Few people relish the Iowa caucuses, the first act of the greatest political show on earth, more than Mike Draper. Since 2008 the Iowa native has hosted US presidential candidates at his novelty retail store and made tongue-in-cheek political merchandise. But this time, he feels, something is missing.
“We’ve always had a fairly good finger on the pulse and it’s normally a circus but this year is just a sad circus,” said Draper, owner of Raygun in the state capital, Des Moines. “People are still going through the motions but there’s no real drama to it.”
That is because Donald Trump, a twice-impeached former president still facing 91 criminal charges, is poised to complete his political resurrection on Monday with victory in the first nominating contest to decide which Republican takes on the Democratic incumbent Joe Biden in November’s election.
Opinion polls show Trump casting a giant shadow over the sparsely populated, snow-swept state despite campaigning far less there than his rivals Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and the former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Most analyses say the question is not if he will win but by how much.
It is a rare anti-climax for political aficionados in Iowa, which takes its outsized role in vetting the world’s most powerful person very seriously. Draper, 41, who votes Democratic, reflected: “We make a lot of shirts about sports and it’s tricky because it’s hard to make product that sells for a losing team but it’s also hard to make product that sells for a team that’s blowing everybody out.
“This year, even on the Republican side, it’s almost like an incumbent is running uncontested and then you had DeSantis and Haley having a two-person debate in Des Moines while the guy who’s blowing them out of the water doesn’t even show up.”
Such is the lack of engagement that, when Draper’s staff mounted a display to celebrate the caucuses, curious onlookers assumed it must be related to Presidents’ Day in February or Independence Day in July. The store responded with characteristic dry wit on a T-shirt: “Election 2024: You’d think battling a fascist takeover of America would spark more interest from people.”
Another T-shirt, based on a snatch of conversation overheard on the New York subway, says: “What the hell is a caucus? And where the hell is Iowa?” These are questions that get asked every four years. A caucus is a gathering at a neighbourhood location, such as a school, church or union hall, where representatives make speeches on behalf of their favoured candidates. People then vote by secret ballot.
Iowa is a midwestern state with the same population size as Wales (3.1 million). Hogs outnumber people by more than seven to one. It is whiter and more rural than most of the US. It has hosted the official start of every presidential campaign for the last half-century, offering a test of humility as candidates brave the icy plains to visit churches, diners, farms and school gyms, look voters in the eye and make their pitch.
But the old maxim that “all politics is local” applies less in today’s nationalised, media-driven political landscape. Trump, 77, is the first loser of a presidential election to compete in Iowa four years later. He has the infrastructure and money to run the organised ground game that caucuses demand. His celebrity status has overwhelmed his hard-toiling opponents and enabled him to campaign at arm’s length.
He held only 24 events in 19 counties in Iowa between 1 January 2023 and 4 January 2024, according to data collected by the Des Moines Register newspaper. This was far fewer than DeSantis (99 events in 57 counties), Haley (51 events in 30 counties) and Ramaswamy (239 events in 94 counties). Even Trump’s campaign surrogates have been drawing bigger crowds in the state than actual candidates.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “For people like Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, first-time candidates, Iowa’s important to be there in person but Trump is campaigning on the persona and mythology of Trump as much as anything else.
“People don’t even feel like they need to meet him in person. He’s become a standard bearer for people who feel disenfranchised by whatever they view as the establishment and, even though they get a lot of benefits from the Biden administration programmes, Biden has been terrible at selling them.”
A recent survey put Trump 34 percentage points clear of the field, suggesting that voters here care little for warnings that he is a nascent dictator ready to shred democracy. One major reason is born-again or evangelical Christians, who made up nearly two-thirds of caucus-goers during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, according to exit polling.
This group seems willing to overlook his moral shortcomings if it means electing a perceived fighter who will deliver its objectives. Karen Johnson, a 67-year-old evangelical Christian, told the New York Times: “Trump is our David and our Goliath,” – neatly capturing his combination of sacred and profane.
Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times newspaper, said: “North-west Iowa, where I live, is the most conservative part of the state and it’s just very solidly pro-Trump, including a lot of evangelicals who Ron DeSantis has been trying to court.
“Trump is just dominant in Iowa. It’s going to be a good night for him.”
But elections are also an expectations game and, if Trump dips below 50% of the vote in Iowa, it will be seen as a disappointment. In recent days his advisers have been reminding reporters that no Republican presidential candidate has won a contested Iowa caucus by more than 12 points since Bob Dole in 1988.
There is another wild card: weather.
