The Last Gasp of the Iowa Kingmakers

In Lohse’s basement, Oman, the former chief of staff, argued that the group needed to unite around a single candidate. He had one in mind: Nikki Haley. She had recently experienced a surge of press, after a trio of crisp debate performances and rising numbers in the polls. She would later receive an endorsement from the Koch brothers’ operation, which would mobilize more than a hundred supporters to help her campaign across the state. “The way to win Iowa is to organize, organize, organize and come out strong at the end,” Oman said. Boal, who had seen Haley speak, said that her confidence and command of issues could both unite the Republican Party and attract more independents.

In this pre-caucus caucus, the group found that more than seventy people agreed to join in their efforts to support Haley. “Why don’t we put a press release together with all our names?” Boal suggested. Some of the influencers planned to use their political credentials to introduce Haley to business owners and other power brokers. Others vowed to call their friends and talk to their neighbors. They hoped to at least create enough buzz to get more Iowans to come to Haley’s town halls. “She has a charisma about her,” Boal said. “Once people go see her, she will seal the deal.”

For Presidential candidates looking to reorient the race, Iowa had long been an ideal place. In 1972, George McGovern propelled his Presidential bid here, appealing to the antiwar movement. In 1976, Jimmy Carter found a path to the Presidency by attending fried-chicken fund-raisers. Voters catapulted George H. W. Bush in 1980 to challenge Ronald Reagan; Barack Obama’s win in 2008 was taken as proof that the country might be ready to elect a Black President. Along the way, the caucuses have delivered a great deal of political B-roll: farmers in coveralls analyzing trade policy! Candidates hanging at the state fair with cows made of butter! “There are three tickets out of Iowa: first-class, coach, and standby,” David Yepsen, a popular former host of the state’s premier public-affairs TV show, told me. “The final nominee will finish in [one of] the top three positions.”(The exception to the rule: Joe Biden, who finished fourth in 2020.)

A caucus is not a typical election process, in which voters stroll into their precincts, silently vote, and leave. Instead, voters convene in a community center—a city hall, a church, a school gym—during one evening in the winter. Each candidate has someone from the precinct speak on their behalf. Then residents cast votes using pieces of paper, and a volunteer tallies the ballots. “One year, I bought these baskets from Dollar General for people to vote in—and we were on CNN,” Boal told me. “We love the simplicity of the process. . . . It’s just the people of Iowa—no frills, salt-of-the-earth people. But we get the job done.” She repeated a truism they often say here: “Some people won’t decide until they’ve met everyone who is running— sometimes twice.”

Bob Beatty, a political-science professor, began travelling to observe Iowa’s caucuses in 2003. “I was just flabbergasted,” Beatty told me. “Presidential candidates in people’s living rooms, in people’s back yards, with ten or fifteen people, sitting in lawn chairs. It’s really a phenomenon.” The crowd would come prepared with questions about issues that irked them, no matter how small, with the expectation that the candidate would be knowledgeable and charming. (This year, between questions about ethanol policy and immigration, Beatty saw a voter ask Ramaswamy about whether the government might raise the money you receive when you turn in aluminum cans; Haley was asked to give her thoughts on Taylor Swift.) And when a candidate charms, Iowans tend to reward them. One of the Republicans’ traditions is holding campaign events at a chain called Pizza Ranch, where diners can eat fried chicken and bacon-cheeseburger pizzas in a family restaurant fashioned as a Western saloon. In 2008 and 2012, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum respectively made it a goal to visit Pizza Ranches across the state. Both won the caucuses.

This political tone may be shifting. Daniel Hopkins, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “The Increasingly United States,” told me that, in a meaningful sense, local politics is nationalizing. Voters are more often considering how candidates fit into broader political brands rather than their adeptness at addressing local issues. “Everybody, from Governor Reynolds”—of Iowa—“on down, is reading national tea leaves and polls and checking the same Web sites to figure out their next move,” Hopkins told me. “If you want to sustain attention in this environment, you’re not going to talk about issues in this state or that. You’re going to find issues that are symbolic nationwide. It’s not, ‘How many years should someone wait for a green card?’ But it’s emotive questions like, ‘Are immigrants flooding across our border?’ ”

In 2016, Trump avoided some of Iowa’s traditional campaign techniques. He tended not to stay in the state long; he flew in and out so often that he made headlines when he stopped at a Holiday Inn overnight. There were just two weeks left when he visited a Pizza Ranch. (He received the owner’s endorsement anyway.) His campaign was late to find delegates to speak for him at the precincts on caucus day. “People didn’t think he would do so well,” Boal said. Nevertheless, his campaign remained a huge national story. In the end, he finished second in Iowa, serious enough to quiet doubters.

This year, Ron DeSantis has done events in all of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties—something called a Full Grassley, after the state’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley. Ramaswamy has completed two Full Grassleys, visiting each county at least twice. In 2023, the Des Moines Register counted two hundred and ten visits to Iowa from Ramaswamy and a hundred and four from DeSantis. Haley had fifty-nine. Trump? Just seventeen. When I called Eric Branstad, a Trump adviser in Iowa, he shrugged this off. The campaign had worked to turn out people from eastern Iowa, he said, where blue-collar workers who were once reliable Democrats have turned to Trumpism. Trump’s rallies have drawn large crowds, which has let the campaign collect more data from voters, whom it can text and call directly. The campaign has enlisted precinct captains, who will wear white-and-gold Trump baseball caps on caucus day, and rally voters. It has promised that, if they can each recruit ten people to attend the caucuses, they will get to be a part of a special meeting with Trump. Branstad remained unbothered by local efforts to knock Trump off his perch. “The other candidates needed to convince the public that he was not electable,” Branstad said. “They didn’t do that. In my mind, it’s way too late.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *