Trump looking for the knockout in Iowa

Former President Trump is looking to land an early knockout blow in the Republican primary with a resounding win in Iowa on Monday.

Trump has not shied away from setting expectations high in the Hawkeye State, where polling averages show him leading his nearest rival by 36 percentage points.

A close finish could breathe life into a rival campaign. But a blowout, double-digit victory in Iowa would give Trump momentum heading into New Hampshire next week, where strategists and Trump allies believe the former president could effectively clear the field with another big win.

“It’s always possible that his lead could narrow or that it could change,” Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said on a call with reporters. “But at least in my conversations with people on the ground, we’re not seeing anything like the dramatic shift that took place in 2016 between say mid-October and early December that caused [Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)] to jump into the lead. We’ll see what happens on caucus night.”

Iowa is particularly critical for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has poured resources into the state, earned Gov. Kim Reynolds’s (R) endorsement and spent months meeting with voters in all 99 counties. While he has in recent weeks tried to manage expectations, strategists have suggested anything short of a strong second-place finish would be devastating for the Florida governor.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, meanwhile, has put less stock in Iowa and has instead pinned her hopes on New Hampshire. She has been gaining ground in the Granite State, and new polling suggests Trump’s support there has slipped slightly in recent months. 

A strong showing in Iowa could position Trump for another victory in New Hampshire, but a better-than-expected finish for Haley in particular could be a sign of a more competitive race in the days to come.

“The fact is, because the primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are so different, winning in both would represent solid control and really complete dominance over the Republican Party,” said Republican strategist Brian Seitchik, arguing “this thing is over” if Trump wins the two early states. 

Trump is in a much stronger position heading into Monday’s caucuses than he was in 2016, when he finished in second place behind Cruz.

Trump and his team were political newcomers in 2016 with little familiarity with the caucusing process or how to translate enthusiasm at rallies into committed caucusgoers.

This cycle, Trump and his campaign are not only more organized on the ground in Iowa, but he has won over the types of evangelicals who make up a large swath of the electorate in Iowa and helped Cruz win the 2016 caucuses.

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa, said caucusgoers “know what Donald Trump did,” and his rivals have yet to make the case they can do better on policy important to evangelicals.

A December Des Moines Register poll conducted by J. Ann Selzer, considered the gold standard Iowa poll, found Trump polling at 51 percent. In a sign of his dominance, 70 percent of his supporters said their minds were made up about supporting him. By comparison, 34 percent of Haley supporters and 30 percent of DeSantis supporters said they were locked into backing those candidates, respectively.

“No one has ever in the modern era for a contested primary contest going into caucus night actually won by more than 12, and no one has cracked 50 percent,” Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser, said. “So we believe that we’re in very good shape with President Trump, we do believe that we’re going to win. But you know what, I’m going to take the win.”

If Trump wins by a smaller-than-expected margin in Iowa, it could signal the primary will be more hotly contested than anticipated, especially if voters coalesce behind one alternative. Strategists said Trump’s margin of victory will provide a window into his rivals’ viability moving forward. 

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak predicted Trump will win the state Monday, but he said one of the key questions for the caucuses is whether the former president’s support crosses the 50-percent line.

“It tells you whether half of the people that go and turn out are willing to vote for someone other than Trump, because that’s what it’s ultimately going to take if this becomes a head-to-head race in other places,” Mackowiak said. 

Trump’s strong standing in Iowa was on display on Wednesday night, when he attended a Fox News town hall in Des Moines. Trump enjoyed a friendly audience, where the vast majority of individuals who asked a question said they planned to caucus for the former president and attendees frequently applauded his answers.

At the same time, Haley and DeSantis were on stage for a CNN debate just up the road, where the two candidates hoping to unseat Trump for the nomination spent hardly any time attacking the former president. 

The night’s CNN moderators asked a handful of questions related to the former president — including one in reference to Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and another on whether Trump has the character to be president again — but Haley and DeSantis focused largely on each other, swapping insults and accusations of lying. 

Trump’s rivals have had to walk a fine line as they campaign against the former president, while also trying not to alienate his supporters as they seek to cut into his lead. 

Haley during the debate warned of “chaos” if Trump wins another four years, and DeSantis argued Trump’s running “to pursue his issues” over the country’s. They also both called out the front-runner, who has skipped all the party’s debates so far this cycle, for his absence from the stage. 

But Trump’s move to pass on the showdowns with his rivals hasn’t seemed to hurt his campaign. 

“I don’t think, for the entirety of this race, his lack of presence on the debate stage has mattered one bit,” Iowa-based Republican strategist Jimmy Centers said. 

“Maybe they landed a couple jabs at the former president, but nothing meaningful. It was the body blows and the uppercuts they were giving to each other that did the most damage,” he said of Haley and DeSantis on the Iowa stage, though he argued that damage was likely nominal. 

Trump will be in Iowa on Monday for the caucuses, but he will quickly turn his attention to New Hampshire, traveling to the Granite State on Tuesday for a rally ahead of the Jan. 23 primary.

New Hampshire will pose a different test for Trump, given it is a more libertarian state and allows independents to vote in party primaries.

“I don’t think there’s been a candidate who won both Iowa and New Hampshire in the modern era,” said Reed, the Faith and Freedom chairman. “All I’m suggesting to you is that this thing is far from over, and the nomination process tends to be a marathon, not a sprint. And if you end up with a shocking outcome in one of these first three states, you’re going to at least Super Tuesday, if not well beyond that.”

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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