The clock is ticking for Donald Trump’s rivals to catch up to the former president in Iowa, the first state to vote in the GOP nominating process next year.
Trump has built up significant and stable leads in the polls, both nationally and in critical early-voting states.
Now, other GOP presidential candidates are scrambling to close the gap in the Hawkeye State, which could prove decisive in determining who will continue forward in the race after the Jan. 15 caucuses.
“If the front-runner, in this case Donald Trump, wins Iowa, wins New Hampshire, this is going to be a short nominating process,” said Iowa-based GOP strategist Craig Robinson.
Iowa has been the first state to vote in the presidential nominating process for decades and has regularly played a role in narrowing the field. The top-performing candidates often gain momentum, while those who show poorly frequently leave the race soon after.
But past races for the GOP nomination without an incumbent have not been as dominated by just one person at this point in the contest as they have been this cycle.
Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign argued in a recent memo that Trump is essentially running as an incumbent given his wide name recognition and the strong, well-established views about him. That said, the memo noted that Trump’s lead in early states is somewhat smaller than it is nationally, with the former president holding less than a majority of support from primary voters.
“That means close to 60% of Republican caucus/primary voters are actively looking for someone else to support,” the memo states.
Trump stands at about 43 percent support in Iowa, 26 points ahead of his next closest opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to RealClearPolitics’s polling average of the race. It’s a commanding lead but measurably less than the national average, where Trump has nearly 54 percent backing, an almost 40 point lead over DeSantis.
Republican strategists said that difference could give other candidates an opportunity to make waves in Iowa, but they need to step up to find a way to stand out and clearly run against Trump instead of only focusing on each other.
Robinson said most candidates have been unable to move the needle in their favor, despite being in the race for several months now, amid Trump’s dominating media coverage and unique candidacy.
He questioned whether “provocative” television ads and mailers would be effective at hurting Trump, but said investments in grassroots organizing to meet Iowans face-to-face could give Trump some concern.
“You don’t reap instant benefits from doing [that], but can you really build an organization that’s going to turn out for you on caucus night?” Robinson said. “And I’m not sure any of those candidates are currently really doing that sort of work.”
Many candidates have made regular appearances in Iowa, but some have been more aggressive.
DeSantis has been advertising his goal of visiting all 99 counties in the state, which he said last month he expects to complete by the end of October. It has been part of the governor’s plan to focus on local events to make connections with Iowa voters.
Robinson emphasized that the important factor is what DeSantis is doing with his visits and if he is making the most of each stop instead of just being able to say that he went to all counties.
“It’s what you do with it that matters. There isn’t some prize after you hit number 99. It matters how you do it and what you do with it. I think it’s very wise and smart to go everywhere and to ask for the vote for everyone,” he said, adding that the campaign should focus on getting turnout at events and signing people up to get involved.
After DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has most often placed third in the state, taking about 10 percent in RealClearPolitics’s average. But some Republicans have expressed worries that Scott may be not taking up the attention he needs in Iowa.
The Des Moines Register reported last week that some of Scott’s rivals for the nomination have outpaced his visits to the state. A few recent polls have shown candidates like Haley or Vivek Ramaswamy passing Scott.
Iowa Republican consultant Nicole Schlinger said that Iowa’s role is to “winnow the field,” and she expects “three tickets are going to get punched out of Iowa.” She said the odds are in Trump’s favor to win the state, but she pointed to the 2016 and 2008 races, in which the eventual winners of the Iowa caucuses were not leading in the polls at this point in those cycles.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) narrowly won the Iowa caucuses over Trump and other candidates in 2016, but polling heading into fall 2015 showed then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the lead.
Schlinger said Cruz’s ground game of going door to door helped him eventually catch up in the state, highlighting how a caucus differs from a primary.
“A caucus is not like a primary. A caucus is a community meeting that’s run by party volunteers. It’s not an election, you can’t vote absentee. You have to show up. You have to be there in person. Your neighbors are going to see you there,” she said.
“That’s the beauty of a caucus, is that candidates who historically have fared well have done a lot of that spadework far outside the limelight,” she continued, adding that the 2008 Iowa caucuses winner, Mike Huckabee, spent months going to churches or meeting with people, which was “extremely effective.”
Michael Zona, a Republican strategist who worked on Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s two most recent campaigns, said he thinks the focus that the candidates are putting on Iowa is the reason why Trump’s lead is not as significant in the state as it is on a national level.
He said Iowa is of particular importance this cycle because two candidates are from South Carolina, which will be the fourth state to vote on the primary calendar. The appeal that candidates have in Iowa would translate well to South Carolina, he said, but two candidates from that state, Haley and Scott, would make competing more difficult for the others in the race.
Zona agreed that candidates need to turn more attention directly to Trump if they want to seriously compete with him. Many candidates fought with each other for second or third place during the 2016 primaries while ignoring the front-runner.
“That didn’t work out for any of them. So if these candidates want a chance at winning — and I doubt some of them are intent on actually winning, but if their goal is to win — they’ve got to make the case that they should be leading the party and winning over votes not just from their competitors in second or third or fourth place but their competitor in first place,” he said.
“It seems a lot of candidates haven’t necessarily learned much [from 2016],” Zona added.