How the Pros Think the Iowa Caucuses Will Shake Out

How the Pros Think the Iowa Caucuses Will Shake Out

For all the polling and all the media firepower that’s currently concentrated on Iowa, a lot remains uncertain.

Among the key questions ahead of the first contest of the 2024 GOP presidential race: Will Iowa Republicans flock to the caucuses Monday during a brutal winter storm for frontrunner Donald Trump? Is Ron DeSantis’ ground game underestimated? Are there any signs of a late Nikki Haley surge? Is Vivek Ramaswamy correct when he says the polls aren’t capturing his support?

We decided to ask some of the people who know the state best: The Iowa political editors and reporters who’ve been covering presidential caucuses and state politics for years. They’ve been talking to voters and watching this election cycle unfold one campaign event at a time across the state’s 99 counties.

In a roundtable discussion moderated by POLITICO senior politics editor Charlie Mahtesian, these six journalists offered some fascinating insights — and some surprise observations: Evangelical voting behavior has changed in recent election cycles; DeSantis’ field organization seems formidable; and the flap surrounding Haley’s comment that New Hampshire will “correct” Iowa’s results hasn’t really moved the dial. In addition, there’s a politically radioactive local issue that might boost Ramaswamy, and one campaign surrogate, in particular, is turning heads.

If anyone has insights on how these developments will shape action on the ground, it’s this crew: Brianne Pfannenstiel, a reporter at the Des Moines Register; O. Kay Henderson, news director of Radio Iowa; Kathie Obradovich, editor in chief of Iowa Capital Dispatch; Ty Rushing, a reporter at Iowa Starting Line; Bret Hayworth, a reporter at Siouxland Public Media; and Ed Tibbetts, who writes Along the Mississippi.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Former President Donald Trump hasn’t campaigned in Iowa that much, at least by historic standards. And this week, he’s in court for two days. So it’s not like there’s going to be a blitz across the state in the final week. Will that matter at all? Is the limited retail politicking something that Iowans notice? Or is it irrelevant, another example of the former president defying political gravity?

Brianne Pfannenstiel: Donald Trump was in Clinton, Iowa, on Saturday, and he was about three-plus hours late to his event that people had shown up to maybe two or three hours early to start with. And people didn’t leave, they waited to see him for those five, six hours. He still had a packed ballroom, the energy was still there in a way that is just not the same for any of these competitors. And so his support, I think, continues to defy political gravity. Our tracking here at the Register shows he’s had 25 events this caucus cycle, which is nothing compared to some of these other candidates. And we don’t see it hurting him in the polls. We don’t see it affecting him really in any negative way on the ground.

O. Kay Henderson: In early October, Trump indicated he would make about half a dozen more appearances in Iowa before the caucuses. But as Brianne’s paper is chronicling and we have all been seeing, he has been here far more often than originally advertised. He held four events over two days this past weekend, and is coming back to the state the weekend before the caucuses. I think there was a change in direction internally. And you’ve heard him say on the campaign trail that he wants a thunderous victory here, that he wants a blowout victory here. I think they’re hoping as a campaign that what they’re seeing in some of the public polling here might manifest itself on caucus night.

Kathie Obradovich: If there’s a day for Trump to skip being on the campaign trail, it’s today [Tuesday, Jan. 9]. We’re in the middle of a big winter storm here. I’m currently looking out the window watching my husband start shoveling 10 inches of snow. And so people are probably not that excited about going out to a campaign event tonight anyway.

Bret Hayworth: Maybe this is just expectations, but Trump is, to my mind, campaigning more than I thought he would. Looking at his last two weeks, he’s ramped it up. And he used to do a lot of days where he would just do one event in Iowa, and now he’s wanting to do two events per day. I’m not sure if there’s any with three, but he’s in this upcoming week. And yes, he’s going to be on trial this week. But there’ll be several [events] this weekend he said, hitting multiple in the run up to the very last weekend.

Iowa is central to Ron DeSantis’ fortunes. He’s been to all 99 counties and carries several blue-chip endorsements, but his polling has been flat and it looks like Nikki Haley’s steadily gaining ground. Is there anyone here who thinks that maybe DeSantis could deliver a stronger performance than he’s being credited for?

