The old saying goes that history repeats itself, and if that’s the case, then Florida Governor and top 2024 Republican presidential challenger (to frontrunner Donald Trump) hopes
there’s about to be political de ja vu in the corn, soy beans and hog farming state of Iowa early next year.
Since launching his outsider bid to take Trump’s place at the top of the GOP presidential hierarchy last month, DeSantis has been traveling to the early states – and beyond – pitching Florida’s brand of conservatism, where the young Sunshine State chief executive has turned a longtime swing state (or purple state, if you prefer) into a bastion of limited government, solid cultural values, individual rights and federalism principles in seemingly just a few short years.
One particular place DeSantis has been devoting much of his attention is the first-in-the-nation (at least on the Republican side) state of Iowa, which holds its unique democratic caucuses every four-year cycle. More than just a one person, one vote primary election, Iowa’s voters must devote an entire evening to the process of choosing a party nominee. And, perhaps more importantly, they must put themselves on the record while doing so.
Iowa’s format demands that caucus goers take a personal interest in their candidate’s agenda and selling points, which differs markedly from most locales where primary participants vote the same way they would for mayor, school board member or dog catcher. Though Iowa’s demographics skew whiter and more conservative than some other early states, it is generally regarded as a great place to test a campaign and meet a lot of folks along the way.
Texas senator Ted Cruz emerged from a crowded field of GOP hopefuls in 2016 to win the Hawkeye State caucuses. Cruz devised an ambitious strategy of traditional retail politics with a concentrated mission to attract the Midwest’s most conservative Evangelical Christian voters, countering the brand-new barnstorming mass-rally-oriented tactics of populist Donald Trump.
As you probably also recall, Trump approached the primary campaign differently. Rather than spend blocs of time traveling to each of Iowa’s 99 counties – like many candidates still do – the self-funded, celebrity fame driven Trump opted to begin building a data operation by conducting large events drawing thousands of fans from all over the geographically diverse state. Then, often without notes or a teleprompter, Trump spoke for sometimes up to two hours, entertaining his guests along with his hard hitting, America-First themed anti-establishment content.
It was substantive politics with a showman’s flair. It worked in most places, too, but Cruz ultimately prevailed in Iowa. Perhaps for this reason, Ron DeSantis is apparently taking more of a Cruz-like approach to winning Iowa next year, hoping history will indeed repeat itself in 2024.
“Cruz outperformed Trump in Iowa in 2016 by 4 percentage points, 28% to 24%, and received one more delegate, 8 to 7, in a state where the caucus process is dominated by party activists and evangelical Christians. But a week later, Trump trounced Cruz in more centrist New Hampshire by 19 points, 35% to 16%, and eight more delegates, 11 to 3.
“’Returning to the Cruz question, an additional thing that helped him in Iowa was that he ran a more traditional caucus campaign,’ [University of Iowa professor Timothy] Hagle said. ‘That means showing up at lots of events and interacting with voters. Trump didn't do that. Given his much larger name recognition and personal preferences, he held rallies and such and didn't really have as strong a ground game in Iowa.’
“DeSantis, whose Iowa team is composed of former Cruz aides, is attempting to replicate the senator's early success, though he has been criticized for his retail politics skills. During his first trip to Iowa as a declared contender last week, the governor did not answer voter questions, but he did when he arrived in South Carolina after spending a day in New Hampshire. Simultaneously, Trump is glad-handing more this cycle.”
It's hard to envision the former president dropping into a diner in Mason City or some other typical Iowa corn country location, but another old saying goes, “you gotta do what you gotta do.” Searching my memory, I don’t remember Trump engaging in any lengthy bus tours or something akin to them, instead preferring to drop in to a multitude of locations on Trump Force One in one day, or, in 2020, taking Air Force One.
It's no secret DeSantis has been criticized for his perceived disdain for one-to-one contact with the common folk, but I think it’s a little early to level such an accusation against the governor of one of the most populous (and growing, daily) states in the country. Folks who know Governor Ron insist he is serious but hardly unapproachable. It doesn’t seem like results-oriented Iowa conservatives would be put off by his schedule-makers rushing DeSantis from place to place.
