Former President Trump’s lead in the first presidential contest state of Iowa is growing, less than two weeks before the caucuses.
The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average shows Trump leading the field in Iowa with 51.6 percent support, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley trail at 18 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively.
Trump’s status as the party’s de facto incumbent, along with Iowa’s deeply conservative GOP base, create a fertile ground for the former president. Regardless, his campaign isn’t taking any chances, crisscrossing the state for events with and without him.
The former president notably lost Iowa in the 2016 presidential caucuses, making this year’s event even more critical for him as he looks to wrap up the nomination as soon as possible.
“Trump wants it to be the knockout blow,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “The sooner you can move on to the general and secure the nomination, the better off your campaign will be.”
Former President Donald Trump reacts to supporters during a commit to caucus rally, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
One of the most telling signs of this strategy came Tuesday, when Fox News announced Trump would be taking part in a town hall on the network as counterprogramming to the CNN primary debate, in which Haley and DeSantis will participate.
“That should tell you everything you need to know about Iowa,” a Republican strategist said.
While DeSantis has made Iowa a top priority, and Haley’s presence on the ground in the state was bolstered by her endorsement from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, Trump’s team has seen signs of growing support as it quietly worked to build its operation there over many years.
His campaign has engineered a recruiting strategy down to the precinct captains, making sure they’re prepared for caucus night. The responsibilities of Trump’s precinct captains include delivering a three-minute speech touting the former president and reporting results from their respective precincts. Last year, the campaign brought on former Iowa GOP political director Alex Latcham as the campaign’s early-voting state director.
“Their  strategy was effectively to park a charter bus that was branded ‘Trump’ on high-visibility corridors and see who just walked up to the bus,” Centers said. “That is not at all what their strategy is [now]. It is a traditional caucus strategy.”
“It’s truly second-to-none here relative to the other candidates and campaigns. It’s not close,” he said.
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On top of that, Trump has the advantage of essentially running as an incumbent, given that he’s a former president who remains popular with the Republican primary base. Some recent polls also show him besting Biden in a head-to-head match-up; The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average shows Trump leading Biden by 2.2 percent nationally.
“They want to quiet all of the donors as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to have a big win in Iowa, because then essentially New Hampshire will be his for the taking, as well as South Carolina,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Another reason Trump’s team is working to put a bow on the primary season early is because of his impending court dates in his numerous legal battles set to formally begin this year.
“They want to make the case that they are the nominee, and therefore with Jack Smith and the [Department of Justice], or whoever does whatever, they can say now it’s truly election interference,” O’Connell said.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan set Trump’s federal trial date for his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results for March 4, the day before Super Tuesday.
“The math works out where if he really runs away with it in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it sets him up to potentially clinch all of the delegates he needs by Super Tuesday or within a week or two — by mid-March at the latest — if he keeps up this momentum,” said Scott Tranter, director of data science at Decision Desk HQ.
While most strategists acknowledged Trump’s wide lead in Iowa, some still contend there is room for surprises.
O’Connell noted the mechanics of a caucus make it potentially more susceptible to political curveballs, though he also said Trump’s lead in Iowa is unprecedented.
“You’ve never had an Iowa lead … in the way that Trump has a lead right now,” he said, referring to recent polling from The Des Moines Register.
Much of the focus will also be on DeSantis and Haley, who are locked in the battle for second place. DeSantis leads Haley in Iowa by 1 point, according to the polling average from The Hill/Decision Desk HQ. But in New Hampshire, Trump’s lead is smaller, at an average of 43.7 percent support. Haley follows in second at 26.7 percent, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie comes in third with 11 percent. DeSantis is at fourth place with 8.3 percent.
“I think the more interesting part of the race is who comes in second and how close the third-place person is to the person in second, and how close the second-place person is to Donald Trump,” Tranter said. “That will set the narrative and the tone.”
The Trump campaign predicted that the news media would take the same tone in a memo to reporters Tuesday.
“On average, President Trump is at 51 [percent] in Iowa, with DeSanctimonious and Haley tied at 18 [percent] and Vivek at 6 [percent]. The real battle is who will place second – when Nikki Haley’s resources from the pro-China crowd are rising, and DeSanctimonious’ money is drying up. Regardless of how well President Trump finishes in Iowa, the headlines will be about the second-place finisher so the media can make New Hampshire the flavor of the week,” wrote senior Trump campaign advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles.
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