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2024 Election

Trump allies urge a wake-up call for his lagging Iowa campaign operation

As the stretch run to the Iowa caucuses begins, Trump’s polling lead belies a small campaign organization getting outstripped by rivals.
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A number of Donald Trump’s allies are growing concerned that his lead in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses isn’t built to last. 

Trump supporters are trying to beef up the campaign’s lean Iowa operation with more experienced hires. They are scrambling to fill roles handling regional political work around the state — jobs that “should have been filled six to eight months ago,” according to one Republican operative based in Iowa.

And they are preparing for months of battle against Republican presidential opponents who trail badly in the polls but have built better machinery to find and secure votes, according to interviews with a dozen sources including longtime Trump campaign allies, state and local officials in Iowa and GOP strategists.

The fretting extends even to Trump’s own family members. One Trump-supporting source who has worked in Iowa, who spoke out in an effort to spur change in the campaign, described a phone call with the former president’s son Donald Trump Jr. in which he worried about a lack of experience on the campaign’s Iowa team and said multiple times that they need “an adult in the room.”

Trump Jr. was concerned “that they were running from behind in getting things going, and that there was concern about that at the highest levels,” the source said, adding that “they were giving [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis too many opportunities.”

In response, Trump Jr. told NBC News, “As usual, this is 100% fake news, in what is likely the last breath from the dying Ron DeSanctimonious campaign.”

The stakes in Iowa are clear. If Trump wins the first contest of 2024, where he starts with a strong polling lead in what was one of his weaker states in 2016, his rivals may not be able to stop him steamrolling through the rest of the nominating process. But demonstrating Trump’s vulnerability early could open a window to defeating him — which is among the big reasons DeSantis, still Trump’s closest rival in polls, is digging into Iowa while cutting back operations elsewhere.

Both men are converging on the same spot in Iowa this weekend: Saturday’s football game between Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. It’s a marquee event for both football fans and candidates seeking their support — and it puts the spotlight on a pair of contrasting caucus campaigns.

“President Trump is making the strongest play for Iowa of all the candidates, and it’s reflected in the polling where he consistently leads by nearly 30 points,” Trump spokesperson Jason Miller said, also referencing polling from a pro-DeSantis group showing Trump well ahead.

Trump’s diminished presence

The 2024 version of Trump has advantages the 2016 version did not, coming into this race as a former president with rabid support among a large portion of his party, instead of starting from scratch as a self-funding outsider.

But the data also show a stark difference between Trump’s 2016 and 2024 campaigns in Iowa.

In the 2016 primary, he called this stretch of the campaign the “summer of Trump” in Iowa. He had visited the state at least 10 times, traveling to Des Moines for his first rally hours after unveiling his campaign at Trump Tower. He returned to the state for a second rally weeks later, stopping in Oskaloosa.

This time around, he has visited just six times, two of those visits being town halls with Fox News host Sean Hannity. 

Instead, Trump has left it to his campaign to establish a physical presence in the state — and it has been lacking.

“They’re not laying the groundwork well enough to feel secure going into the end of December,” as Trump deals with scheduled trials and other legal issues as well as the Jan. 15 caucuses approaching, a source familiar with the campaign said. A trial date for the civil fraud lawsuit against Trump in New York is set for October, while the defamation case involving E. Jean Carroll is also set to begin Jan. 15, 2024. It's currently unclear when the criminal case against Trump in Georgia will go to trial, while the other criminal trials involving Trump are currently scheduled for later in 2024.

“I know there’s an operation. I’m hearing that there’s something going on. But it’s hard to see it,” said a former Trump adviser in Iowa, who added the campaign’s current efforts were cause for concern and may lead to problems down the line. “They have not settled on an approach that works. What will happen is somebody is going to get surprised.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks with the press at the Iowa Pork Producers booth during the 2023 Iowa State Fair at the Iowa State Fair Grounds on Aug. 12, 2023.
Former President Donald Trump speaks with the press at the Iowa Pork Producers booth during the 2023 Iowa State Fair at the Iowa State Fair Grounds on Aug. 12, 2023. Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Iowa state Sen. Brad Zaun, a Trump campaign co-chair in the state, said he thought the campaign was set up well, with “a lot of momentum” and personnel to build on it.

“It comes down to the ground game, and I was really impressed with all the people we got signed up by the Iowa State Fair that are helping out,” he said. The goal, he said, is to sign up a Trump supporter in every precinct in Iowa to speak “for the president at each individual precinct caucus, and I know we’re having a lot of success there.”

Yet, Iowa veterans familiar with Trump’s efforts there said they were taken aback by what they perceived as a lackadaisical approach by the campaign leadership in the state.  

Two people who spoke to NBC News said they had not heard from Trump’s 2024 Iowa staff despite their past experience working with him there.

