Before Monday, the conventional wisdom of the Republican political class in Iowa held that any day now — as the rest of the field campaigned across the first-in-the-nation caucus state — an alternative to Donald Trump was bound to catch fire.
But then came the highly anticipated Iowa Poll, the most credible assessment yet of the state of the field in Iowa. For everyone other than Trump, it was a heavy dose of cold water.
There was no magic for Trump’s rivals with the flip of a pork burger at last week’s Iowa State Fair. The state’s devout evangelical voters — believed by many Republicans to be interested in finding a more palatable nominee — are still standing behind Trump in droves. And despite marginal increases in support for some lower-polling candidates, everyone but Trump and Ron DeSantis — his closest competitor, who remains a whopping 23 percentage points behind Trump — are stuck in the single digits.
“Everything, in a way, is kind of falling flat,” said Kelley Koch, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party.
For candidates busily traversing the state, she said, “You would expect a bump.” Instead, “It’s almost like Trump’s got his grip on Iowa.”
Veteran political observers had for months awaited the release of the 2024 election’s first survey by longtime Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, given its track record of credibility. Surveying likely caucusgoers, as opposed to merely registered voters, is inherently difficult, and earlier polls emerging from the state this cycle were taken by some strategists with a word of caution to wait for the gold standard.
But Monday’s Des Moines Register/NBC News Iowa Poll, conducted last week after most of the top Republican candidates had already appeared at the State Fair, belied any argument for Trump’s opponents that they were doing substantially better in Iowa than earlier polls had suggested. Instead, two days before the first primary debate on Wednesday in Milwaukee, the poll served as a reminder of how nationalized the 2024 race has become.
The former president, with the support of 42 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers in the new poll, has solidly maintained his position as frontrunner in Iowa, despite making few visits to the state and skipping major cattle calls there. And his lead has stayed strong even after insulting Iowa’s popular Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds — comments that have been blasted onto airwaves by his opponents — and putting distance between himself and the anti-abortion rights movement, typically a major issue of concern to Iowa’s evangelicals.
Trump is leading DeSantis among evangelicals in Iowa by 27 points, the poll shows. That’s despite DeSantis and Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader conservative Christian group, forming a close alliance in recent months. And it’s despite Tim Scott and Mike Pence hinging their campaigns in Iowa on the evangelical vote, sprinkling their stump speeches with scripture and endorsing a national limit on abortions after 15 weeks.
The data also show that Trump’s support is more locked-in than any other candidate, even as Trump skeptics have suggested that his base is soft and would, with time, crumble. The poll found that 66 percent of Trump backers said their decision is firm, as opposed to just 31 percent of DeSantis supporters saying their mind is made up. DeSantis, meanwhile, has notched off 38 counties of his 99-county Iowa tour, returning to the state week after week in recent months, often for a series of small events.
And Trump’s four indictments appear to have only helped him in Iowa, never mind the arguments made that his legal woes continue to damage his general election prospects. The poll was conducted in the days before and after his latest charges being filed in Georgia, finding that Trump’s 18-point lead in the days before the indictment grew to 25 points in the two days after.
The poll is not without glimmers of hope for DeSantis, who has slogged through a summer of brutal attacks by Trump and a series of internal shakeups and campaign missteps. His favorability in Iowa is actually a point higher than the highly polarizing former president’s — 66 percent to Trump’s 65 — something DeSantis raised when asked about the survey in an interview on Monday on Fox News. DeSantis said he and Trump are “basically neck and neck” in terms of favorability there, and that he is “going to own it in the state of Iowa.”
“The fact that he has survived this really difficult period for any campaign, and he’s still kind of making it look a little like a two-man race, I think they’ve got to be somewhat encouraged by that,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist from Iowa, referring to DeSantis’ campaign.
“But obviously, they need things to break their way.”
Kochel acknowledged that if he were on the Trump campaign, he would feel good about the latest polling in Iowa. Not great, though, he said.
“In Iowa, it’s always a very fluid electorate, and (caucus polling) tends to have dramatic moves,” Kochel said. “Maybe Trump being in this race means there won’t be as many dramatic moves, but there’s still a lot of campaign left, and we haven’t had a first debate yet.”
Trump has declared he won’t participate in Wednesday’s debate, nor any others during the primary, citing his significant lead over the rest of the field. It’s a decision that some Republican leaders have cautioned will ultimately harm him with the GOP electorate in Iowa and elsewhere.
But at least so far, the theories of the case for Trump’s opponents — the arguments that operatives have pushed for months — haven’t panned out. And it’s not as though voters in Iowa are still unfamiliar with the Trump alternatives.
Iowans have already been subjected to a flurry of television ads, particularly from the DeSantis and Scott teams. Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis — which is, effectively, running his campaign in Iowa — has already run nearly $4.75 million on television there. Scott’s campaign, meanwhile, has dropped $3.5 million on TV ads in Iowa, along with another $2.75 million from the super PAC boosting him. Scott placed third in the latest poll, coming in at 9 percent. That’s slightly higher than Nikki Haley and Mike Pence who are tied at 6 percent, though with little paid media presence in the state so far.
Doug Burgum, the wealthy North Dakota governor, and a super PAC backing Trump have each also spent more than $2.5 million on television in Iowa.
Kim Schmett, a leader of the Westside Conservatives Club — a longtime breakfast club in Urbandale where several candidates, including Trump, have appeared in recent months — said despite the continued stagnant poll numbers, he expects a winnowing to take place soon.
“I’m sure that several of the people who are running right now are probably not going to be in the field even a month or two from now,” Schmett said. “It’s a very, very fluid situation right now.”
Like other longtime politicos in the state, Koch cautioned that caucus season doesn’t begin in earnest until after back-to-school and the summer vacations have concluded. Schmett said things don’t get serious until after the corn harvest.
But Trump’s opponents don’t have much time. The fall campaign season will go quickly, Koch said, and Iowans will become distracted again by the holidays come December.
“You blink, it’s Jan. 15,” Koch said.
Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.
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