During the weekend, extreme weather made Iowa’s roads dangerous and wreaked havoc with the final sprint of the caucus campaign. On Friday the state patrol posted a warning on social media that said: “Please, don’t put yourself or others in danger.”
Trump’s campaign was forced to cancel three out of four in-person rallies over the weekend, opting to hold tele-rallies instead “out of an abundance of caution amid severe weather advisories”. Haley, who cancelled all three of her events on Friday, quipped to voters during a virtual town hall: “I definitely know I’m not in South Carolina anymore.”
DeSantis did manage to hold an event on Friday morning in Ankeny, close to Des Moines, and said of the caucuses: “I know it’s gonna be cold. I know it’s gonna be not the most pleasant, but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to pass a vote that has more impact.”
Iowans are famously hardy but Monday is forecast to be a record cold caucus night with temperatures predicted to dip as low as -14F (-26C). Biting winds could make it feel as cold as -45F in some places.
This could reduce turnout but again might favour Trump because he has a fiercely loyal base. He confidently predicted last weekend: “We won’t lose one vote, because our people, they’re going to walk on glass.”
Two subplots of this year’s caucuses are the implosion of DeSantis, 45, and the rise of 51-year-old Haley. A year ago the Florida governor was being hailed as a new Republican saviour who could offer Trumpism without Trump: rightwing populist policies without legal baggage or crass antics. Tens of millions of dollars, countless air miles and several staff departures later, he has little to show for it.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “The biggest surprise in the past 12 months politically has been the steady weakening of the DeSantis candidacy. He was presented to the world as a person who had just about all Donald Trump’s virtues – as Republicans define them – with none of his vices and look at what’s happened to him.”
A third-place finish for DeSantis on Monday could end his bid for the White House. Galston added: “Ron DeSantis has bet the farm on Iowa and, if he finishes an ignominious third, he will be a dead man walking and the only question is how long will he walk before he collapses. If he finishes a stronger than expected second, which you can’t rule out based on the amount of ground-level work he and his team have done there, that would be a surprise.”
DeSantis has been criticised for lacking charm and charisma, more naturally predisposed to a scowl than a smile. One commentator memorably described him as the kind of guy who might unplug your life support to recharge his mobile phone.
Schiller of Brown University said: “He’s not quite as good in person on the stump as people had hoped he would be and that was a problem. DeSantis tried to be Trump version two but the problem for him is that version one is running. At the end of the day, people like the original.
“That happens in American politics: if you are unique – and Trump is, we can argue safely, unique – it’s hard to imitate it. You’ve seen all these candidates who try to imitate Trump fall flat on their face. Ron DeSantis is just an extended example of what happened to Senate candidates in 2022. As long as Trump is out there and is walking, talking and breathing, nobody wants the imitation.”
Despite a recent gaffe over the cause of the civil war, when she failed to mention slavery, Haley has donor money and momentum on her side. A strong finish in Iowa would set her up well for New Hampshire, where some polls show her cutting Trump’s lead to single digits, and where the anti-Trump candidate Chris Christie’s recent decision to drop out could give her a further boost in support.
John Zogby, an author and pollster, said: “She’s run the best campaign and she’s also the best candidate in terms of the tools and the rules. She is very good on her feet most of the time and she has a cheerful personality and is very subtly appealing to moderate and independent voters.”
Normally, victory in Iowa is a step, not a leap, towards the White House. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won and John McCain trailed in fourth, but McCain became the nominee. In 2012, Rick Santorum edged out Mitt Romney but it was Romney who became the party’s standard bearer. And in 2016, Ted Cruz beat Trump into second place, only for Trump to secure the nomination and the presidency.
But a big win for Trump on Monday will imply that his iron grip on the Republican party endures and a third consecutive nomination is his to lose. It will also signify a remarkable comeback for a man who suffered a crushing defeat by Biden in the 2020 presidential election, instigated a riot at the US Capitol in a desperate bid to overturn it and became the first former president hit by criminal indictments. And it will serve as a warning against complacency for Democrats and anyone around the world who fears a second Trump presidency.
Joe Walsh, a former congressman who challenged the incumbent Trump in the 2020 Iowa caucuses and polled at 1%, said: “I expect him to win big. I expect Haley and DeSantis to be very distant. I expect maybe Haley to end up ahead of DeSantis and I wouldn’t be surprised if DeSantis gets out before New Hampshire and endorses Trump.”
Walsh has not been surprised to see few Republican candidates directly attack Trump for most of the campaign. “Both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, everybody in this primary, it’s been fucking mission impossible. This is Trump’s party and none of them have been trying to beat him. If you attack Trump, you’re done as a Republican. There’s no anti-Trump lane in that party. Period.”
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