Trump re-writes the rules for Iowa caucuses

There has long been a nostalgic view of the Iowa caucuses, one that suggested candidates had to shake the same hand multiple times, hold events in every pastoral stretch of the state, and all but move their lives to Des Moines to have a chance of winning the key contest.

Then came Donald Trump.

The former president has effectively re-written the rules for the Iowa caucuses, blowing a hole in the Norman Rockwell-ification of the contest as a quaint exercise where people who have met a range of candidates gather with their neighbors one winter night to pick the candidate who best represents them.

Trump did very little of that. But around 30 minutes after caucuses across the state began – and while people at local sites were still speaking on behalf of their candidates – nearly every media outlet called the race for the former president, all but validating his extremely anti-nostalgic view of caucus campaigning.

“[Trump] doesn't really have to sit in your living room because he is in your living room every minute,” said Doug Gross, former chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, speaking of the way Trump garners attention with everything he does. “What [Trump’s win] reinforces is the fact that Donald Trump blows up every rule and doesn’t abide by all the rules of politics.”

The shift may be unique to Trump – he is running as an incumbent even if he isn’t one, was a well-known celebrity long before he got into politics, and has a hold on his party like no other candidate before him. But his dominance of the caucuses this year, despite spending significantly less time in the state than any other candidate, is yet another data point of how Trump has not only changed the Republican Party, but has destroyed its long-held nominating traditions, too.

“You cannot replicate the campaign Donald Trump ran if your name isn’t Donald Trump,” said David Kochel, a Republican operative who has worked in the state since 1984 and led then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s Iowa operation in both 2008 and 2012. “It is just not possible.”

Trump, according to different trackers of events in Iowa, held only around two dozen events in the state, by far the lowest of the Republican field.

His opponents did the opposite.

Ramaswamy, a candidate who polls showed was likely to barely register on caucus night, held over 200 events during his Iowa campaign, visiting at least 97 or all 99 counties. Ramaswamy even moved his campaign headquarters to Iowa, a move that signaled his commitment to the state.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly touted his effort to pull a full Grassley, an accomplishment of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties named after the state’s long-serving Republican senator. DeSantis accomplished that feat in early December and trackers indicate he held well over 100 events in the state. But the governor wasn’t rewarded for the accomplishment: He didn’t come close to defeating Trump and the final polls showed he could finish third behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

“They were campaigning like it was 2008 or 2012 and it was actually 2024 and you had Donald Trump in the race,” Gross said of DeSantis and others campaigns. “They are both trying to drink out of the same well and there is only so much water in that well.”

After the race had long been called, questions about whether this win signified a wholesale change to the Iowa caucuses or a Trump aberration percolated throughout the state’s political circles.

“The nostalgic view is a bit outdated,” said Matt Paul, a longtime Iowa Democratic operative who ran Hillary Clinton’s caucus operation in 2016. “The realities of modern campaigning and the infusion of digital communications have changed the caucuses tremendously.”

Paul said this shift could be felt in 2016, where national storylines and forces influenced the campaign in Iowa more than local issues. And while he argued that the “Iowa moments” – personal exchanges with voters that speak volumes about the abilities of each candidate – still matter, Trump has only kicked that nationalization into hyperdrive.

"Campaigns have adapted and they have changed," said Paul. "There is a nostalgic thinking about what the Iowa caucus is. But they are very sophisticated operations and they have been."

But as much as the results Monday night seemed to diminish traditions around the Iowa caucuses, it said equally as much about this unique moment in Republican history and the inability of any other candidate to break Trump’s stranglehold on the party’s faithful.

“Ron DeSantis has to go to 99 counties to meet the voters,” said Kochel. “The voters will come from 99 counties to see Donald Trump.”

As Jimmy Centers, a Republican strategist in Iowa put it: “We need to remember there are two rules. There are the Trump rules that work for Trump and no one else. And there are the rules for everyone else, which are pretty much the old rules.”

What Trump gave up in actual visits to the state, however, his campaign made up for it in the ground game they built to ensure victory on Monday. The former president’s campaign boasted 2,000 caucus captains, far outpacing the DeSantis operation. Operatives like Centers and others referred to it as a “juggernaut,” effectively built to guarantee that Trump would do what he was long slated to do: Win Iowa.

The strategy worked and on Monday night it took mere minutes for Trump to win. It’s a turnaround for Trump, who failed to win the Iowa caucuses in 2016, losing narrowly to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, yet another blemish in Iowa’s long track record of choosing someone other than the eventual Republican nominee.

While plenty of candidates in 2024 suggested their commitment to Iowa would pay off like Cruz in 2016 or Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, they never had an actual chance, said Troy Price, former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

“So many people here don’t see Trump as a candidate, they see him as President. That’s hard for anyone to overcome,” said Price.

He added: “It’s hard to knock off an incumbent, even if they actually aren’t. … But there likely won’t be a candidate like that again.”

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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