A third early Iowa adviser said, “There were a lot of people who were part of ’16, never got a call in ’20.” This person said fewer still received calls this cycle: “Maybe one or two.”

Tana Goertz, who served as co-chair of Trump’s Iowa caucus campaign in 2016, said the state of the 2024 operation there made it look like the people in charge did not care whether the former president “wins or loses.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time. I think we’re way ahead of any campaign that I’ve seen before,” Zaun said.

Brett Barker, the Story County Republican Party chair and mayor of Nevada, Iowa, is neutral in the 2024 race and has been involved in Iowa’s GOP caucuses since 2008. He said Trump has long differed from the model followed by past successful campaigns there.

“Historically, he hasn’t come in and done a lot of the retail campaigning,” Barker said. “So he’s going to have the disadvantage of not being able to be face to face with as many voters. But he also is far more known. And as a former president, you have a lot of advantages being in that role, too. So it is an unusual dynamic this time.”

Meanwhile, door-knocking efforts have found large numbers of undecided voters across the state, said two sources familiar with the Trump campaign's on-the-ground outreach in Iowa. And Trump canvassers are outnumbered by rival efforts making the case to these people at their front doors, leaving voters described as soft Trump supporters open to persuasion. 

But Trump, despite his long stretches of absence from the state, has personally rebuffed concerns about Iowa, saying it will get adequate attention, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

And the campaign is moving to sign up Trump volunteers and precinct leaders across the state, said one veteran of Iowa political campaigns familiar with Trump’s on the ground efforts, who described the current campaign as going beyond what the Trump team had done by this point in 2016.

Still, the possibility of a disappointing showing could open the door for the former president’s rivals to gain momentum in the primary races that follow Iowa next year.

What DeSantis has built

While Trump has the big polling lead and less visible organization to speak of in Iowa, DeSantis is in the opposite situation — investing major resources and efforts in a state that’s looking more and more like a must-win for him as the campaign goes on.

The Florida governor has recruited organizing chairs in all 99 counties, which Iowa state Senate President Amy Sinclair, a DeSantis supporter, says will be a force multiplier in the latter stages of the campaign.

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is interviewed in the spin room following the Republican primary presidential debate in Milwaukee, on Aug. 23.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

These are people “willing to step up and say, I’m going to go and talk about Gov. DeSantis with people I know, with people I work with, the people I go to church with,” Sinclair said.

“I think that former President Trump is not coming and mobilizing the people who support him. Will they even show up to a caucus? I think he’s making a bad choice,” she continued. 

Barker, the Story County GOP chair, says the DeSantis team’s early activity has been notable.

“I don’t recall anyone being on the doors as early as they were, they were on the doors in the spring, and even hit my door, hit everybody in my town,” he said. “I think what it shows to me is they have an organization capable of doing get-out-the-vote. And that’s going to become critical down the stretch.”

The build-up in Iowa comes as the DeSantis operation downsizes elsewhere. While he started the year with lofty goals of organizing far beyond the earliest states throughout 2023, the super PAC recently cut its vaunted door-knocking program in not only Super Tuesday states, but also the early state of Nevada, NBC News reported last week. New Hampshire has never been as strong a state as others for DeSantis’ polling numbers, and in South Carolina, two home-state Republicans — Nikki Haley and Tim Scott — are also jostling to be Trump’s main rival.

That leaves Iowa as the early state in which DeSantis has to make an impact to boost his campaign into real contention with Trump for the GOP nomination.

DeSantis, often with his family in tow, has been to 53 Iowa counties so far, with the goal of making it to all 99 counties. The campaign also points to dozens of local endorsements and more than 12,000 signed “commit-to-caucus” cards from voters as positive signs of its early buildup.

“There’s going to be very few Iowans that will be able to say they didn’t have the chance to shake hands with or ask a question of Ron DeSantis,” said DeSantis deputy campaign manager David Polyansky, a veteran of multiple winning Iowa caucus campaigns.

Trump’s visits this year total up to four counties over the course of six trips to Iowa so far. 

DeSantis’ Never Back Down super PAC is also outspending Trump’s super PAC, MAGA Inc., on the airwaves in Iowa, $5.9 million to $2.2 million. 

And it’s not just DeSantis. Trump has effectively ceded the airwaves to the rest of the field.

Scott’s campaign has already spent $4.9 million, with another $3.6 million in support from a pro-Scott super PAC. The super PAC supporting Haley has spent $3.6 million. Best of America, the super PAC supporting Doug Burgum, spent $2.7 million, and his campaign itself spent $2.6 million. 

None of that spending has eroded Trump’s support in public polling yet. But if there’s a chance for a late move against the former president, Never Back Down’s Kristin Davison said, the DeSantis team has built the foundation for it. In that case, it would make Iowa a launchpad for the rest of the 2024 nominating contest.

“They have totally signed away the first state,” she said, “and they don’t show any signs of showing that they’re going to try to get it back.”