CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Curtis Gauley hadn’t paid much attention to Nikki Haley. Then the attack ads started. They called Haley “Tricky Nikki,” likened her to Hillary Clinton and told Iowans she shouldn’t be trusted. Somebody’s scared of her, thought Gauley, a retired corrections officer in his 50s. He was intrigued.
So he went to a Haley town hall just before the new year. “I’m not ready for round two,” he decided after listening to Haley call Donald Trump a chaos magnet. Now he plans to vote for Haley as she battles Ron DeSantis for second place.
But for every Gauley, there are more than twice as many Trump supporters, the latest pre-caucus polling shows. Among them is Becky Thiessen, who looked up her caucus site on Sunday night and calculated how much earlier she should arrive to register as a Republican for the first time. A onetime Hillary Clinton voter, she came to appreciate Trump in his first term, amid lower gas prices. “He ran the country like a business,” Thiessen said.
This year’s Iowa campaign has been far less suspenseful than usual, with Trump steadily polling some 30 points ahead of his rivals and much of the race revolving around how Republicans feel about him. But some Iowans are making their choices only in the final stretch. Enthusiasm for the candidate — and determination to turn out on Monday, including among many newcomers Trump’s camp is trying to enlist — also creates unpredictability.
Iowans expect to be courted, and voters are arriving at their decisions after months of mailers, texts, TV ads and event invitations promising “FREE PIZZA.” Their choices could deliver a closer than anticipated result or send Trump on a fast track to the nomination.
Many, including legions of loyal Trump supporters who have bolstered his standing, made their decisions long ago. But 1 in 4 caucusgoers say they could change their minds as Trump tries to turn out his supporters for a knockout show of force and Haley seeks to finish ahead of DeSantis.
Dennis Martin, 57 — who runs a construction business — had almost settled on Trump last week after months of considering him along with DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, whom Trump just recently started attacking. He worried the indictments hanging over Trump would make his reelection impossible, but as caucus day grew closer, the former president seemed unscathed.
On Sunday night, however, Martin decided to caucus for Ramaswamy, who is polling in fourth place in Iowa and has run on a platform of MAGA 2.0. He wanted to boost his second favorite just in case something eventually prevented the former president from securing the GOP nod, and he expressed complete confidence Trump would prevail in Iowa.
Laura Rose has never caucused for a presidential candidate. For a long time, she was a Democrat. But the retired teacher has put off her yearly winter vacation to balmy Arizona to make it to her precinct in subzero temperatures for the candidate who inspired her to switch parties and become a Republican in 2016: Trump.
“I never really took an interest in politics until President Trump came along,” she said, sitting in the bleachers of Clinton Middle School along with hundreds of others who waited hours to get a chance to hear him speak.
Rose, 61, her two close friends and many others in the crowd raised their hands when asked whether they were caucusing for the first time. The Trump team has devoted particular attention to turning out these new participants — and success could help the former president rack up a landslide margin.
Rose said her top concern is border security: Her family vacations in Arizona every year, and in 2019, she went to the U.S.-Mexico border to try to better understand the issue. She didn’t see immigrants crossing the border at that time, when Trump was in office, but saw the wall, which she said looked impressive. Now, she sees images and videos on the news of waves of migrants, and she’s scared for national security and the economy. In some ways, her participation in the caucus is a referendum on how she says President Biden has failed to address that surge.
Although Trump has been indicted on 91 charges, including allegations that he attempted to overturn the 2020 election, Rose said the legal scrutiny has only reaffirmed her faith in him. She said she believes that once Trump wins the nomination, the allegations will subside.
“It’s a new era of politics,” she said. “We have to be involved.”
John Nish jumped to Trump’s defense this fall outside his Baptist church in West Des Moines.
The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, did not amount to an “insurrection,” he said indignantly. Trump never told people to attack. The way Nish saw it, Trump was a disrupter — and now, in the same way that Satan trains his fire on those closest to God, the media and political establishment were using dirty tricks to keep him from a second term.
