The first GOP presidential contest is nearly a year away, but Iowa caucus season is officially underway, as presidential hopefuls and potential candidates travel to the Hawkeye State. And voters there are ready — and keeping their options open.
On Monday, former President Donald Trump will make his first visit to Iowa since he announced his campaign last year. This week, the only other major Republican in the race, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley held town halls in Council Bluffs and Nevada before heading to Des Moines for a foreign policy forum with Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst.
On Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made an appearance in the state, too, as part of his book tour. In several private conversations with donors and allies, DeSantis has indicated he is leaning toward running and will make a final decision after his legislative session is over, according to two people familiar with his team’s private discussions.
Over 1,000 attended DeSantis’ interview-style event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
While Mr. Trump won Iowa in the 2016 and 2020 general elections, he’s far from being the sure winner of the 2024 Iowa caucuses.
“It’s an open field,” influential Iowa Republican Bob Vander Plaats told CBS News correspondent Robert Costa. “There’s a lot of Republicans who really liked what President Trump did and the Trump administration did, but there’s a real pause. Is he the right one to carry the baton in 2024? Has America made up their mind about the former president?”
Vander Plaats, CEO of the socially conservative group The Family Leader, acknowledged that Trump has the advantage over other candidates for now.
“I think if the election were held today, President Trump would win,” Vander Plaats said. “If Trump gets stalled here in Iowa or if he gets defeated here in Iowa, I think it is ‘game on’ for the nomination.” He believes the narrower the field of candidates is, the more competitive a GOP primary will be.
Vander Plaats said he’s hearing “from a lot of people” that they “want to turn the page [on] the former president.”
A new Des Moines Register poll released Friday suggests Mr. Trump’s support is eroding in Iowa. If he were to become the nominee, only 47% of Iowa Republicans said they would definitely support him in the general election. That’s a double-digit drop from June 2021, when 69% said they would definitely support him.
That same poll also finds that while more than four in 10 Iowa Republicans have a very favorable view of Trump, roughly the same number have a very favorable view of DeSantis. Only 17% view former Vice President Mike Pence very favorably, while 16% view Haley, also a former governor of South Carolina, very favorably.
Speaking after appearing at the forum with Haley on Friday, Ernst said Republicans have a deep bench to choose from and are excited by it. Her advice to candidates is “get to know the people of Iowa and more importantly, let the people of Iowa get to know you.”
Ernst said she has not spoken with Trump since he announced his 2024 run.
At Haley’s town hall Wednesday, multiple attendees said they caucused for Trump in 2016 and 2020 – but are looking around at other candidates now.
“I’m gonna keep an open mind and listen to everybody that is declaring for the Republican Party,” said Zach Rasmussen. He said he’s impressed by Haley’s experience as former U.N. ambassador.
Ruth Bitter said she supported Trump in the last election but may not in 2024.
“I’m concerned that if he’s elected for president again that it will be the same battle between Democrats and Republicans,” Bitter said. “I want to see action and not in the form of fighting.”
Across the state, in Davenport on Friday, attendees at DeSantis’ first visit to the state praised his record as Florida governor, specifically on education and his COVID-19 response.
CJ Ormsby, a Mason contractor from Bettendorf, said Trump is “uncontrollable as far as his communication style” and “always in a battle.” He said while he hasn’t made up his mind, he thinks DeSantis has a better way of communicating and would be more effective in the White House.
Trump is holding an event in Davenport on Monday, three days after DeSantis’ stop, for an event to outline his education plan.
“There were times where I could understand why people would decide not to vote for Trump. But he’s a businessman, our country is a business, and I think it needs to be run like a business, and with Biden and his posse, I’m really just heartbroken over it,” said Anne Hanson of Eldridge, before doors opened at DeSantis’ event.
“I’m here to figure that out,” she said, when asked who she’d choose between Trump and DeSantis. She added she’s also going to Trump’s event on Monday and is “anxious” to see what happens.
Suzy Barker of North Liberty, donned a University of Florida sweatshirt when she went to see DeSantis speak in Davenport. If she had to cast her caucus vote today, she says she’d pick DeSantis.
“But there’s a long way to go. And we’re just starting to hear about candidates, but I’d like to hear what others have to say,” she said.
While the Republican nominee has won Iowa in the general election in the past, the state has a lackluster record in picking the Republican presidential nominee. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz squeezed by Trump for a victory in the caucuses in 2016. Former Sen. Rick Santorum had a thin lead over Mitt Romney in 2012. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 – while the eventual nominee, the late Sen. John McCain, came in fourth.
The last non-incumbent Republican to win the Iowa caucuses, GOP nomination and the White House was former President George W. Bush in 2000.
Vander Plaats said Iowans are looking for candidates to show the following traits ahead of the caucus: “Can we trust you? Are you ready for the job? And are you right for America at this time?”
Story County GOP Chair Brett Baker jokingly put it this way: “We have to shake somebody’s hand three times before we can see ourselves voting for them for president.”
He is staying neutral, but he noted while Trump has the name recognition, based on the events, people are showing up to see what others have to offer.