Trump launches fall push in Iowa to lock in lead before 1st Republican caucuses

Former president has campaigned far less often in Iowa than many rivals
Former President Donald Trump arrives for a commit to caucus rally, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Maquoketa, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Posted at 8:20 PM, Sep 20, 2023

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Donald Trump began a fall press Wednesday to lock in thousands of Republican caucusgoers in early-voting Iowa, where the former president faces sky-high expectations in his campaign for a White House comeback.

Having campaigned far less often in Iowa than many of his 2024 rivals, Trump was making his first of five Iowa visits planned through the end of October. The visits are aimed at converting what polls in Iowa show as a commanding lead into committed supporters and volunteers as Trump's campaign tries to secure a massive victory that would deny his rivals momentum and effectively end the primary on caucus day.

"In less than four months from now, we're going to win the Iowa caucuses in a historic landslide," Trump predicted as he addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 people in small-town Maquoketa. He urged those in attendance to support him in the Jan. 15 caucuses and asked them to bring friends along.

On display was his team's promised commitment to better organize in Iowa than it did in 2016, when Trump finished a close second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Supporters from across northeast Iowa had lined up outside the expo building at the Jackson County fairgrounds hours before Trump's arrival. His campaign aimed to collect signed cards from the crowd pledging to back him in the Jan. 15 caucuses. While the cards do not bind voters to a candidate, they give campaigns valuable contact information to get out the vote and recruit volunteers and precinct leaders.

Tables inside the hall promoted the number to sign up for campaign text messages and screens displayed the caucus schedule and how to participate.

Trump addressed his 2016 loss at the start of his speech, blaming his previous campaign team.

"They didn't do the caucus thing too well and I learned a lot," Trump acknowledged, adding: "I don’t like second, though."

Maquoketa is a small town of about 6,000 in the middle of several rural counties in the heart of the swath of eastern Iowa. In 2016, the region flipped from Democratic President Barack Obama to Trump.

At a second event in Dubuque, Trump laced into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom he has long treated as his chief target, as he touted the efforts of his administration to help Iowa farmers and crack down on illegal immigration. At one point, Trump recited a poem he sometimes reads about a woman who invites a sick, frozen snake into her home, only to be bitten.

"That’s what’s happening in our country," he said.

Before leaving town, Trump stopped by Kathy's Treehouse Pub and Eatery. More than a hundred people packed into the bar of the Bettendorf restaurant, where Trump signed dollar bills, caps and the tank top — and later, arm — of a woman who bartends at the popular watering hole. Trump handed out boxed pizzas to the crowd of cheering supporters, who screamed his name and sang along to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."

Trump has visited Iowa seven times this year, headlining policy and political events, and he stopped by his campaign office in July. Trump has opted not to attend key multicandidate events in Iowa hosted by influential social conservative groups, an important bloc in the caucuses.

More recently, his events have been more akin to photo ops, including stopping by an Iowa State fraternity house to toss footballs and shake hands before attending the university’s football game in Ames against rival Iowa this month.

Before that, Trump drew throngs to the Iowa State Fair in August. He brought U.S. House members from Florida as a poke at DeSantis, who was visiting the fair the same day.

While Trump is ramping up his campaign, he is still doing far fewer events in the state than several rivals.

DeSantis has pledged to visit all of the state's 99 counties. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence and others have also campaigned aggressively in the state.

During a recent visit to Red Oak in western Iowa, DeSantis emphasized the disparity between Trump’s visits and his own dozens of events in the state, saying "that just gives off a sense of entitlement."

Still, Trump's team has been busy in his absence. Aides report having collected more than 27,500 pledge cards, including more than 10,000 at the state fair. In addition to 1,500 volunteers, they say they have amassed more than 200,000 voter contacts, including calls.

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, which is handling most of his organizing, says it has collected more than 13,000 signed cards from Iowa residents pledging to caucus for DeSantis. The group also reports having knocked on more than 390,000 doors, though many of those are repeats.

But no one has been able to surpass Trump, who remains the early front-runner for the Republican nomination, even as he faces four separate indictments that have resulted in dozens of criminal charges.

"The truth is Trump has an enduring lead in Iowa,"said Republican strategist David Kochel, a veteran Iowa and national Republican strategist who has advised several presidential campaigns.

Trump has maintained a far less rigorous early-state schedule than he did in previous contests, but has campaigned in Iowa more often than he has in other early nominating states.

"We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going to fight for every vote. You’re going to see that in every event," Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.

Tracie Kelly, a 48-year-old mother who home-schools her children, attended the event with her husband and family. After filling out her pledge card committing to caucus for Trump, Kelly called him "the right guy to do the right thing.”

In particular, she noted his appointment of the three U.S. Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states to pass strict abortion restrictions. Trump has refused to commit to pursuing a national abortion ban, drawing the ire of some social conservatives. But Kelly said that didn't bother her.

"He might not say the right things all the time, but he speaks for our beliefs," she said.

Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.