Nish first supported Trump in the 2016 caucuses, when he still faced deep skepticism from evangelical conservatives in Iowa and wound up losing the state. “I did have some questions about his lifestyle,” Nish said of Trump.
Now, he thought maybe he would back DeSantis if Trump seemed totally unelectable by caucus day.
Nish, an engineering manager from Truro, is the kind of Iowan DeSantis has worked nonstop to win over: a member of the evangelical conservative community that plays an outsize role in the state who had embraced Trump but now showed openness to an alternative. Among the congregants at Nish’s church: Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader who was urging the GOP to move on.
And unlike Trump, DeSantis kept showing up.
He went to church one Sunday with Vander Plaats, sitting in the pews. He went to a Thanksgiving candidate forum that Vander Plaats hosted — where Nish watched a woman compliment a little girl’s jacket, learn it belonged to the child’s deceased mother and offer a hug. It was Casey DeSantis, the Florida governor’s wife.
Trump wasn’t there: “It was a thing to show up to, to show us that you care,” Nish said. “And he didn’t.” The former president had also recently launched new attacks on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who endorsed DeSantis.
“I’ve had enough,” Nish decided.
Early this month, Nish was at a DeSantis town hall in Waukee. He stood near the door by Republican Rep. Zachary Nunn of Iowa, nodding as DeSantis told a small but crowded room that “government is way, way too big.”
“They can say all they want about, you know, how he stands like this and he doesn’t look comfortable,” Nish said of DeSantis, referencing criticisms of the Florida governor as stiff or aloof. “I mean, you know, who cares. … Like Trump, I know that he’ll stand up.”
It didn’t hurt that he thought Casey DeSantis was charming. Nish had run into her again at a pastor conference late last year (she remembered him and said they should get a picture) and more recently at his church, where the Florida first lady made a solo visit and spotted Nish from across the foyer.
Marshall Beard has gotten more than 120 pieces of mail about the 2024 candidates since August. He keeps a log just for fun: Seventeen from Never Back Down, the super PAC playing an unusually large role in DeSantis’s effort. Thirteen from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network group that is opposing Trump this primary season and has put its weight behind Haley in the final stretch. Thirteen from Doug Burgum, the North Dakota governor who dropped out after spending massively only to poll in the single digits.
Beard takes his role as a first-in-the-nation caucusgoer seriously — and with little confidence that Trump can win a general election, he’s holding out hope that someone else could prevail on the Republican side.
Beard says he cares about balancing the budget and, most of all, electability — a quality he says Trump lacks. He said he liked Haley’s call for “consensus” on abortion and to not “judge” people for their views, an answer that alienated some evangelical leaders but, to Beard, made a lot of sense.
Republicans had lost election after election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, generating public blowback, handing Democrats a potent issue and putting the GOP on its back foot.
“I’m conservative toward abortion, but I don’t think you can get elected by being very strict on the subject,” Beard said as he and his wife waited to take an elevator up to a Haley town hall in Cedar Rapids.
He had some concerns recently. Haley had just stumbled in New Hampshire, declining to name slavery as a cause of the Civil War when pressed at an event; it seemed like a simple question. DeSantis had pounced, arguing Haley was just now coming under harsh scrutiny and unprepared for the spotlight. “It kind of gives credence to DeSantis saying, ‘Hey, you can’t make those kinds of mistakes,’” Beard said.
But he also had gripes with DeSantis, who had his own general election vulnerabilities as a hard-liner on culture war issues who helped pass a six-week abortion ban in Florida. And Beard had been taken aback at something Haley mentioned at her town hall: A Wall Street Journal poll had her beating President Biden by 17 points in a hypothetical matchup.
He checked around later to make sure it was true. It was, and he was sold.
“Iowa seems to be drinking the Trump Kool-Aid,” Beard said shortly before caucus day. He said he hopes Haley pulls off an upset in New Hampshire, where she polls far closer to Trump, but he wasn’t confident.
“My gut tells me we just gotta weather this. Biden will be reelected, and then if Republicans continue to lose state seats, then hopefully there’ll be some kind of revolution in the Republican Party,” he said.