The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The Iowa caucuses: A race for second place

With Trump’s authoritative lead over polling, a path to the nomination could still be viable for Haley or DeSantis, experts say.
Grace Smith
Supporters watch Republican Presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enter during a campaign event for Republican Presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Tommy’s Restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. DeSantis emphasized his winning record in Florida and how that will carry over to the presidential race to a crowd of over a hundred supporters and restaurant-goers.

Trump holds a clear, decisive lead over the 2024 GOP presidential primary field with almost 30 points between him and his challengers in recent polling.

For some Iowa Republicans, it feels like the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15 are all but decided. But road to the GOP presidential nomination doesn’t stop in Iowa, and Trump’s contenders could pull ahead in other early contests.

With Trump’s authoritative lead, some experts and voters find it difficult to see a race where the underdogs come out on top.

The most recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll points to a steep challenge for Trump’s challengers to surmount. Trump boasts 43 percent of respondents in the October poll while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis each hold 16 percent of the vote among 404 poll respondents.

The poll points to a harsh reality. The more than 500 Iowa campaign stops Trump’s opponents made leading up to the 2024 caucuses have done little to whittle away Trump’s stark lead.

The former president has yet to attend a Republican debate, has held a handful of campaign events in the state, and faces 91 felony charges across four separate criminal indictments.

Dennis Werkmeister, of northwest Iowa, said at The Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum on Nov. 19, he will caucus but is still undecided, though he thinks it is important to identify an alternative to Trump.

“The [Republican] party needs to be a leader and pick the person that’s best going to suit the United States and that’s up to the voters,” Werkmeister said. “I’m gonna say let things play out and see how they play out.”

Karen Maxium, a voter from Des Moines, said she worried if Trump would be able to survive his legal troubles.

“Well, I’m worried because of what they’re doing to Trump,” Maxium said. “I don’t know if he’s going to be able to survive what they’re doing. [I]definitely will support him if he … can survive all this.”

All of this has made little impact on carving out a spot for other presidential hopefuls to launch a viable challenge to Trump’s reign.

However, some of Trump’s rivals still see a path to overtake the party’s frontrunner, and that relies on the outcome of early nominating contests like Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Late surge could challenge Trump’s hold

Late surges are common in the Iowa caucuses as candidates hit the pavement in the few weeks before the event, hoping to make a last-minute appeal to voters. This has given some candidates a meteoric rise in the caucuses, but even with a sharp rise in the polls, DeSantis and Haley are far from breaking Trump’s lead.

Ahead of the 2012 Iowa caucuses in an October 2011 Iowa Poll, then-junior U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., garnered only 5 percent of poll respondents but later went on to win the Iowa caucuses with almost 26 percent of the vote.

In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had 12 percent support in the October 2007 Iowa Poll and surged to hold 34 percent of the vote on caucus night.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, polled at 10 percent in the October 2015 Iowa Poll but won the Iowa caucuses in 2016 with 28 percent of the vote.

Candidates have indicated they are looking to increase their presence in the state to capitalize on the late caucus surge.

Trump planned several campaign stops in the state, including a stop in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 2 and a stop in Coralville on Dec. 13. A Super PAC supporting Trump has also started airing attack ads ahead of the caucuses.

Haley launched a new campaign ad in Iowa and New Hampshire on Nov. 30.

DeSantis held an event in Newton on Dec. 2. The rally ended his 99-county tour across the state, traditionally dubbed the “full Grassley” after Iowa’s senior Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who completes a tour of all 99 counties in Iowa every year.

Megan Goldberg, a Cornell College political science professor, said Haley or DeSantis would have to make massive strides in the coming weeks to cut back Trump’s lead. Besides Haley’s gain between the August and October Iowa Polls, no other candidate has gained momentum.

“I think that the surge that DeSantis or Haley would need is getting so big that I don’t know how realistic it is to get,” Goldberg said. “I’m increasingly skeptical that any of them are going to experience a surge this late in the game when we haven’t seen any of those surges so far.”

Even if Haley or DeSantis experience surges akin to those of Cruz, Huckabee, or Santorum in previous caucuses, they would still be short almost 10 percentage points from catapulting ahead of Trump’s lead.

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science associate professor, said while current polling may seem stagnant, there is still a little more than a month before the caucuses, and voters might change their minds about Trump.

Consolidating support might prove challenging

While Trump’s grasp on his base remains strong, the caucuses have become a race for second place, Goldberg said. This has highlighted the importance of picking a singular alternative to challenge the frontrunner.

With little to no movement in Trump’s camp, his challengers are left to scrap among themselves to coalesce their supporters and offer a more sizable challenge to Trump.

With eight candidates vying to challenge Trump as of early December, the field is still crowded. Without coalescing behind a singular alternative to Trump, Hagle said the party might not be able to offer a strong challenge to Trump’s authoritative lead.

“DeSantis is competing with Haley to see which one of the two can move up or knock the other one out so that the non-Trump voters can coalesce around a single rather than being divided between the two,” Hagle said.

Goldberg said coordinated support and endorsements for one of the second-ranked candidates could help solidify the field to create a stronger challenge to Trump.

National party elites have yet to coalesce around one candidate, let alone everyday voters. However, both Haley and DeSantis have picked up endorsements along the way.

DeSantis has secured endorsements from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa evangelical leader and political activist Bob Vander Plaats, among dozens of state legislators and hundreds of faith leaders across the state.

Haley picked up an endorsement from the Koch brothers-funded Super PAC Americans For Prosperity on Nov. 28. The national grassroots organization offers more organizational support for Haley’s campaign as she continues to gain momentum in the race.

