, Trump heads into the Thanksgiving holiday up 30 points over DeSantis and the field. Not since 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore easily won their party caucuses, have Iowa front-runners held such wide leads in competitive races. DeSantis and Haley are viewed favorably by more GOP caucus-goers than Trump, but so was Scott, who abandoned the race this month. And veterans of the Scott campaign expect his voters to scatter between Trump, DeSantis, and Haley.

“Those persuadable evangelicals want someone they believe can win,” said Matt Gorman, a Scott campaign strategist, referring to the voters who make up around two-thirds of the Iowa GOP electorate.

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Know More

​​Of Trump’s remaining rivals, Haley has done the most to use electability as a point of contrast. She cites polls that show her running stronger than Trump in swing states, and she distances herself from any Trump stance that sounds divisive. Asked at a Marshalltown stop about Trump referring to political enemies as “vermin,” a comment that flared into days of mainstream media coverage, Haley characterized it as the sort of gaffe he makes and she doesn’t.

“I think he means well,” she said, “but the chaos has got to stop.”

More often, the candidates say that they can wield power better than Trump did. Haley boils down her problems with Trump into a few decisions he could have made, but didn’t; at the Iowa Family Leader forum, she repeated a story about Trump angrily “ripping out pages” from a list of unfriendly countries that got foreign aid, the point being that she’d rip out even more if she beat Biden. DeSantis, who talks about Trump more frequently than Haley, promises a better-organized, more loyal White House that would create less drama for the media to cover.

“When Trump was president — I mean, he literally would be doing phone calls with foreign leaders, and you’d have people on the NSC leak it to The Washington Post and The New York Times and stuff,” DeSantis told a crowd in Pella. “Part of that is because he kept all these Obama holdovers in the NSC. You cannot do that. All the Biden people, when I’m president, are gone on day one.”

There is no path to a DeSantis White House without an incredible result in Iowa; he has flatlined in New Hampshire, and his campaign and super PAC have been off the air there for months. Haley’s avoidance of the abortion issue, preferring a “consensus” to a specific new federal policy, is well suited to the least-religious GOP electorate on the early calendar.

But at the forum, when pressed if she would have signed South Carolina’s six-week abortion ban, Haley said she would. “Whatever the people decide, you should go,” she told Vander Plaats, going on-record about an issue she’d evaded. She did it at an event hosted by an influencer that everyone expected to endorse DeSantis — an event that Trump felt very free to skip.

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Notable

  • In Politico, Jack Shafer plays taps for Haley’s social media verification proposal, a brief flare-up that DeSantis took advantage of as he tries to fend her off; it “crumpled under the most gentle scrutiny.”
  • In the New York Times, Reid J. Epstein looks at how Democrats want the electorate to realize that Trump will probably be the GOP nominee, keeping up their “yearslong dependence on the Trump outrage machine.”
  • And in Semafor, Shelby Talcott assesses how the overall political environment got better for Trump: “63% of Americans consider crime an extremely or very serious issue, the highest they’ve ever recorded in over two decades.”
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