Trump’s Iowa lead has Republican hopefuls flocking to Corn State

Candidates head to Midwest hoping to build momentum for 2024 presidential race

Des Moines, state capital of Iowa, a key US election state. Willy Lowry / The National
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“If you build it, he will come” — those are the words whispered to Kevin Costner’s conflicted character in Field of Dreams, the popular 1989 film about an unfulfilled Iowa man who never became a professional baseball player — or more deeply, played catch with his dad.

The film's bittersweet crescendo is reminiscent of the way that US presidential candidates flock to the corn state every year, looking for validation to kickstart their bid for the White House.

Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Tim Scott and Mike Pompeo have all made pilgrimages to Iowa in recent weeks, hoping to build early momentum ahead of the 2024 presidential election, which is still more than a year and half away.

Of those six, only former president Mr Trump and Ms Haley have officially announced their candidacies, but it is clear they are all clamouring for Iowans' support.

On a national level, Mr Trump appears to hold a commanding lead over any potential challengers. A recent straw poll taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference showed he was more than 40 points ahead of his nearest competitor Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida.

But in Iowa, the former president’s popularity appears to be waning slightly. A recent poll in The Des Moines Register found that while a majority of Iowans view him favourably, the number of Republicans who said they would “definitely vote” for him had dropped by 22 percentage points since 2021.

That could be problematic for Mr Trump.

The Iowa caucus kicks off the Republican primary process, as it has since 1972.

“As soon as you declare your presidency, your first stops are Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.

Up until this election cycle, Iowa was the first stop for both parties, but with the state drifting more and more in favour of Republicans, Democrats have decided to shift to South Carolina instead.

“The legend of Iowa was born in 1976,” Ms Paine Caufield told The National, from inside her cosy office on the campus of Drake University, where black and white photos of Barack Obama, Mr Trump, Hillary Clinton and a who's who of American politics adorn the walls.

Ms Paine Caufield arrived at Drake more than 20 years ago expecting to spend only a few years there as she established herself, but after one election cycle she fell in love with the process and has helped organise candidates' campus appearances for the past several elections.

Despite building a career far away from the confines of Washington, she has enjoyed a front-row seat to the race for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s a thrilling ride, she said.

“Every candidate since Jimmy Carter has really seen the benefits of early momentum in Iowa. So they spend time and money and get to know the Iowa voters, and then they go from there."

The caucus differs from a primary, in that it is a series of local gatherings, in which voters decide on their preferred candidates as opposed to a statewide process. It requires candidates to roll up their sleeves and really try to get to know voters.

Campaigning in Iowa is a journey through farmsteads, fairs and diners.

“I think traditional campaigning in Iowa really does matter, that retail effort, going door to door shaking hands, going to church basements, and potlucks and VFW halls, that has always been a staple of Iowa campaigning,” explained Ms Paine Caufield.

That is not necessarily Mr Trump’s strong suit. He prefers rallies with large adoring crowds, but even he knows that to win Iowa, he needs to put in the ground work —something he didn’t do in 2016, when he lost the caucus to Senator Ted Cruz.

He still won the state comfortably in the 2016 and 2020 general elections.

This week, he took aim at Mr DeSantis in his speech in Davenport, a city in eastern Iowa. Mr Trump accused the Florida Governor of being an acolyte of Paul Ryan, the former speaker of the house whom he called a “Rino", which stands for Republican in name only.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think he’s going to be doing so well here,” Mr Trump said of his expected biggest rival.

Iowa is also a deeply religious place. Its economy runs on corn and other agricultural products.

Iowans pride themselves on their collective work ethic and gracious attitude.

An unofficial state motto is “Iowa nice”, which refers to the way Iowans treat people. Mr Trump’s brazen and sometimes abrasive behaviour has caused some long-time Republicans to sour on him.

“I think that we need to put more emphasis on what brings us together and to not get into a lot of divisive social issues,” said Robert Downer, a life-long Iowan and Republican.

Dylan Engelbrecht, 19, said it was time the party moved on from the former president.

“It's definitely time, as the Republican Party, that we keep going forward and look for that next candidate,” Mr Englebrecht told The National.

But there are still many in Iowa who support Mr Trump.

Outside a gun show in Clive, a suburb of state capital Des Moines, the embattled politician’s popularity remained strong.

“He would not have got us in the mess we're in right now,” said a gun show attendee, who wished to only be identified by George.

“I mean, he still is all about America and what he believes in is American values and taking care of the people. That’s why I like him as a leader.”

Iowans will set the tone for the Republican primaries and helps decide who will be able to "go the distance".

Anything but a win for Mr Trump at this point would be a serious blow to his second-term aspirations. Mr Trump is banking on people similar to George coming out in droves, who remain faithful to whatever it is that he is building, much like the closing scene in Field of Dreams.

Updated: March 15, 2023, 6:50 AM