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Three months out, the Iowa Caucus is Trump's to lose

Former President Donald Trump stands on stage during a rally in suburban Des Moines with Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird after receiving her endorsement on Oct. 16.
Clay Masters
/
Iowa Public Radio
Former President Donald Trump stands on stage during a rally in suburban Des Moines with Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird after receiving her endorsement on Oct. 16.

There are less than three months until the first contest of the Republican presidential primary cycle - the Iowa Caucus. Campaigns are busy organizing in an effort to get voters to show up on caucus night for a race where Donald Trump seems to already have a lock on winning.

"How many of you are planning on caucusing?," Polk County Republican Party chair Gloria Mazza asked a crowd of Iowans munching on pizza and fried chicken at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in suburban Des Moines.

"I better see all the hands," she said with a laugh.

Some - not all - of the hands go up. The crowd is waiting to hear from presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Mazza reminds this Saturday night crowd caucuses are not like a primary election.

Entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy campaigns at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Altoona, Iowa.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy campaigns at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Altoona, Iowa.

"You will not caucus in your normal polling place," Mazza explained, referencing the 176 precincts she's setting up across the state's most populous county and home to Des Moines. "It will be in a gymnasium, an auditorium, a business – we're looking at sites all over. We have almost all of them done."

Voters have to be motivated enough to show up for their candidate on caucus night. Republicans have to wait around to hear speeches before they fill out their secret ballot. The Iowa caucuses are Trump's to lose, says Iowa State University Political Science Professor David Peterson.

He says there's a large section of respondents in the Iowa State University/Civiqs poll this monthwho do not see the primary as a race.

"Amongst our respondents, it sure seems like they all believe Donald Trump is going to be the nominee," Peterson said. "At some point, it makes sense if that's what's going to happen, why bother paying attention [and why bother showing up on a cold January night when you know what the outcome is?"

But the Iowa caucuses have a way of surprising people. That's why South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved most of their resources to Iowa. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is spending more time in the Hawkeye state too.

Former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks to a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Oct. 20 as she campaigns for the Republican Presidential nomination.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks to a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Oct. 20 as she campaigns for the Republican Presidential nomination.

"I don't think Trump's that far ahead," said Marty Scharff, who drove around 40 miles to see Haley speak at a forum in Cedar Rapids. "I think Nikki Haley has a shot, I really do."

Scharff had been thinking about supporting DeSantis in the caucuses but not anymore. She says she can't put her finger on why but thinks "he needs to smile" and "he's forcing it."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination at The Buck Snort Restaurant in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Oct. 14.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination at The Buck Snort Restaurant in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Oct. 14.

As DeSantis tries to visit all 99 counties, he is finding a crowd. His message speaks to Jeff Schnider, who plans to caucus for him, and came to see him speak at The Buck Snort Restaurant in Council Bluffs. Schnider, a truck driver, says he'll always be a huge Trump fan but wants him to move on from the 2020 election.

"It's gone. Let it go," Schnider said. "We just need to hear some new stuff, new ideas from him. It's repetitive and it's getting old."

Lynette Petersen also wants to move on from Trump.

"I voted for [Trump] before and I think our country was in an amazing position under his leadership," Petersen remembered. "But I just think that with him may come a lot of distractions."

Those distractions include four looming criminal cases and dozens of charges in four different jurisdictions. Potential Republican caucus goers don't bring that up much, except to defend the former president. Instead, they're talking about immigration, the Israel-Hamas war and inflation.

Trump's bringing those things up as he campaigns more in the state and he'll be back in the state on Sunday with a rally in Sioux City. His team doesn't want a repeat of 2016 when he came in second.

"This is what wins. Hats and shirts won't win," a Trump campaign volunteer shouted as he hands out commit-to-caucus cards to attendees decked out in Trump gear at an October rally in Clive, Iowa.

Restaurant manager Zach Schmitz takes one and says he'll scan the Q-R code and check it out.

"I'm here to learn more," Schmitz explained, "see it more in-person as opposed to what pops up on social media."

"We voted for him in 2016, 2020," Leah Schmitz, who works in sales and is married to Zach, said. "I've always been on the Trump train."

There are a lot of devoted Trump fans here who plan to show up for him. Tim Krachenfels looks forward to caucusing for Trump like he did 8 years ago.

"I think DeSantis should have waited. I spoke to [Ron] DeSantis and Vivek [Ramaswamy] and had really good conversations with both of them," Krachenfels recalled. "But I think it's going to be a landslide."

Copyright 2023 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
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