Iowa’s anti-Trump Republicans are starting to lose hope

DES MOINES, IOWA — GOP voters planning to caucus for non-Trump Republicans in January have long suspected the former president could be upset in the Hawkeye State. These days, that hope is dwindling. 

“It seems like it’s almost a foregone conclusion,” says Michael Wright, a Nikki Haley supporter from Grimes, Iowa, who is growing resigned to a Trump victory. 

“These Trump supporters, they don’t budge,” said a frustrated Joe Pendergast, who is from Des Moines and was firmly committed to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum before he dropped out of the race earlier this month.

“Pretty tough, pretty tough,” muttered Allen Pederson, a Vivek Ramaswamy supporter from Nashua, Iowa, conceding it’s difficult to imagine any candidate other than Trump winning the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. 

In the latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, conducted in early December, Trump has expanded his lead over his GOP rivals. He now earns 51% first-choice support from likely Iowa caucusgoers, beating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 32 points. And delivering a gut punch for supporters of other candidates. 

Wright has been enthusiastic about Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, from the get-go. “I’ve liked Nikki for a long time, before she announced I was hoping she would,” said Wright. In February, Haley announced her candidacy and Wright was filled with hope. “As soon as she announced, I was all in.” 

Back then, Wright thought Haley could win Iowa. But recent polls have broken his spirit. 

“Poll after poll, he’s up double digits here in Iowa,” said Wright.  “It seems like it’s almost a done deal,” he added. 

For Pendergast, 69, it was the last GOP presidential debate on Dec. 6 when the fatalism began to set in.

“The people on stage, they didn’t move the needle,” said Pendergast about Haley, DeSantis, Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Pendergast watched the last debate alongside Trump supporters at a watch party hosted by NBC News in Des Moines. He recalled the Trump supporters being unimpressed with any of the other candidates. That’s when he began to feel like the caucus was over.

“Just listening to his [Trump’s] supporters after the debate,” recalled Pendergast, “that’s when I was like, yeah, he’s going to take this thing.”

J. Ann Selzer, the experienced Iowa pollster who conducted the recent survey, reminded NBC News this week that surprises happen in the state: “Everything that could happen has happened in this contest,” she said.

But so far, and especially ever since the GOP started hosting debates back in August, the GOP primary field has largely stagnated, with the exception of Haley rising — but Trump has also risen, too.

For Pederson, the 59-year-old plumber, supporting the winner isn’t as important as sending a message to the political establishment. “If you vote for somebody you don’t believe in, you’re throwing away your vote,” Pederson said on his plans to caucus for Ramaswamy.

“But if you vote for a person, even if they don’t win, it’s still telling the old guard, ‘You know what? We’re tired of your swamp.’”