Goldberg said these endorsements could offer voters — who must sift through a mountain of information — guidance on who to support.

Reynolds’ historic endorsement of DeSantis could be more of a test of her popularity among Iowa Republicans, and test if she holds more sway than Trump in the state, Goldberg said.

Reynolds’ popularity among Republicans in the state is unmatched. She won her most recent campaign for office in 2022 with 58 percent of the vote, more than 19 points ahead of her Democratic opponent. According to the August Iowa Poll, 81 percent of Iowa Republicans view Reynolds favorably.

However, Reynolds’ decision to endorse DeSantis didn’t go over well with Trump. Even before Reynolds and DeSantis made the endorsement public, Trump attacked Reynolds. Trump took credit for Reynolds’ wins and said she was “disloyal” and that the endorsement would be “the end of her political career.”

“America’s most Unpopular Governor and Ron [DeSantis] is second,” Trump said in a Truth Social post on Nov. 6. “That’s what happens when you are disloyal to those that got you there!”

Trump referenced a Morning Consult poll, which on Nov. 6 listed Reynolds with a 47 percent disapproval rating in a national poll, the highest out of any governor at the time of the poll in early November.

Alina Waggoner, a DeSantis supporter from Des Moines, said Reynolds’ endorsement will sway her supporters toward DeSantis at a DeSantis rally in Des Moines on Nov. 6.

By the numbers

Although some hoping for Trump to lose the nomination would like for the field to coalesce around a single alternative to the former president, that might help Trump.

Polling shows just that. According to the October Iowa Poll, there is a large amount of overlap between the candidate’s supporters.

Of voters who chose DeSantis as their first choice candidate, 41 percent named Trump as their second, and 27 percent named Haley. If DeSantis were to end his campaign today, Trump would jump to 50 percent of poll respondents and Haley would rise to 21 percent.

Of voters who chose Haley as their first choice, 34 percent chose DeSantis as second, 19 percent chose U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who has since dropped out of the race; 14 percent chose North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; and 12 percent chose Trump as their second choice.

If Haley were to end her campaign today, Trump would jump to 45 percent support among Iowa Poll respondents and DeSantis would follow with 22 percent.

Trump remains strong challenger

Despite quickly-rising momentum from Haley and high-level endorsements from DeSantis, Trump presently remains a clear-cut winner of the Iowa caucuses and the inevitable nominee for many.

Trump’s supporters remain steadfast in their support for the former president, despite his 91 felony counts across four separate criminal indictments.

An August CNN poll found that the majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents polled were not worried about Trump’s chances of winning the 2024 election, despite his criminal charges.

The poll also found that 60 percent of Republicans polled thought the criminal charges Trump faces would impact his ability to be an effective president.

Dorothy Sadler, of Cedar Falls, said she thought Trump was a good president, but he now comes with a lot of baggage and instead put her support behind Asa Hutchinson when interviewed by The Daily Iowan at the Iowa State Fair.

“He’s got a lot of baggage, he’s not able to do work up to his potential because the media — and all the left — all they do is get lawsuit after lawsuit after him,” Sadler said. “They’re afraid, and I don’t know what they’re afraid of. I think they’re scared to death.”

Goldberg, with Cornell College, said if Trump’s legal troubles were to somehow disqualify him or impact his public support, it could open up a lane for Haley or DeSantis to angle Trump out of the race.

She also said the caucuses and the primary as a whole will be a litmus test for the general election — a test to whether or not Trump’s legal woes will affect his electability.

Three tickets out of Iowa

Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor emeritus, said there is still a very viable path for Haley or DeSantis to capture the nomination.

Schmidt pointed out that the winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t always go on to win the nomination.

In 2020, then-South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses but ultimately did not win the nomination. The same is true with Cruz’s run in 2016. He showed out in the Iowa caucuses but never harnessed the momentum that Iowa is famous for giving candidates.

Even if Trump inevitably wins Iowa, Schmidt said any of the early contests could give other candidates the momentum they need to secure the nomination.

Schmidt said if Haley makes a large showing, or even wins the contest in her home state of South Carolina, she could garner enough support to win the nomination come Super Tuesday.

Hagle said the belief that there are three tickets out of Iowa is still true this year, but the second and third tickets won’t be as potent while Trump boasts such a large lead over his competitors.

“It would seem that if Trump wins Iowa, he would be in pretty good shape in New Hampshire,” Hagle said. “With that kind of momentum, it might be hard to stop him.”

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is just one week after the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 23.

Despite Trump’s lead over his competitors, Schmidt said he thinks the caucuses are doing their job — to narrow the field and help pick the frontrunners for the party to choose from.

“I’m going to look forward to the caucuses this year as an interesting moment to see if they still have the magic of giving somebody a chance to be the proposed frontrunner,” Schmidt said. “It’s less likely this year, but I think the Iowa caucuses are alive and well.”

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About the Contributors
Liam Halawith, Politics Editor
Liam Halawith is a third-year student at the University of Iowa studying Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Public Policy. Before his role as Politics Editor Liam was a politics reporter for the DI. Outside of the DI Liam has interned at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Southeast Iowa Union. This is his second year working for the DI.
Grace Smith, Senior photojournalist and filmmaker
Grace Smith is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic Arts. In her four years at The Daily Iowan, she has held the roles of photo editor, managing summer editor, and visual storyteller. Outside of The Daily Iowan, Grace has held an internship at The Denver Post and pursued freelance assignments for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Des Moines Register.