February 25, 2024

NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa (AP) — When Donald Trump launched his 2024 presidential campaign after a disappointing midterm election for Republicans, his trajectory was something of a mystery. But seven days before Iowa’s kick-off caucuses, his standing among the GOP faithful is hardly in doubt.

Voters, campaign operatives and even some of the candidates on the ground here overwhelmingly agree that the Republican former president is the prohibitive favorite heading into the Jan. 15 caucuses — whether they like it or not.

“Everybody sees the writing on the wall,” said Angela Roemerman, a 56-year-old Republican from Solon, Iowa, as she waited for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley to arrive for a weekend rally at Field Day Brewing Co. in North Liberty.

“It’s a little depressing,” Roemerman said as her order of tortilla chips arrived, lamenting “all the drama” surrounding Trump. “We don’t need another four years. But Trump’s going to win.”

Just beneath all the perceived certainty about Trump’s victory, however, lies serious risks for the front-runner. Trump continues to fuel sky-high expectations, despite questions about the strength of his voter-turnout operation, a closing message clouded by lies about the 2020 election and stormy weather forecasts that could dissuade supporters from showing up.

Few believe such issues will lead to a straight-up loss next week in Iowa, but in the complicated world of presidential politics, a win is not always a win.

Meeting expectations

Should Trump fail to meet expectations with a resounding victory in Iowa, he would enter next-up New Hampshire and South Carolina much more vulnerable. Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continue to pour millions of dollars into Iowa advertising as they cross the state, backed by well-funded allies with robust get-out-the-vote operations, in a relentless effort to narrow Trump’s margin of victory.

At the same time, Trump’s team privately acknowledges that it has cut back on its door-knocking, get-out-the-vote operation heading into the final week. They insist they can ensure his loyalists show up on caucus day more effectively by relying on rallies, phone calls and a peer-to-peer text message program. That’s even as allies of DeSantis and Haley push ahead with traditional get-out-the-vote plans at voters’ doorways.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley and spent the weekend campaigning with her across Iowa, conceded that “it will be tough” to beat Trump here.

“There’s obviously a strong implication Trump’s gonna likely win the Iowa caucus,” Sununu told The Associated Press, even as he insisted momentum was building for Haley that will show up more clearly in New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 first-in-the-nation primary. “In New Hampshire, she clearly has a chance to do something no one thought was possible, which was to beat Trump in an early state.”

Aware of the risks, the former president’s team is scrambling to lower expectations for Iowa.

Trump’s advisers in recent days have been quick to remind reporters — at least privately — that no Republican presidential candidate has won a contested Iowa caucus by more than 12 points since Bob Dole in 1988.

The Trump campaign sees Dole’s margin as the floor for Trump’s victory, a senior adviser told The Associated Press, requesting anonymity to share internal discussions. The adviser described the mood on the campaign as confident but not comfortable, acknowledging questions about the strength of rival organizations and, as always, the weather, which could affect turnout if there is snow or extreme cold.

Frigid forecast

Heavy snowfall, blowing and drifting snow and dangerous travel conditions are expected Monday and Tuesday of this week to be followed by frigid temperatures that could drift below 0 degrees by caucus day.

The weather has already forced the Trump campaign to cancel multiple appearances by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders and her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had been scheduled to court Iowa voters on Trump’s behalf Monday.

Ever defiant, Trump projected confidence as he raced across the state for a series of “commit to caucus” rallies over the weekend before returning to his Florida estate. He’s scheduled to return to Iowa on Wednesday for a Fox News town hall.

At every stop over the weekend, he talked about his dominant standing in the polls. He’s also frequently repeated lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him by voter fraud, a claim refuted by the courts and his own administration but one that fueled a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Still, weather is the more immediate concern heading into the final full week of campaigning in Iowa.

Trump told an audience of more than 2,000 in Clinton on Saturday night that his aides told him he shouldn’t worry about cold weather, although his opponents probably should.

“The other side will never vote, because they don’t have any enthusiasm,” Trump said. Stoking the crowd, he added, “We won’t lose one vote, because our people, they’re going to walk on glass.”

That’s not to say there’s no risk.

“The biggest risk is you say, you know, ‘We’re winning by so much, darling, let’s stay home and watch television,’” Trump said the night before in Mason City. “And if enough people do that, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Trump’s risks

Indeed, Trump has a loyal base of support but he’s also targeting a significant number of first-time caucus participants who don’t necessarily know where to go next Monday or how the complicated caucus process works. The events feature a series of speeches and votes that can span multiple hours, and in many cases, they’re not held at regular polling locations.

A Des Moines Register poll conducted in December found that 63% of likely first-time Republican caucus participants say Trump is their first choice.

One of the first-time participants may be William Caspers, a 37-year-old farmer from Rockwell, Iowa. He said he had never attended a political event of any kind before Trump’s Mason City event on Friday. While he’s supporting Trump “100%” in 2024, he said he was only “pretty sure” he would caucus for him.

“Where is it going to be? Where do I go? I’m kind of confused about that,” Caspers said. He noted that he was in the bathroom when a caucus explainer video played at the big screen at the front of the event hall. Several hundred other voters were still in line outside during the video.

“So, the caucus is this Monday?” Caspers asked an AP reporter, who clarified that it was Monday Jan. 15.

Not far away, Jackie Garlock, of nearby Clear Lake, was wearing a white hat indicating her status as one of Trump’s “caucus captains.” The campaign has promoted its efforts to recruit and train hundreds of such captains, who will represent the campaign within a given precinct on Monday night.

Garlock said she only briefly attended one virtual training on Zoom, which she described as largely a pep rally. She also said that she’s not particularly good or experienced at political organizing.

But she’s not worried.

“I have a lot of confidence,” she said of Trump’s chances next week as she scanned the crowded North Iowa Events Center. “I just look at the number of people who are here and I think, how can they all be wrong?”

Haley and DeSantis

Meanwhile, Haley and DeSantis are spending big money to attack each other on Iowa television, although Haley has had a decided spending advantage in the caucus’ final days.

Overall, Haley and her allies are on pace to spend more than $15 million in Iowa television advertising this month alone; DeSantis’ team is spending less than $5 million, according to an AP analysis of data from the media tracking firm AdImpact.

Virtually none of the attack ads from Haley or DeSantis is directed at Trump. That’s even as Haley’s primary super PAC is running multiple ads describing DeSantis as “a dumpster fire,” and one of DeSantis’ evolving group of super PACs recently launched an ad campaign calling Haley “Tricky Nikki.”

Trump and his allies are spending nearly $10 million this month in Iowa. And he’s shifted some of his attacks away from DeSantis and toward Haley. But he’s also investing in ads targeting Democratic President Joe Biden, his likely general election opponent.

Of all the candidates on the ground in Iowa this week, only DeSantis is predicting an outright victory over Trump. He moved his entire campaign leadership to the state in recent months and visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

“You’re going to see an earthquake on Jan. 15,” DeSantis told dozens of supporters at a downtown bar in Dubuque.

____ AP writers Jill Colvin, Michelle L. Price and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.