Trump Team, Burned in 2016, Looks to Close Out Iowa

As former President Donald J. Trump campaigned in Iowa in the fall, he projected the utmost confidence. He told his supporters during speeches that his advisers had constantly warned him not to take the state for granted. Buoyed by his dominance in state polls, Mr. Trump insisted he had no reason to worry.

“We’re going to win the Iowa caucuses in a historic landslide,” Mr. Trump predicted in speeches in September and October.

But as he returned to Iowa last month, with the state’s caucuses on Jan. 15 fast approaching, Mr. Trump injected a note of concern. Though he retained his confidence, he warned his supporters of a rising threat: complacency.

“The poll numbers are scary, because we’re leading by so much,” Mr. Trump said on Dec. 19 in Waterloo during his final trip to Iowa of 2023. “The key is, you have to get out and vote.”

“Don’t sit home and say, ‘I think we’ll take it easy, darling. It’s a wonderful day, beautiful. Let’s just take it easy, watch television and watch the results,’” Mr. Trump later added. “No, because crazy things can happen.”

With just two weeks until Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest, Mr. Trump’s campaign is dedicated to meeting high expectations and avoiding a repeat of 2016, when Mr. Trump narrowly came in second in Iowa despite being ahead in polls.

But while his Republican rivals are more focused on knocking on doors and swaying minds, Mr. Trump and his campaign have directed their efforts toward teaching supporters how to caucus and recruiting a grass-roots network to help guarantee they show up.

Supporters at a Commit to Caucus rally in Waterloo, Iowa this month. Mr. Trump is looking to make sure they show up.Credit…Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

“We already have the votes to win,” one aide said. “All we have to do is turn them out.”

The campaign has focused much of its effort on enlisting and training its most ardent supporters to become “caucus captains” who can help recruit other Trump supporters to be present at caucus sites and to speak on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

The campaign is also engaged in the standard fare of political operations: distributing lawn signs, holding events where Mr. Trump addresses voters and collecting phone numbers and emails to solicit donations and motivate likely supporters.

Mr. Trump’s advisers have pointed in particular to an extensive database that the campaign has compiled over his past two presidential runs, and that it has been using to identify potential caucusgoers who need a nudge to show up on Jan. 15.

The campaign has drawn on the contact information of voters who attended Trump events, and on the records of campaign donors who live in Iowa. Many of those people voted for Mr. Trump in general elections but did not participate in the 2016 caucus, advisers said.

Staff members have sent a blitz of text messages, phone calls, emails and direct mail urging these supporters to caucus. A senior adviser to the campaign who was not authorized to speak publicly said the access to that data might give the campaign a distinct advantage that reduced its dependence on door knocking, a costly and labor-intensive effort that is central to rival campaigns.

Super PACs backing both Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, have undertaken large-scale door knocking operations aimed at identifying likely supporters or at persuading undecided voters.

Outside a Trump event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in November. Mr. Trump blamed his second-place finish in Iowa in 2016 on a weak ground game that did not effectively drive turnout.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

The Iowa caucuses create a challenge for turnout different from primary elections, in which voters simply need to go to a polling place and mark a ballot. Participants of the caucuses must arrive on time and stay until they end. The meetings open with speeches by attendees on behalf of their preferred candidates, in a final bid to win over their friends and neighbors. Then everybody votes.

Mr. Trump blamed his second-place finish in Iowa in 2016 — when he fell about 6,000 votes and one delegate short — on a weak ground game that did not effectively drive turnout. And past and present advisers have acknowledged that Mr. Trump had a fairly scant Iowa operation at the time.

During that campaign, Mr. Trump visited the state far less often than his rivals did. He eschewed meet-and-greet retail politicking for rallies. And though he drew crowds, many in his audience had never caucused, and his campaign lacked a robust operation to target, educate or motivate them.

During his current bid, Mr. Trump has still been a relatively sparse presence in the state when compared with candidates like Mr. DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur, who have barnstormed Iowa for months.

But starting in September, Mr. Trump began to appear in the state more frequently at so-called Commit to Caucus events, where his campaign made a more concerted effort to collect information from his supporters and to recruit them as volunteers.

Since the fall, Mr. Trump has appeared more frequently in Iowa, including at a high school in Fort Dodge in November.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

Ryan Rhodes, an Iowa political operative unaffiliated with a campaign, said he thought the Trump campaign had taken “a little longer” to begin a robust field operation. But, he added, “they have very much made up lost ground and have a very strong closing ground game.”

At Mr. Trump’s Iowa events, volunteers — some of them already caucus captains — urge those lining up outside to join their ranks. As an enticement, the campaign has offered rewards: white-and-gold “Trump caucus captain” hats and a chance to meet Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July.

So far, the campaign has 1,800 people who have agreed to be caucus captains, according to advisers — a surplus for the more than 1,600 locations where people will gather on caucus night.

Campaign staff members have held hundreds of hourlong training sessions for caucus captains to learn how caucuses work so that they will be able to explain the process to first-timers. Caucus captains are given a suggestion for a speech they can deliver on caucus night.

The campaign has also pitched the captains on a “10 for Trump” program. Captains are given a list of 25 potential Trump supporters in their neighborhoods, and are asked to make certain that 10 first-time caucusgoers from the list will show up to back Mr. Trump.

Last month, about two dozen captains and prospective volunteers crowded into the campaign’s headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, where Alex Meyer, a senior campaign adviser focusing on Iowa and Missouri, emphasized the need for each of them to recruit 10 voters.

Deborah Renae, 59, a caucus captain who attended the event, said she sometimes spent 12 hours a day volunteering. She estimated that she had made nearly 200,000 calls to voters. “I feel like people are at the top of their game right now,” Ms. Renae said.

The campaign, too, has shifted its events to help demystify the process. A newer three-minute how-to video shown before Mr. Trump speaks features a blocky cartoon figure, Marlon, who explains what to do on caucus night. The campaign also holds panels where caucus captains push others to get involved and argue how easy it is to caucus.

Underlying these changes is a sense of urgency. Mr. Trump and his allies have made it clear that he is hoping for a dominant finish in the Iowa caucuses to potentially push his rivals out of the race and to clear the path to an early primary victory.

A Commit to Caucus event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December. The state’s caucuses on Jan. 15 are fast approaching.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

Mr. Trump is slated to return to Iowa on Friday and Saturday, where he will hold two events each day — a busy schedule for him, but a paltry one compared with that of some of his rivals. To fill the gaps, his campaign is drawing on a network of prominent Republican surrogates, allies with national name recognition who are popular among his base.

This week, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a popular conservative, and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a far-right star, will appear in Iowa on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

Last month, the campaign held events with Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who served as Mr. Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.

Mr. Gaetz acknowledged in an interview that his presence in the state was part of a more robust Trump campaign operation.

“I think that President Trump’s first participation in the Iowa caucuses had a certain ‘hold my beer’ energy to it,” he said. “It was a fun traveling carnival that inspired people and brought them in. But I am certain that our campaign is more technically proficient today.”

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