It’s a remarkable investment of time from a candidate who has, through the summer, left a light footprint on the trail. And it’s being supplemented with an air attack by Trump world as a pro-DeSantis PAC advertises aggressively in the state. MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting Trump, is spending over $700,000 on advertising this week in Iowa, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact. Trump’s Iowa team is focused on educating and training Trump supporters on the caucus process, and the Trump campaign has boasted of 27,500 signed caucus pledge cards and 1,500 local volunteers in the state.
“No candidate has ever won Iowa [GOP caucus] by more than 12 points and even the most conservative polls have us at double that margin,” said Alex Latcham, the Trump campaign’s early states director. “But I try to continuously remind our team and our staff and everybody that we do not take it for granted.”
Trump’s flurry of activity in the state comes as his rivals have been crisscrossing Iowa in hopes that they can somehow, finally, change the trajectory of the race, which seems less and less competitive each day. Trump is, at this juncture, the runaway frontrunner nationally, and in Iowa, he is beating DeSantis in state polls by about 30 points. But veterans of the state’s caucuses say such a lead may be overblown and that Trump is wise to try and put his foot on the pedal right now.
“If you look historically when the race starts coming together, and trajectory and momentum and those kinds of things really start to matter, it is after Labor Day, after school has started. That’s when you saw previous insurgent campaigns really starting to get traction like Huckabee, Santorum, etc.,” said veteran Iowa Republican operative Nicole Schlinger.
DeSantis, for his part, is betting much of his political fortune on Iowa. He has been out-working Trump in the Hawkeye State, which comes with just 40 delegates but the potential for immeasurable momentum when it kicks off the grueling primary season on Jan. 15, 2024. He’s received 40 endorsements from state legislators, visited 58 of the state’s 99 counties and campaigned alongside the popular governor, Kim Reynolds, whom Trump has publicly admonished. DeSantis’ team says it has secured some 13,000 written commitments from caucus-goers.
And the PAC that is all but running the Florida governor’s campaign has bought $15.6 million worth of ads in the state through November, according to AdImpact — more than triple the $2.9 million the MAGA Inc. PAC supporting Trump has spent.
“DeSantis will participate in six different events in Iowa on Saturday. That means he is doing more events in one day [than] Trump has planned in the Hawkeye State in the next seven weeks,” DeSantis spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in a recent email blast. “No wonder why Trump’s ‘allies are growing concerned that his lead in Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses isn’t built to last.’ Ron DeSantis is putting in the work to win the Hawkeye State while Donald Trump continues to flip Iowans the bird.”
Despite acknowledging they would be satisfied with a strong second-place finish in Iowa, DeSantis’ team is signaling confidence in the state. He has teamed up repeatedly with Reynolds and appears to be a lead contender to receive the endorsement of high-profile evangelical Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader. (Vander Plaats has praised DeSantis and criticized Trump, but would not confirm last week whom he plans to endorse.)
DeSantis toured the state over the weekend, joining U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst for an event in her hometown and attending a religious rally at Fort Des Moines Church of Christ.
Conservative talk show host Steve Deace — who worked on Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign and has endorsed DeSantis — said he was still bullish on DeSantis’ chances, in part because, he believed, Trump was still playing catch up.
“Provided he’s actually willing to campaign as a populist and not a me-ist, yeah I think he can generate buzz pretty quickly,” Deace said of Trump in a recent interview. “The question is when we get to a cold, bitter night on Jan. 15. Is there still enough time for him to find the activists who will show up no matter what, and will bring people with them? DeSantis has a lot of those and a lot of those who aren’t engaged are probably waiting to see what Bob Vander Plaats and Kim Reynolds do.”
While DeSantis has been careful not to antagonize Trump’s supporters, he and his team have begun to question the former president’s Iowa operation. During a Fox News interview last week, DeSantis expressed skepticism about the yawning gap in polls between him and Trump, and questioned Trump’s operation in the Hawkeye State.
Opponents of Trump continue to see a vulnerability for him with evangelical voters that populate Iowa, specifically over his record on transgender and LGBTQ rights.
One flier being sent to voters — which an Iowa Republican shared with POLITICO — calls Trump a “transgender trailblazer” who “celebrated gay marriage victory at Mar-a-Lago party with Log Cabin Republicans.” Another thanks Trump — seemingly sarcastically — “for standing with LGBTQ+ Americans to fight against the close-minded Republicans who won’t accept change.” A third reminds Iowans Trump allowed a transgender woman to compete in his Miss Universe Pageant two decades ago. (During the campaign Trump has spoken harshly about transgender people.)
The provenance of the mailers is not clear. But the messaging does mirror the DeSantis team’s attacks on Trump, as they seek to portray the Florida governor as a culture war leader on matters of gender ideology. Spokespeople for DeSantis and Never Back Down did not respond to questions about whether they were involved in the fliers.
But the problem DeSantis world has confronted as they’ve sought to court the evangelical vote is that evangelical voters appear to prefer Trump. The former president has long been popular with that cohort, even as he’s shown reluctance to go as far as some of his opponents on issues like abortion.
On Friday night, Trump warned two influential social conservative organizations that if politicians “don’t speak about [abortion] correctly, they’re not going to win.” And during an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump told Kristen Welker he thought DeSantis signing a six-week abortion ban in Florida was a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” On Saturday, Trump won the religious conservative Family Research Council’s straw poll with 64% of the vote and DeSantis in second with 27% of the vote.
“Polling shows President Trump leading by nearly 40 points in Iowa, but as he always tells us, put the pedal to the metal. We don’t play prevent defense, and President Trump’s aggressive upcoming schedule in Iowa reflects his continued commitment to earning support in the state one voter at a time,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung in a statement.
Still, some Iowa conservatives believe Trump’s recent comments could potentially cost him some caucus goers in Iowa, where a majority of Republicans and evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal in most cases.
Pastor Michael Demastus of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, said candidate positions on abortion and gender will be top of mind for him when he caucuses this January. He met with Trump in May, along with a group of 50 other pastors, but came away from the meeting thinking the ex-president was “a little arrogant” for telling a local reporter after the event he had the evangelical vote locked up.
Demastus’ synopsis underscores the main variable still at play in Iowa, as the caucus comes into focus: Will the gravitational pull of Trump simply be too much for others; or can he be outworked? To that point: Will he allow it?
“He needs to show Iowans he loves them by his presence, not just by his words,” said Doug Gross, an Iowa-based Republican consultant who worked for Gov. Terry Branstad. “He needs to be here. He just has to be here. Time is the deal.”