Trump’s Campaign Sets Benchmark for Iowa Success: 13 Points

6 minute read

Ahead of Monday's Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump faces an unusual predicament: After months of holding a commanding lead in the polls, he is competing less against the other candidates than the expectation that he will clinch an unequivocal blowout.

For months, the former President has led his closest competitor by roughly 30 points in the Hawkeye State. His main challengers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, are competing for second place, each hoping they can edge out the other and winnow the field to a two-person race. 

The outcome in Iowa will determine whether there’s a real fight for the Republican nomination, or whether Trump’s grip on the GOP is so complete that the primary will end before it even has a chance to really begin. A far less impressive Trump win would also create fodder for his adversaries to argue against Trump’s electability. “We gotta treat Monday as though we’re 10 points back,” Donald Trump Jr., the former President’s eldest son, told voters in Marion, Iowa on Thursday. “They want that apathy: the consultant class, the media. They’re trying to create the narrative of failure.” 

Trump’s campaign is setting its sights on a lower number than many pundits: 13. That’s how many percentage points Sen. Bob Dole defeated President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, the most of any GOP presidential hopeful in American history. “He would like to break the record,” says state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a senior adviser to Trump’s Iowa campaign. “Iowa has a notorious history of close caucuses.” In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz beat Trump by four percentage points. In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum bested Mitt Romney by only 34 votes. “A wins a win,” says Chris LaCivita, Trump’s campaign manager. “But no one's ever won by more than 12.8.”

Yet even a Trump victory by that margin would fall short of current expectations. The FiveThirtyEight average of Iowa polls has the former President leading his closest competitor by 34 points. In most state surveys, Trump is hovering around 50% in a crowded field. Through his polling dominance and sustained hold on the party’s base, he’s created a narrative of invincibility and inevitability that risks being punctured if he underperforms.

“If he's below 40%, that's really significant. That's a wounding,” says Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “But if he's in a sort of low to mid-40s, if he misses that 50%-plus mark, then he's just sort of been grazed.” That would raise new questions going into the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, Goldford adds: “Does that suggest there are enough Republicans who either believe it's time to move on or that they don't think he can win? Or that they just don't like him?”

Monday’s contest will be the first concrete test of Trump’s durability with the GOP electorate—a signal of whether voters are prepared to nominate the man facing 91 felony charges and efforts by several states to ban him from the ballot as an insurrectionist. In a bid to boost his support, Trump plans to barnstorm Iowa over the coming days, with four rallies over the weekend. He will also visit three Iowa precinct locations Monday night as voting is underway, according to a source familiar with the matter. 

“There are really two races going on,” says Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist. “The first is obviously whether Haley or DeSantis comes in second. The second is the margin by which Trump wins.” 

If Trump falls short of expectations in Iowa, it wouldn’t foreclose his chances at the Republican nomination. In fact, it’s rare for the Iowa victor to advance to the general election. But a dominant win would reinforce Trump’s message of indestructibility, and potentially put him on a glidepath toward ending the primary this winter. 

Trump’s staunchest supporters understand the gap that often exists between pollster’s predictive models and the mechanics of voting. That is especially true in Iowa, where voters have to caucus instead of casting ballots the old-fashioned way. “It doesn’t matter how far up in the polls we are. The caucuses have a lot to do with supporter turnout,’ Kaufmann says. “The key for us isn't finding the votes. It's simply turning them out.” 

To that end, the campaign has set up a data and ground game of nearly 2,000 precinct captains throughout the state. The effort stems from a hard lesson learned by Trump in 2016, when the Cruz campaign outgunned Trump’s ragtag operation. At rallies and events with Trump surrogates over the last several months, Trump’s team has been collecting “commit to caucus” cards from supporters with their names, addresses, and contact information. The data is used by precinct organizers to mobilize them on Election Day. 

But the Trump campaign may face a headwind that will complicate its efforts: weather. Meteorologists are forecasting sub-zero temperatures throughout Iowa on Monday night, with wind chills in the evening dipping to minus 20 degrees. That could make it the coldest night in Iowa caucus history—which risks suppressing turnout. “People don't like going out in that type of weather,” says Kaufmann.

Read more: This Iowa Caucus Could Be the Coldest Ever. Some Campaigns May Be Better Prepared Than Others

History has shown that a high-salience election can overcome Iowa’s frigid cold. In 2008, temperatures dropped to four degrees below zero but deterred few from caucusing: nearly 119,000 Republicans voted, breaking the state record at the time, and nearly 240,000 Democrats in the epic clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

At a Trump campaign event Thursday, the MAGA faithful’s enthusiasm was evident. Jerry Dunemaker, a retired 63-year-old from Cedar Rapids, attended a faith event in Marion, Iowa with Ben Carson, who served as Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Dunemaker says he plans to caucus for Trump on Monday night. “I believe that when he says he’s gonna do something, he does it,” he said. But not everyone there suggested their fervor would translate into hard votes. Mike and Rhonda Tullis, a married couple from Marion, described themselves as “big Trump supporters” but weren’t sure they would show up to caucus. Says Mike: “Depends on scheduling, different things.”

That complacency may be one of Trump’s biggest threats in Iowa. While he maintains an intensely loyal base, many think he’s already got the nomination locked up. “Forget polls that show we’re 35 points up. Pretend we’re one point down,” Trump told supporters last weekend in Mason City. “The biggest risk is you say, ‘We’re winning by so much, darling, let’s just stay home and watch TV.’”

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