Trump scores an early knockout

Trump scores an early knockout

Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, further securing his path toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Three years after many Republicans said they were ready to move on from Trump due to his role in provoking the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, the former president bested his two closest rivals, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

The win further cements his current dominance within the party as the campaign now turns to New Hampshire, which will host its primary in a week and where Trump holds a large lead in the polls.

Trump was almost immediately declared the winner in Iowa after early margins showed him with an overwhelming lead. The exact size of his win won’t be clear until later in the night.

But the quick call puts into clearer focus the degree to which both he and his brand of politics have come to define the modern Republican Party. He has secured endorsements from the majority of congressional Republicans, including virtually all of the party’s leadership. He has raised the most money and watched as his main opponents have balked at attacking him over the 91 felony charges he now faces since leaving office.

He is, as Scott Jennings, a top operative within the Republican Party, put it, firmly the establishment. “He has been nominated twice and as well on his way to a third nomination. At some point, you’re no longer an outsider.”

It is a far cry from where things stood on Jan. 7, 2021, when it seemed unthinkable that a figure implicated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol would remain a singular leader of a major political party. And it speaks to the political acumen both Trump and his campaign have brought to the primary race. If Trump prevails in the next contest, GOP officials say, it could very well end the primary.

“If Donald Trump wins New Hampshire, it would be hard to envision him losing anywhere else,” said Matt Mowers, a GOP operative who ran in the Republican primary for U.S. House New Hampshire.

Trump’s allies didn’t bother waiting for New Hampshire. Instead they called for the Republican party to move from Iowa straight to the general. After the race was called, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. said the GOP should “end this nonsense.” Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in a text message that a Trump victory meant that “he is the nominee.”

“Once the DC RINOs are finished crying in their cocktails over tonight’s results, it’s time for Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy to face reality and stop wasting time and resources,” said Alex Pfeiffer, the spokesperson for MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Trump, in a statement. They were joined by, among others, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley.

The Trump campaign made two major bets heading into the cycle: that Republican voters would rally behind him during his legal battles and that he could largely eschew the big-rally, omnipresent approach to campaigning that he’d adopted during his first two runs.

Over a year before Trump announced his bid, his Save America PAC hired two political operatives from Iowa. His campaign then built out a ground game in Iowa with an emphasis on engaging a network of local volunteers and educating potential voters on how to caucus.

Central to the Trump campaign’s strategy were “Commit to Caucus” events held across Iowa, during which Trump supporters were encouraged to sign commitment cards and were recruited to volunteer with the campaign.

The Trump campaign tapped volunteer precinct captains who were required to sit through an hour-long training and identify at least ten Trump supporters who pledged to show up at Monday night’s caucus. They were rewarded white and gold “Trump Caucus Captain” hats and the chance to be invited to a Trump event at the Republican National Convention in July. The former president focused on holding smaller events, often in smaller media markets. He also prioritized giving interviews to media outlets in early nominating states rather than national ones.

“In 2016, there was no ground operation essentially,” said Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann. “Literally, he got second place because of the sheer force of his personality. We have several campaigns here that have excellent ground games and Trump is one of them. But it’s not even day and night. It’s different planets from 2016.”

But it wasn’t just grunt work that drove Trump’s approach to Iowa. The candidate himself had a desire for vengeance in the state. Part of that was an outgrowth of his loss there in 2016 to Sen. Ted Cruz. Though Trump went on to steamroll to the Republican nomination that year, he stewed over falling short in the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He has long blamed a lack of political operation in the state and privately recalled that his daughter, Ivanka, called him the night of the 2016 Iowa contest to tell him that she was at a caucus location and that he had no organizers present.

“In 2016, we had tremendous support but we didn’t really have a ground game, we had never done that before. We had a group of people, but they weren’t really a ground game,” Trump told reporters on Sunday.

Trump was also driven by a desire to poke a thumb in the eye of the Iowa party hierarchy that had spurned him. Unlike other states, where Trump has amassed a dominant share of endorsements from top Republicans, in Iowa he was largely empty-handed. The state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, endorsed DeSantis, as did prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, and more than a third of the state’s Republican state legislators.

The former president has taken the slights personally. He has been vocal in his attacks against Reynolds, and has reminded allies that he endorsed her in her successful 2022 reelection bid.

“She went from being the most popular governor in the United States in two weeks to the least popular governor in the country. But I just thought it was very disloyal,” Trump said on Sunday of Reynolds’ decision to endorse DeSantis.

Trump’s win on Monday foreshadows a general election rematch with Joe Biden that will be adjudicated, in large part, over Trump’s past record in office.

Biden’s reelection campaign has said that it will center much of its focus on portraying Trump as a threat to democracy itself. Trump, for his part, has spent a good swath of the primary campaign at trials related to his conduct before and on Jan. 6. And he has not hid his desire to return to power, in part, to go after the political opponents he believes are now targeting him.

“These caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps and other quite nice people,” Trump told a packed room of supporters in Indianola, Iowa on Sunday.

Those comments may end up turning off voters in a general election. But for the primary campaign, they have only drawn voters to him. At a rally on Sunday, Larry, a farmer from Kansas who would only go by his first name and drove in for the event, seemed gleeful at the prospect of Trump going on a vengeance tour.

“Trump, get this shit cleaned up,” he said. “Start military tribunals. … You’ll probably see Biden, Obama, the Clinton’s.”

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