Bryan Whipp tried — unsuccessfully — to find a larger site for next month’s GOP presidential caucus in Page County, Iowa. He thinks it’s going to be pretty crowded.
“I think [former President Donald] Trump’s going to bring a lot of people out,” said Whipp, who leads the Page County GOP in the southwestern corner of the state.
Whipp is one of 99 Republican Party county chairs in Iowa — local GOP leaders close to the ground and in tune with their party’s voters in the first caucus state. NBC News contacted all 99 to survey them on the state of the Republican race. Of the 50 county party leaders who weighed in on the likely winner, 43 picked Trump, while just a couple picked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the candidate they expect to win.
Most of the chairs surveyed have not endorsed a GOP candidate. Around half of the county chairs did not respond to requests for comment.
What stood out to many of the Republican chairs was how Iowa voters, so far, do not appear to be rewarding the candidates actually showing up the most in their home counties.
Trump has maintained or improved his standing in the Republican presidential race even though he has lagged far behind other 2024 hopefuls in visits to the Hawkeye State, clashing with the state’s long history of preferring candidates with robust ground operations who build personal connections with Iowa voters.
While around two dozen respondents expect DeSantis to finish second in the caucuses after devoting significant time and resources to Iowa, he has not yet been able to break open Trump’s hold on the state.
“Even though Trump hasn’t visited, people are still going to vote for him because of the Democrats going after him,” Wright County Chair Mike Lette said in an interview, later adding that Trump’s supporters were “not deterred by lack of visits.” (Lette and other chairs spoke to NBC News in interviews in addition to answering an anonymous survey detailing who they expect to finish first and second on Jan. 15.)
“He doesn’t need it,” Ida County Chair Teresa Paulsrud said about Trump lacking grassroots outreach in some places. She later added, “You’re either on board with him or you’re not. You don’t need [to be] convinced.”
Several county party chairs also said the multiple indictments Trump is facing, including charges alleging mishandling of national defense documents and attempts to interfere with the 2020 election, only strengthened his support in Iowa. Trump has made the legal charges a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Almost everyone I have talked to likes Trump and are very upset about the political witch hunt the Democrats are doing in the courts to try to keep him from running and winning the presidency again,” said Osceola County GOP Chair Tommy Zylstra.
Trump’s supporters have also been dedicated to his campaign since he launched his run more than a year ago, making it difficult for other presidential hopefuls to chip away at his lead.
“I haven’t even considered somebody else,” said Winnebago Chair Charles Tweeten, a Trump supporter. “We’re just getting the same version of Trump.”
Struggling to break through
Country party chairs were split over who could finish second, but nearly two dozen of them named DeSantis.
Some said former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has not been as active on the ground, hosting fewer events and not conducting as much outreach to county leaders. While Haley has held many events in Iowa, she has also been engaged in other early primary states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina.
One chair, who asked not to be named, expected a close race for second between Haley and DeSantis, noting that Haley “has a lot more potential to move.”
DeSantis’ standing has not significantly improved in recent months even though his campaign has been laser-focused on Iowa, according to public polling, and multiple county chairs said DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have had the most active campaigns on the ground.
Ramaswamy has been barnstorming the northern part of the state in recent days, embracing a local controversy over a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline.
Floyd County Chair Charley Thomson, a Trump supporter, said that “may start to move [Ramaswamy’s] numbers.”
“Most Republicans, if you talk to them, one of their top three issues is going to be eminent domain abuse and the pipeline.”
As of Friday, Ramaswamy is the GOP candidate who has held the most events in Iowa since May, with 157, while DeSantis has held 121 in that time, according to an NBC News analysis of publicly announced campaign events. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has held 52 Iowa events since May 23, Haley has held 32, and Trump has held just 27.
Not only has DeSantis crisscrossed the state, he’s also earned some high-profile endorsements from the likes of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Van Der Plaats. But the most recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of the state found those endorsements haven’t yet given DeSantis much of a boost, and multiple GOP county leaders agreed.
Jack Vanderflught, the GOP chair in Clarke County, where Reynolds once served as county treasurer, noted, “She’s community to us, and that doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact locally on DeSantis’ support. So we’re kind of surprised at that to some degree.”
One of the simple reasons DeSantis has struggled? He isn’t Trump, and he isn’t stridently anti-Trump either.
“He’s not good enough. The people that are going to support Trump are going to support Trump,” Whipp, the Page County chair, said of DeSantis.
“These people are not going to change their mind. They’re just not,” Whipp later added. “And by the same token, the never-Trumpers aren’t going to change their mind either.”
Not over yet
Though polling indicates Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win in Iowa, some county chairs aren’t ruling out a surprise ending.
“Many voters make their decision the night of and change their mind after speaking to campaign surrogates on site,” said Woodbury County GOP Chair Robert Henderson.
And Carroll County Republican Party Chair Craig Williams noted, “The weather can get so bad, it depends on how committed these people are.”
Plus, some chairs say, though they’re hearing a lot of support for Trump, there may be more undecided caucusgoers than polls indicate.
“I think there’s more people that are undecided than we’re being led to believe,” said Adair County Chairman Ryan Frederick, who is backing DeSantis, in part because of all of the work DeSantis has done on the ground.
“I’ve never seen one of these before, an opposed caucus, where one candidate just acts like they deserve it,” Frederick added, referring to Trump. “And I don’t know that that’s an attitude that’s going to go too well in a small town in Iowa on a cold night in January.”
Still, most other chairs think Trump will win. And that’s clear in recent polling. The NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll conducted earlier this month found Trump with a 32-point lead over his competitors — the largest margin at this point in a contested caucus cycle in the history of pollster J. Ann Selzer’s Iowa surveys.
Depending on how the results shake out in January, candidates may be forced to rethink how long they plan to stay in the race.
Hancock County Chair Bud Jermeland said DeSantis is “going to have to take a hard look going forward” if he falters in Iowa.
“He’s kind of put his eggs in one basket, thinking, I think, he’d gain a lot of traction here,” Jermeland said. “I don’t think he has.”
But at least one chair said these candidates should stay in the race even if they don’t win the Hawkeye State.
“There’s been other times people have lost in Iowa, and they won and became the nominee,” said Jackson County GOP Chair Darla Chappel.
She added, “So, I don’t think Iowa’s the end of it.”