For the last year, Donald Trump’s primary opponents have been hoping Iowa would be the former president’s glass jaw. Just over a month out from the Jan. 15 caucus, however, it’s looking like reinforced steel. That complicates the path forward for his remaining opponents, who had been hoping that voters would grow more skeptical of his candidacy as the first voting neared.
On Monday, the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found that 51% of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa listed Trump as their first choice — up from 43% in October. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, sat in a distant second with 19% versus his 16% two months ago, and Nikki Haley remained in third with 16% of voters choosing her as their first choice. Vivek Ramaswamy garnered 5% support — just ahead of Chris Christie, who had 4%.
The poll, which NBC News noted was the “largest [lead] recorded so close to a competitive Republican caucus” in history, marked the latest challenge for the non-Trump candidates as they work to convince voters, political leaders, and donors that they’re still credible contenders. Haley, for example, has only a single endorsement from a member of Congress — Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. — and polls showing her down 35 in Iowa don’t exactly make sticking one’s neck out look more attractive.
If there’s one thing the campaigns have experience with in this race, though, it’s arguing that polls showing Trump up by huge margins don’t matter. On Monday, DeSantis himself addressed the latest survey, telling voters at an event in the state that polls are “never accurate with a caucus because it’s all about turning out the folks.” He later made a similar point on a popular podcast show that history has shown polling to be, at times, inaccurate.
The DeSantis campaign believes their ground game, which has almost exclusively focused on Iowa so far, will take them further than most public polling has shown. They have backup from Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC whose leadership has been in flux in recent weeks.
“Republicans know that public polling doesn’t mean a thing, as we’ve seen most recently from the expected nationwide red wave that didn’t take effect in 2022,” DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo told Semafor. “Instead, what will decide Iowa is the historic ground game that Ron DeSantis has built, which is exactly why he has the support of 42 state legislators, over 120 county chairs, over 100 faith leaders, 1,000 precinct captains, Gov. Kim Reynolds, and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.”
DeSantis, for his part, has done little to temper expectations: Just last week, he boldly declared he’d win the state. If that doesn’t come to fruition, his campaign’s viability could come into question.
Haley’s campaign, meanwhile, is focusing on the fact that she’s rising (at least in most polls). Unlike DeSantis, they’ve shown some signs of life in New Hampshire, which often breaks with Iowa voters. They’re counting on a weak performance from DeSantis in Iowa to end any rationale for his campaign, giving her a boost and a chance to consolidate support heading into the first-in-the-nation primary. They also expect to benefit from new ground resources via AFP Action, which endorsed Haley’s candidacy last month.
“There is a growing consensus that Nikki Haley is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” a Haley spokesperson said. “Nikki trounces Biden in the general election by a whopping 17-points while Trump barely squeaks by and Ron DeSantis doesn’t beat Biden. With Nikki on the ballot, not only will conservatives take the White House, we will grow the House majority, take back the Senate, and save our country.”
Ramaswamy’s team highlighted a recent Morning Consult poll, which had him in third with 13% support. Communications director Tricia McLaughlin told Semafor that they’re seeing a much different group of voters come out for their events — only about 50%, she said, are registered Republicans; others are independents, disaffected Democrats, or politically unaffiliated.
“Further, we’re finding that only 20% of attendees at his events are typical Republican caucusgoers,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense that Vivek’s events are getting bigger, while the Des Moines Register poll is showing 5%. It’s just not consistent with what we’re seeing on the ground.”
Chris Christie is perhaps the only candidate who is genuinely indifferent to the polling data: Unlike the other candidates, he’s spent very little time in Iowa, instead staking his campaign on New Hampshire.
To the extent there’s an upside for the other candidates, it’s that it raises expectations for Trump. If the former president ends up underperforming come January, it could give his opponents the appearance of momentum heading into New Hampshire and South Carolina, which they likely hope could encourage a bandwagon effect with voters. Granted, with Trump up so big nationally, it’s worth asking what sort of an underperformance would prompt genuine concern, rather than mild annoyance.
Room for Disagreement
Semafor’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith argues not to underestimate Haley: Her record as a political knife fighter in South Carolina is unmatched and she could surprise observers if she ever gets a clean shot at Trump.
- Some of Wall Street’s top Republican donors are quietly deciding that Trump is likely to win the nomination — and are growing more concerned about what another Trump presidency would mean for the country, Politico reported.
- CNN is supposed to host the last Republican presidential debate in Iowa before its caucus, but will it end up happening? Axios recently noted that Nikki Haley has yet to commit to the debate (Ramaswamy and Christie may not qualify.) In fact, Ron DeSantis is the sole candidate who’s agreed to debate next month.