By Shane Goldmacher
Negative mailers are overstuffing Iowa mailboxes. Attack ads are cluttering the airwaves. And door knockers are fanning out from Des Moines to Dubuque and everywhere in between.
The Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the Republican nominating calendar, are poised to play an especially consequential role in 2024. But with only 49 days to go, Donald Trump’s top rivals are running out of time to catch him as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley thrash each other in the final sprint to the starting line.
Far ahead in national polls, Trump is aiming for an emphatic victory Jan. 15 in Iowa that could serve as an early knockout punch. He leads in public surveys in the state by twice as much as the biggest winning margin in a competitive contest in the past 50 years.
DeSantis, the Florida governor, is betting on Iowa to pierce Trump’s growing aura of inevitability — and to reassert himself as the main rival to short-circuit Trump’s third run for president. DeSantis, who won the backing of the state’s popular Republican governor, has been barnstorming across all of Iowa’s 99 counties, bolstered by an army of door knockers paid for by his related super political action committee.
On Saturday, DeSantis will visit his final county with an event in Newton held at the Thunderdome, a venue whose name appropriately captures the increasing acrimony and intensity of the race in the state. Trump will be in Cedar Rapids that same day.
For much of the year, the DeSantis team had insisted the 2024 primary was a two-man race. But Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, has ridden the momentum of her debate performances to transform it into a two-man-plus-one-woman contest.
“The more people see of Nikki Haley, the more they like her,” said Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager. “The more they see Ron DeSantis, the less they like him.”
Now Haley, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Underestimate me — that’ll be fun” to the Iowa State Fair, is seeking to snuff out DeSantis at the very start. If she can best DeSantis in Iowa, his strongest early state, her team believes Haley would be positioned to emerge as the singular Trump alternative when the calendar turns to two friendlier terrains — New Hampshire, where she has polled in second place, and her home state, South Carolina, where she served as governor.
Revealingly, Haley’s allied super PAC has spent $3.5 million on ads and other expenditures attacking DeSantis in the last two months in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to federal records, but not a dollar explicitly opposing Trump despite his dominant overall lead.
“Nikki Haley and her donors are greedily wasting millions of dollars targeting Ron DeSantis in Iowa,” said David Polyansky, deputy campaign manager for DeSantis, who called that spending a political gift to Trump because the likeliest second choice of DeSantis supporters is not Haley but the former president.
Trump’s team has gleefully greeted the battling. James Blair, national field director for Trump, said Haley and DeSantis were “trying to bludgeon themselves for the title of first loser.”
“The biggest win in Iowa ever is 12 points so anything above that is setting a record,” Blair added, arguing that even an upset in Iowa would only prove a blip given the former president’s superior organization across the rest of the states on the calendar.
Iowa always plays a critical role in narrowing a presidential primary field but this year it could determine whether there is much of a contest at all. The Trump campaign has told supporters that it has booked its first significant television ads to begin in Iowa on Dec. 1, and Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, has pledged to also spend millions in the final weeks even as his standing has slid since the summer.
“Almost everybody is pushing the chips into the middle of the table in Iowa,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist with years of experience in the state. Only Chris Christie is bypassing Iowa, hoping a muddled result could allow him to break through in New Hampshire.
As the candidates vie for votes, their strategists and spinmeisters are seeking any possible advantage in the unseen but critical contest of expectations-setting. Those who surprise or surpass where they are expected to finish typically emerge with the most momentum — and money.
“If he doesn’t win Iowa, Ron DeSantis has no rationale to move on,” said Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager.
The DeSantis super PAC has spent 10 times more money criticizing Haley in ads and other expenditures than against Trump, records show. But in private, DeSantis and his wife, Casey, have expressed disapproval of those ads, according to two people familiar with their remarks. Several DeSantis allies recently created a new entity to explore fresh avenues of attack on Haley but the decision has caused more turmoil on the team, with the chief executive abruptly resigning last week.
In Iowa and beyond, Trump’s team has almost exclusively focused on DeSantis, whom Trump has treated as his only serious challenger throughout 2023. Blair said it was notable how much the DeSantis operation was spending attacking Haley rather than “trying to grow Ron’s image or hurt the president — because they’ve given up on those things.”
“They’re just trying to stop Nikki Haley from coming in second,” Blair added.
There are two debates planned before the Iowa caucuses that could still jostle the dynamics. Only the first, on Dec. 6 in Alabama, has been announced; the second is planned for January in Iowa. Trump has said he won’t participate in any debates and his team has tried to pressure the Republican National Committee to cancel the rest.
For DeSantis, the endorsement of Kim Reynolds, the state’s Republican governor, has given him a jolt of energy and she plans to campaign heavily for him through the caucuses, including Saturday in Newton, Iowa.
A television ad featuring Reynolds is already running. “He gets things done,” she says in the spot.
Judging from campaign stops, DeSantis’s 99-county tour does appear to have created some momentum in Iowa. He regularly draws crowds of 50 to 100 people to small-town events at pizza shops, coffee houses and family farms, taking questions and posing for photos.
“I’ve been a Trump man all along, but I liked what DeSantis had to say,” said Ev Cherrington, 86, who heard DeSantis speak at a barbecue restaurant in Ames, Iowa, this month and said he was now considering backing him, largely because of the laundry list of policy ideas that DeSantis had recited.
But outside of the bubble of DeSantis’ bus tour, a different reality sets in. As DeSantis visited his 98th Iowa county a week ago after holding around 10 small public events over three days, Trump appeared at a rally in a high school gym in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He drew roughly 2,000 people, according to The Associated Press — more than all of DeSantis’ events combined.