Pfannenstiel: I think there’s a path for both him and for Nikki Haley to do well on caucus night and to get that second place position. I’m not necessarily in the business of making predictions here. But if Ron DeSantis is able to do that, we’ll look back at his organization that he’s had on the ground since April through his super PAC, Never Back Down. It’s been the most extensive ground game, most consistently in the state. He shifted all of his resources into Iowa; we may look back at that and say that that was a good investment of time, to really focus in on this first state, or it may not, right? All of that could come crashing down for him if Nikki Haley is able to better harness that moment. And we just don’t know, but I think there are things on the ground here for him. Maybe he is able to better inspire evangelical voters. Our polling shows that Donald Trump is still holding on to the bulk of those evangelical Iowa caucus goers, but that Ron DeSantis is in second place. Maybe they end up mobilizing behind him. You mentioned his endorsement from Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical leader, so there are things that could bode well for him on caucus night.

Ed Tibbetts: This sort of gets into the expectations game and if Trump were to underperform his numbers and, say, win by just 20 points, that would suggest that DeSantis and or Haley would outperform their numbers. Whether that would make a difference down the road, hard to tell, and predicting in Iowa is a fool’s errand. So I wouldn’t predict. But a 30-point win, which as I recall, is sort of the mark right now, would seem to me to be a pretty extraordinary thing by historical standards.

Based on what everyone here has seen or heard in recent months, is there a sense that any one candidate is running the best campaign? I’m not asking for a prediction, but rather, does any campaign strike you as especially wired across the state, exceptionally well organized, crisply executing a plan or perhaps has a grossly underappreciated ground game?

Henderson: On Monday of this week, Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufman spoke with a group of reporters about the caucuses. And one of the things he told that group was that on the ground, it’s clear that two campaigns have the best organizing effort at the precinct level. He wouldn’t name those two campaigns. But if you go to events, over the past weekend, for example, the Trump campaign is holding “commit to caucus” events. People are being given white hats; on the hat it says “caucus captain.” They are people that will be designated to speak for Trump in each precinct meeting, and to oversee the counting of ballots in each precinct meeting. I went to a DeSantis event on Saturday night in Ankeny. There were a number of people getting orange hats that say “precinct captain” from the DeSantis campaign. Talking with some of the people in that room, they’re being given names to call in their community, to encourage them to attend. They’re talking to people online. And then they also will be a point person in each precinct, to speak for the campaign. That is remarkable in that there are more than 1,600 of these precinct meetings that will occur on Monday night. And if these two campaigns have organized people to speak for the candidate, and have prepared to do so, on caucus night, that will be something that we perhaps have not seen on the Republican side before.

Ty Rushing: The Trump campaign is just so well organized this time around. I mean, they’ve got boots on the ground everywhere, you’ve been bombarded by text messages, by mailers, by emails. They’re not just relying on Trump’s Twitter account to get the word out there and to fire up people. And he’s telling people this himself at his events. He’s saying, “Hey, go out there, and caucus. Don’t take it for granted. We want a big victory.” And they even created a Schoolhouse Rock-like cartoon to tell people how to caucus, which I saw for the first time at his Newton event on Saturday. I’ve been impressed with the level of organization that the campaign has had.

Obradovich: An organization really does matter. I know that there’s a lot of people who sometimes try to brush that off. But, and I don’t want to keep harping on the weather, but when you have below zero temperatures, and with the Trump campaign, a candidate with a big lead, it’s easy for people to get complacent and say, “You know, I don’t need to go out and freeze my buns to support Donald Trump because he’s going to win without me.” And as Donald Trump has been saying himself at events over and over in Iowa, when you have low turnout, as he puts it, bad things happen. I think he really learned his lesson from 2016 when Ted Cruz had the state wired, and beat Trump in the caucuses. I think he learned a strong lesson from that. And I agree that Ron DeSantis is the second candidate who has a strong ground game. I think he got good advice about how to campaign in Iowa. And I’m sure that Governor Kim Reynolds’ campaign probably helped him out as well. So I do think that that does matter.

One of the national narratives surrounding the campaign concerns Nikki Haley’s surge. And we certainly see plenty of evidence of that in New Hampshire. I’m wondering if you’ve seen evidence of anything similar in Iowa? Are there revealing signs one way or another? I know she hasn’t spent as much time there. But is there any indication that she’s either gaining traction or has perhaps hit a ceiling in Iowa?

Pfannenstiel: The Register’s Iowa poll showed some momentum for her in the fall; going into our October poll, she jumped about 10 points. In a race that has remained just incredibly static, there hasn’t been the kind of ups and downs and leader changes that we saw in the 2016 or the 2020 cycles. That was big movement for her, and that pulled her up even with Ron DeSantis. But since then, the polling at least has leveled off. She’s been able to get some endorsements that kind of reflect her appeal to more moderate, more independent type Republicans. She has gotten some big endorsements from a pro-life leader, but I don’t know that we’re seeing the evidence of the same kind of momentum that maybe she’s getting in New Hampshire. And that doesn’t mean it’s not here. She is still getting solid crowds to her events. She’s not holding as many, but they’re well organized. I think the campaign is doing a good job trying to gather data from the people who show up, but I don’t know that we’re seeing the same kind of momentum that maybe she’s gotten in New Hampshire.

Obradovich: One thing that stood out to me just in the past week was Nikki Haley bringing in the governor of New Hampshire to campaign for her in Iowa. It makes you wonder, who is she really trying to reach here? Is she really reaching Iowans who are impressed by the endorsement of the governor of New Hampshire, or is she speaking on the ground in Iowa to voters in New Hampshire? That, combined with her comment in New Hampshire about how voters there could “correct” the results of the Iowa caucuses, suggests that maybe she’s not necessarily looking for a blowout victory here.

That much-publicized comment about correcting Iowa” — has that had much resonance in Iowa? Or is that just sort of something that the media is focused on?

Obradovich: Ron DeSantis is trying to give it some resonance, talking about it as an insult to Iowans and that kind of thing. I don’t know that Iowa voters are going to take that too much to heart. Every cycle there’s something along those lines that a candidate says, because they obviously want to have a part in setting the expectations that the media have for how that candidate goes forward, regardless of how they perform in Iowa. So I don’t think that voters take it too much to heart, but it gave an opportunity to Ron DeSantis to have something else to talk about.

Tibbetts: I’d agree with Kathy, I don’t think Iowans are that parochial. We’re parochial, but not that parochial.

Henderson: Back to Brianne’s point about Haley’s surge post-debate, the 10-point surge that she had. One thing that’s remarkable about this race is that you have basically an incumbent president running for reelection. And the kind of topsy turvy races that we saw in 2016 and 2012, where you often had a different person surging after a well televised debate is not happening. 2012 was a remarkable cycle in terms of a new candidate sort of coming to the fore every few weeks. This is completely different, because of the dynamic of a person who used to be president seeking to be president again.

Another candidate who hasn’t gotten as much notice, Vivek Ramaswamy, has actually blanketed Iowa in terms of appearances. He’s been as active as anyone. And he argues that his supporters aren’t registering in polls, largely because they’re not traditional caucus goers. And this is a state where, as you know, Ron Paul did surprisingly well in 2012. What have you seen out of Ramaswamy? And what are the chances that his support is indeed being underestimated?

Rushing: What’s been interesting about him is that he came out of the gate saying that no one under 25 should be able to vote unless they’re in the military or law enforcement or some sort of emergency services. But he’s banked his campaign more on reaching some of those younger people. He’s done tailgate events at Iowa State, he’s done these come-meet-me-at-the-bar, I’ll-buy-you-all-this-beer thing at multiple locations across the state. He did a Vek-Tober fest, which was his own version of Oktoberfest here in West Des Moines, where there was free beer and grilled cheese trucks and a drone show. So he’s done all these kinds of non-traditional things, and he’s been exciting to a lot of young people. I’ve talked to a lot of younger voters who like his energy and the things he’s saying because he kind of just says whatever is on his mind at the time, and sometimes even his comms staff can’t keep up with his latest remarks. I recall being at an event in Newton, where he said he would have Elon Musk as one of his advisors as president, and I asked the comms guy for a little bit of follow up on that. And he’s like, “Well, that’s new to me.” And so that wildcard element, combined with his youthful energy and just being everywhere and providing beer and food and all these freebies, it’s reaching some people. But we’ll see. How many of those young people, those 21-year-olds, 19-year-olds, how reliable are they going to be? That’s going to be the big question.

Hayworth: He’s definitely campaigning hard. I do want to throw in the fact that Ramaswamy has the endorsement of former Congressman Steve King from northwest Iowa, who for 18 years was a well known conservative who raised all kinds of heck with all kinds of people. And I heard King’s endorsement — that’s on radio now. Ramaswamy is definitely not your traditional Republican. He isn’t afraid to say things that, as Ty mentioned, other people aren’t saying. And obviously, Steve King’s had that brand as well. And so you can see why King would like Ramaswamy. What that endorsement does for Ramaswamy, he’s probably still not going to be in the top three, but it is notable.

Obradovich: He does have a point that sometimes new caucus goers or young voters don’t always show up in all polls. There are some polls out there, for example, that they might only pull people who have caucused before. It’s a less expensive poll to do it that way. And, as Brianne will tell you, that’s not the way Ann Selzer, who’s the pollster for the Des Moines Register, polls it. She works pretty hard to try to set up her polls so that anybody who might be thinking about caucusing has an opportunity to be in that poll. So it’s not exactly true to say that nobody who’s a new caucus goer, or nobody who is young, is going to show up in a poll. But it is true that not all polls will include that group.

Governor Reynolds, as was mentioned earlier, has put some skin in the game here and supported DeSantis. Can you put her in some context for our national audience and discuss the role she’s playing in the caucus and how influential or not she might be on Ron DeSantis’ behalf?

Pfannenstiel: Governor Reynolds is incredibly popular with Iowa Republicans right now. And she comes into this caucus cycle off of a real high. She won reelection by a wide margin in a year when Republicans didn’t do well across the country uniformly. She really stood out, along with Ron DeSantis, as someone who kind of bucked that national trend. And then she came into this first legislative session off of that win and really was able to throw her weight around, use her political capital to push some of her legislative priorities over the finish line. She really was able to show Iowa Republicans that she means business and that this is her party and they better get in line as far as getting her legislative agenda. She really came in with a lot of political power and capital among Republicans and she’s decided to spend some of that on helping to get Ron DeSantis elected.

Henderson: For decades, [Sen.] Charles Grassley had been the Iowa Republican Party’s top vote-getter in elections. And now Kim Reynolds has eclipsed him. She is the most popular Republican in Iowa. However, she decided to use that capital, as Brianne said, and throw her support behind DeSantis. And at some Trump events, she is getting booed when she is mentioned by Trump from the stage. So it will be interesting to see for the Iowa reporters on this call, what happens with Kim Reynolds after the caucuses? Has her brand been damaged? Will it be repaired? How will legislators who are backing Donald Trump in the caucuses respond when she asks them to vote for something that she wants in the legislature. This has been a really interesting intra-party debate here in Iowa. The other thing that I would say about Reynolds is her endorsement in early November came at a really critical point for the DeSantis campaign. It was a time in which the DeSantis campaign was struggling a bit, and her endorsement injected a little bit of excitement in that campaign. And she has been campaigning alongside him, introducing him to audiences, and trying to push him up against this very well run and well organized Trump campaign.

Obradovich: I would just mention that the Trump campaign followed that endorsement for Ron DeSantis with a pretty inspired series of ads just putting together clip after clip after clip of really glowing comments that Kim Reynolds made about Donald Trump. And if you were watching that ad, without having any context in the news, you might wonder, who did Kim Reynolds actually endorse? I think it took some wind out of the sails of that endorsement. And it could impact how people feel about Kim Reynolds and her credibility, particularly if they’re Donald Trump supporters.

Tibbetts: One of the questions that I have is whether Kim Reynolds’ endorsement of Ron DeSantis is playing out at a level that we’re not seeing. It doesn’t seem to me that in the polls that her endorsement has boosted him a whole lot. But it’s not that big a state. Kim Reynolds, as has been noted, is very popular in this state. And while endorsements in the caucuses have limited value, she still knows a lot of people. She still has a vast range of contacts, that I wonder whether behind the scenes are being worked, and that may show up on caucus day.

Are there any local or state specific issues — such as ethanol or anything else that the candidates are addressing — that could affect the outcome? And, more broadly, what are the issues in general that are animating Iowa voters this year? What do Iowa Republicans seem to care about the most?

Henderson: Well, all politics is national. But there is one issue that one of the candidates is trying to build his campaign upon, and that is the construction of carbon capture pipelines. Vivek Ramaswamy has decided to be an incredibly vocal opponent of the use of the government’s eminent domain authority to seize land from property owners who don’t want the pipeline on their land. It is an incredibly controversial issue within the state of Iowa. And the Republican Party is not united in its view of it. You have people who believe that the construction of these carbon capture pipelines is essential for corn growers to maintain the price of corn and for the ethanol industry to actually survive. You have other people who say it is a violation of personal property rights to have a pipeline that is generating profits for a private entity come through their property. And then of course, there’s also the sub-debate here about this being part of a package that President Biden signed a couple of years ago. These pipelines are being built generally, because there are federal tax credits that were included in the Inflation Reduction Act. It has been the only real local issue that has animated the race. And all of the candidates, in some respect, have said something about it. Ramaswamy is the most specific.

Rushing: And interestingly enough, Steve King said that Vivek’s total opposition to using eminent domain for these carbon capture pipelines is what sealed his endorsement.

Pfannenstiel: To Kay’s initial point that politics is national now, it’s been really kind of remarkable how few local issues are animating this race. It is very much about the same things we’re seeing nationally. We’re talking about the economy and inflation, we’re talking about immigration and border security. And, of course, with everything going on across the globe, foreign policy has taken a bigger and bigger seat in the conversation. I don’t know if it’s the role that debates have had in shaping the conversation and the changing media landscape where Republicans are going onto preferred networks and programs to reach their specific audience rather than traditional local media, but I think this really is kind of a national race in terms of the issues. But even when we talk about the issues, I think this race is more of a vibes election. It’s less [about] those tangible issues that I think really ground us in policy and more just about how people are feeling about the state of the world and what these candidates bring to that.

Henderson: I totally agree with the vibes thing. In covering Nikki Haley, she presents herself as the problem solver. That’s her rhetoric. That’s how people respond to her. And if you look at how DeSantis presents himself, he presents himself as a CEO. That’s how he talks about his record in Florida, and how that would translate if he were essentially the CEO of the federal government. And then Ramaswamy presents himself as sort of the TED Talk guy. So it is sort of remarkable about how the voters are responding to the respective vibes that these candidates are putting out there. And intentionally so. They’re doing it intentionally.

Obradovich: It’s going beyond just the vibes, though. And this is not unique to this cycle. But I get the impression that issues take a decided back seat to voters’ perception of which candidate is best situated to beat Joe Biden in November. Electability is always a big issue. I get the feeling when I talk to voters, that that really has topped all other issues. Voters talk about the economy, they talk about jobs, they talk about immigration, but when you get to the very end of the day, what they really care about is their perception of whether a candidate can beat Joe Biden in November.

Pfannenstiel: And it’s interesting to that point, too, because they think all of these candidates can beat Joe Biden. He is perceived as so weak in this race that Iowa caucus goers in our polling have said that they believe all three of these top candidates could beat Joe Biden, including Donald Trump, and we’ve tried to poll this question every every way till Sunday. Do likely Republican caucus goers think that Donald Trump’s alleged crimes will interfere with his ability to win in November? That’s just not showing up. They believe that regardless of everything he’s going through, of everything that’s on the horizon, that he can still beat Joe Biden.

I didn’t hear anyone mention trade or China, which are issues that have reverberated across the Iowa political landscape in recent years. Do they also take a backseat to vibes and animus toward Joe Biden? 

Rushing: So you hear a lot about China from candidates, but we’ll get the biggest pop from any candidate that talks about the U.S. southern border and protecting it. That’s gonna get you a pop, no matter who you are. I’ve seen that from every single one of these candidates. They’ve mentioned the southern border, and what they will do to stop it. You would think that the southern border of Iowa was Mexico and not Missouri, because they are very, very interested in that.

Tibbetts: One of the things that has surprised me is that there hasn’t been much discussion about Trump’s trade ideas. Trump’s proposals in terms of trade are so radical, and so potentially impactful on Iowa, that you would think at some point it might have an impact. But frankly, I’ve not seen any of that, which to me is extraordinary.

According to 2016 entrance poll data in Iowa, 62 percent of Republican voters were white evangelical or white born again Christians. But in the intervening years, we’ve learned that Iowa has become a less religious place, like many states, with higher percentages of those describing themselves as not religious, and even with higher percentages of evangelicals attending services less frequently. Has anything changed in terms of the landscape with evangelical voters? What role will these voters play in determining the outcome Monday? I’d also be interested in hearing your perceptions of what candidates are running strongest and weakest with evangelical voters.

Pfannenstiel: In 2016, we saw evangelicals really unite around Ted Cruz and help push him across the finish line. And we’re just not seeing that same kind of unity. This time, Donald Trump is holding on, if not to a majority than certainly to a plurality, of Iowa evangelical caucus goers. And then the rest are kind of split between Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley.

Tibbetts: I don’t think evangelicals today are the same as evangelicals eight years ago or even further back. I think that makes it very difficult to compare one cycle to another because the definitions that are being used just aren’t the same anymore.

Obradovich: I also think evangelical voters are less likely to behave as a voting bloc than they were in the past. This cycle, in particular, it just seems like they are behaving like the vaster universe of Republican caucus goers in Iowa. They are supporting Donald Trump, and they have divisions among them as well. Yes, evangelical voters will show up to the caucuses, but I don’t think you can predict results based on how they’re going to vote.

Pfannenstiel: And I think Kathy makes a good point too, about them kind of reflecting the overall electorate. We’ve been to a lot of events this caucus cycle hosted by evangelical groups, and you go in kind of expecting that the candidates will maybe tailor their message or some of their talking points to issues that we’ve traditionally considered to be really prominent within these communities. And it just really hasn’t played out in my experience this cycle. Those events have really looked just like every other kind of caucus event that we’ve seen, with maybe a couple of exceptions. Broadly, you go into those events and you’re hearing the same things that you’re hearing everywhere else. They want to talk about the economy, they want to talk about immigration, they want to talk about Joe Biden.

Henderson: I’ll date myself here, but my first caucus campaign to cover was 1988. And we are a long way from the Pat Robertson phenomenon that buoyed him to finish ahead of the sitting vice president. That was a voting bloc at the time — Christian conservatives, the Christian coalition. Things have really changed. Both Brianne and Kathy are right, these voters are now in a party that embraces their issues. There are no longer people in the Republican Party like there were in 1988 who supported abortion rights. So it’s a completely different party than it was in 1988.

Hayworth: Here in Sioux City, Ron DeSantis is going after evangelicals, and these will not be public events, of course, but he did go to some churches here and speak. A few people I know from northwest Iowa think that that will make inroads for him. How much remains to be seen.

Rushing: I don’t know if you have noticed this, but Trump has implemented way more religious platitudes into his speeches, too. He’s talked about God and the Bible and Christianity, a lot more than I’ve ever heard him speak about it.

One thing I’ve noticed is that you’re inundated with national surrogates who are flying in and campaigning for the various candidates. Kathy has mentioned Gov. Sununu; I’ve seen House members like Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia and Thomas Massie from Kentucky. Is there anyone who stands out among the surrogates for making a splash or who has been especially effective or drawn bigger crowds or made a mark in any way? 

Pfannenstiel: Well, I don’t know that there are many surrogates that people could bring in who do as good a job as the candidate in terms of making an impression on caucus goers. But I think the Trump campaign has been really effective in keeping up energy and excitement around his candidacy. We’ve talked about the fact that he’s not here as often as some of the other candidates, but within the “Trump cinematic universe” there are all of these characters who play starring roles who he’s brought in. He’s got these people who have become really good surrogates for him beyond the campaign trail talking about him in the wider media landscape, who I think people are excited to hear from. And he’s done a good job of bringing those people in to keep up the excitement in his absence.

Rushing: I love the “Trump cinematic universe.” Anytime Roger Stone or Kari Lake or Mike Lindell is at a Trump event, there’s a photo line for them, right there on the floor.

Henderson: This past weekend, and for the past few weeks, DeSantis has been joined on the campaign trail by Republicans in Congress — Thomas Massie, Chip Roy, who sort of help him tell the story to crowds about how he would function differently than Trump. And one of the things that is noticeable when you cover one of these events, as I did last Saturday, featuring the three of them on stage is that Massie and Roy are far more critical of Trump than DeSantis is, but they’re lending their voice to this overarching theme that the DeSantis campaign is trying to spread across Iowa, that Trump made promises in 2016 that he did not keep. And these are the promises that DeSantis made to Florida voters that he kept. And that’s the kind of president he would be is their mantra as they go about this closing argument in the campaign.

Hayworth: I wanted to mention a surrogate that was in Sioux City last week. That would be very popular, just-across-the border South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. Some of the other surrogates that had been mentioned here, I don’t know that they are necessarily considered as potential running mates. But she is one of the few that I think have been mentioned as a possible [Trump] vice presidential candidate. She’s highly, highly esteemed here in northwest Iowa. And that was a very popular event.

The advance weather forecasts are predicting between six and 12 inches of snow across a wide swath of Iowa on Monday and Tuesday, with nearly all of the 99 counties under a winter storm warning. What kind of effect could that have, and who stands to benefit the most and who stands to benefit the least from that kind of scenario?

Obradovich: Trump has the most to lose. And he, of course, has made the comment that low turnout is bad for his campaign. He does well with older voters, but he also is doing well with younger voters. He would be in bigger trouble if all of his support was in the 65 and older crowd. A lot of folks that I talk to, they don’t like to go out after dark when the weather’s like this. So they’re not going to show up to caucus. And for national folks who are watching this, you do have to show up in person to caucus, there’s no absentee vote, which is why we talked so much about the ground game and how important it is. You actually have to get people out of their houses to participate. Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa chairman, said he thinks an ice storm would be the worst for turnout. But he acknowledges that below zero temperatures also could have an effect. He couches it as instead of having record turnout, we might just have outstanding turnout. But he does acknowledge that it will have an effect on turnout. And I do think that affects probably Donald Trump the most, although all other candidates and particularly the ones with the strongest ground games are going to have better luck.

Henderson: The Haley campaign could be impacted. If you go to her events, there are people who have attended Republican caucuses and Democratic caucuses in the past. There are Democrats who are considering caucusing for her in the Republican caucus, which would take guts to go out in front of all your neighbors knowing that you’re a Democrat and saying I’m here to vote in the Republican Party caucuses. So if the weather’s bad, and there’s a little bit of trepidation about being an independent or a Democratic voter and going to a Republican meeting, that could have an impact.

Pfannenstiel: I think we have to look at enthusiasm numbers, too. Donald Trump has the most enthusiastic, most locked in supporters, according to Des Moines Register polling, compared to Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. The people who want to caucus for Donald Trump really want to caucus for Donald Trump. And there’s less excitement for DeSantis and for Haley, and Iowans have thick skin but this is a really serious weather situation. The temperatures are going to be in dangerous territory for people to spend a lot of time outside. So if you’re looking at how well run are some of these precinct locations, are there long lines to get in? Are people going to show up to a place where the parking lots are not plowed? Part of this comes down to management of caucus night and how well the county parties in the precinct locations are able to prepare for the weather and to make sure that people can get in because there are a lot of barriers to participation to showing up and any additional thing could turn people away.

Rushing: Trump said this Saturday his people would walk on glass to support him. And I 100 percent believe him.

This will be the lightning round question: Does anyone on this panel think Donald Trump might not win Iowa?


OK, let the record show that no one thought Donald Trump could lose. 

For those of us who are outside Iowa, can you point to something on caucus night that we should be paying attention to? A place, a person, a thing — something to better understand the caucuses or the outcome? What’s something to watch that could give us a unique insight about the caucuses?

Obradovich: I’d start by watching the population areas in Iowa — Des Moines and Polk County; Linn County, which is where Cedar Rapids is; Story County; Pottawattamie County; some of these bigger counties. Donald Trump did not win most of those population-center counties in 2016. So if he’s coming out and putting up big numbers in those high population counties — or relatively high, since we are in Iowa — that might be an indication, first of all, that he is doing better than he was in 2016 and that he’s eating into potentially some of those areas where he just didn’t perform that well in 2016.

Henderson: I’d also take a look at the Ted Cruz counties from 2016. Many of those are in rural areas; take a look and see if Trump is carrying those areas. Their results may come in more quickly because there are fewer votes, but that will tell you about how effective his campaign was at organizing at the local level.

Pfannenstiel: I’ll also be interested to look at some of the suburban areas around Des Moines and the big population centers. This is where we saw a lot of retaliation to Trump’s first election among white suburban women. And how are they caucusing this year? Are they gathering around Nikki Haley? Is this a DeSantis area or is Trump successful?

Tibbetts: Probably no surprise given where I live, but I’ll be looking at Mississippi River-bordering counties. Trump does well there and I will be interested to see how he does relative to 2016. So places like Scott County and Clinton County and Dubuque County, that’s what I’ll be looking at.

Rushing: I’ll be interested to see what Trump says after his victory speech.

Hayworth: I’ll be curious to see red northwest Iowa, how much inroads DeSantis made. I think he will fare better in northwest Iowa than Haley, who a lot of people see as a moderate. And I’m just very curious because DeSantis worked really hard. He did a lot of retail politics. He did way more events than Trump and worked those counties really well, going back nine to 10 months.

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