With less than 2 weeks until Iowa GOP caucuses, here’s what to know

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(NEW YORK) — After months of anticipation, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are less than two weeks away. Republican presidential candidates have been hitting the state for months to meet with Iowans who will cast their presidential preference cards at their respective caucus locations on Jan. 15.

This is a big year for Republicans with a still sizable pool of candidates and a bit to prove after a tumultuous 2020 in Iowa for the Democrats.

While polls show former President Donald Trump has a strong hold on the state, several other GOP candidates are crisscrossing Iowa to pitch their plan as an alternative to Trump.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has done the most events in Iowa so far; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley are leading in the polls among candidates who aren’t Trump. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has skipped the state altogether — instead focusing on New Hampshire.

Lesser-known candidates such as businessman and faith leader Ryan Binkley and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are still sticking it out as Iowans prepare to vote.

Here’s what to know about the upcoming caucuses and how candidates have worked to connect with Iowa voters.

Why are the Iowa caucuses considered a big deal and how do they work?

Iowa’s caucuses, along with New Hampshire’s primary, have historically received outsized attention from the public and from the news media because they offer the first look at who voters want to run in the next presidential election. Since 1972, Iowa’s caucuses have been a testing ground for presidential candidates and an opportunity for leading candidates to inject a surge of momentum into their campaigns.

GOP caucuses are different from regular elections — and even differ from Iowa’s Democratic causes.

The caucuses, which start at 7 p.m. CT on Jan. 15, require voters to caucus at the location assigned to the precinct in which they live, divvying Iowans up among the more than 1,600 precincts across the state’s 99 counties.

During a caucus, precinct captains pitch their candidates before attendees talk, or even debate, among themselves. Voters eventually cast their secret ballot, writing down a name — any name — on a piece of paper to be collected and counted in view of attendees.

Soon after, a winner is announced to caucusgoers and results are reported electronically to the Republican Party of Iowa to verify the results.

The presidential preference contest can take 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many people show up, or what happens in the room.

Caucus rules dictate that all participants: be a resident of Iowa, be 18 years old by the general election in November, be a registered Republican and have a voter ID.

Democrats will still hold an in-person caucus to conduct party business on Jan. 15, but no one will be casting presidential preference cards.

What have GOP presidential candidates done around Iowa?

Donald Trump

Polls show Trump has a strong lead over the other candidates. While nothing is guaranteed, and many voters are indeed shopping their options, he has remained the front-runner.

Beyond name recognition and, of course, being a former president, Trump has an eight-year advantage over his competition. He has already done this twice, and won once (in 2020, and put up a fight in 2016, too). For Trump, it may not be a matter of garnering support, but making sure those voters turn out and that their caucus captains know how to win others over.

Trump has been at 30 events over his 18 visits to Iowa since March. His campaign has hosted “Commit to Caucus” events, holding several with Trump himself, and others with surrogates. Trump will make his first visit of 2024 to Iowa on Jan. 5 in Sioux Center.

According to 538’s latest Iowa polling averages, Trump has the lead at 50%.

Ron DeSantis

DeSantis was the only candidate to ring in the new year in Iowa after attending an event hosted by the Never Back Down PAC on New Year’s Eve and then making an appearance at a Citrus Bowl watch party on New Year’s Day alongside a not-so-secret weapon, his wife Casey DeSantis.

The Florida governor was endorsed by beloved (among Iowa Republicans) Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Vanderplaats in November. On Dec. 2, he completed the “Full Grassley,” visiting all 99 counties in the state — a reference to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s efforts to visit them all every year.

DeSantis and the Never Back Down PAC, in particular, have a solid presence in the state helped by major door-knocking and mailer efforts and (recently pulled) ads.

DeSantis is polling at 18.4%, according to 538’s latest Iowa polling averages.

DeSantis has appeared at 138 events in the state since the start of his campaign in May. He will be back on the trail in Iowa on Wednesday.

Nikki Haley

Haley has really been splitting her time on the campaign trail, spending time across several early states including New Hampshire and South Carolina, rather than taking on Iowa head-on. She has held about 62 events in Iowa so far — far fewer than DeSantis and Ramaswamy, while still polling not too far behind DeSantis at 15.7%, according to 538’s national polling averages.

Haley has spent the most on January Iowa ads so far. Between the SFA Fund ($3.3 million) and Haley’s campaign ($1.3 million), $4.6 million have gone to TV and radio ad reservations between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, according to tracking from AdImpact and reported by NBC.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy’s campaign took a grassroots approach with the help of former Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who chaired the Iowa campaigns of 2012 and 2016 caucus winners Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz and is now hoping to win a third.

The entrepreneur has invested most of his time, and in recent weeks, just about all of it, in Iowa, crisscrossing the state to meet with voters face-to-face in hopes of “delivering a surprise result” in Iowa due to first-time caucusgoers including young people and newly turned Republicans.

This week, he celebrates the completion of his “Double Grassley” tour — meaning he has visited all 99 counties at least twice. He has had more than 250 events in Iowa as of Tuesday — the most of any of his competitors by far.

And after opening a campaign headquarters in Des Moines, door knocking and phone banking have ramped up in addition to virtual and in-person voter outreach.

Ramaswamy hasn’t secured any major endorsement, but on Tuesday was endorsed by controversial former Rep. Steve King, who had said they see eye-to-eye on opposing the use of eminent domain to push carbon capture pipelines in the state.

Ramaswamy halted TV ad spending last week, telling ABC News his team’s data show it’s unjustified given the projected return on investment.

According to 538’s latest Iowa polling averages, Ramaswamy is trailing at 6%. He will be in Iowa all week.

Asa Hutchinson

As reported by Axios, “Asa’s Normal Express” launches in Des Moines on Wednesday. It’s a push by the Hutchinson campaign to convince Iowa voters that there’s an alternative to Trump.

“People are looking for normal after the chaos that we’ve had … I offer normal. I’m sort of building on that,” Hutchinson told Axios.

538’s latest polling averages place him at .5% in Iowa. He has done 37 events in Iowa this cycle.

Ryan Binkley

Binkley, a Texas pastor, told ABC News he’s committed to staying in the race through the caucuses. Though he established a presence in Iowa early on in the race, Binkley acknowledged to ABC News in October that a lack of name recognition remains a hurdle. He was the first candidate to complete the “Full Grassley.”

Chris Christie

Christie, who finished 10th in Iowa in 2016, has not been to Iowa at all this cycle and is polling at 3.7%, according to 538’s latest Iowa polling averages.

 

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