A few weeks into his campaign, it’s clear DeSantis is taking more of a national approach to getting his name in the news, realizing, unlike Trump, he has much to accomplish in terms of building a brand. The fact the Floridian has apparently decided to run to Trump’s right is a good approach, since the New Yorker never earned a reputation as an across-the-board conservative thinker, especially the notion of shrinking the size of government or balancing the federal budget.
Senator Ted Cruz made no attempt to disguise his conservatism in 2016 Iowa, and his reputation as a boat rocker in Congress followed him and was welcomed everywhere. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Cruz, like DeSantis, was also shown by the establishment media as being aloof and too brainy to connect with average people. After all, Ted had been Texas’s Solicitor General and often spoke like a constitutional lawyer when explaining his views on complex political topics.
The always judgmental and harsh media gleefully reported that Cruz purportedly wasn’t well-liked in his regular gig as a senator, a fact that contrasted greatly with the always congenial fellow GOP candidate Marco Rubio. The fact that Cruz was seen as prickly as a cactus in the personality sense didn’t matter a whole lot to Iowa’s voters, apparently.
Meanwhile, Cruz endeared himself to Iowa’s religious faithful by holding events specifically tailored to Christian beliefs, but DeSantis is being more circumspect about his own faith, instead leaning on his proven record on abortion, parental rights and opposition to the radical LGBTQIA+++ agenda to do the speaking for him. This is a smart way for the governor to overcome the impression that he’s all about policy with no soul underneath the pleasing exterior.
Put it this way – I don’t think anyone would accuse DeSantis of being lax in his religious observance.
Running to the right of Trump is a smart tactic – not only in Iowa, but in America in general. Trump consistently touts his three Supreme Court justice selections as proof that he’ll continue to honor the conservative cultural agenda, and he was the first president to appear and speak at the annual March for Life, but lately he’s been decrying the connection, suggesting that overreliance on abortion hurt the GOP in last November’s midterms.
Needless to say, Trump has been overtly critical of DeSantis’s battle with the “woke” Walt Disney Company, seemingly taking the media’s side by accusing Gov. Ron of going too far in poking at the theme park and entertainment giant, insinuating that, politically speaking, Americans care more about mouse ears and high-priced amusement food than they do about culture and values. It’s doubtful that conservatives see it Trump’s way, however, especially in the wake of successful boycotts against Bud Light and Target stores for succumbing to pressure from the transgender-promoting left.
My guess is that even some hardened Trump backers would concede that the former president’s record on holding down the growth of the federal government wasn’t stellar compared with his other presidential accomplishments, so there’s room for DeSantis to assert that Trump wasn’t a true fiscal conservative back then and likely won’t change in the next five years if elected again.
Lim’s article relayed that Cruz’s campaign stalled – somewhat – after his narrow Iowa victory in 2016, the reason being the Texas senator’s appeal to conservative Evangelicals didn’t translate to the more agnostic and libertarian hamlets of New Hampshire.
Other than a focus on the frontrunner Trump, there are few other parallels in the 2024 race in Iowa. DeSantis’s reputation for battling the swamp should also play well in New Hampshire, but the competition among the establishmentarians – Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Mike Pence – will also be intense.
No one can say for sure how the ongoing drama surrounding the left’s witch hunt criminal arraignments of Trump will play out in the long run. One school of thought has it that the show-trial nature of the public inquisition will only serve to shore up Trump’s support, while another contingent of commenters argues that people will tire of the subject and start considering alternatives to the former president’s third primary run.
No one knows if history will repeat itself in Iowa in 2024, with a well-regarded conservative emerging victorious over the polling leader. With Donald Trump’s name all over the news – again – it’s a tall mountain to climb for anyone looking to unseat the virtual incumbent in the first-to-vote state, or anywhere else for that matter. Why not run to Trump’s right? There’s plenty of room to do so.
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