WAUKEE, Iowa — Already emboldened by an uptick in polling and buoyed by an infusion of outside cash, Nikki Haley’s supporters say her campaign is now finally getting what’s been lacking here — a strong ground game.
The conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which endorsed Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, roughly two weeks ago, has deployed more than 100 people across the state to knock on doors for her, said Drew Klein, a senior adviser for AFP Action. It has committed $4 million already to Haley in early state canvassing and digital ads, with more money expected as the Republican presidential primaries near.
AFP’s ground game lift supplements a campaign that has been ascendant nationally in part because of strong debate performances but was missing the organizational strength of some of her competitors in Iowa.
“She’s had the momentum. Her message was being well-received,” Klein said at a Haley event here Sunday where roughly 300 people attended. “This has been the missing piece.”
But there’s a lot to catch up on in a short amount of time before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.
Never Back Down, the super PAC for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has been plowing resources into the state for months. It says it has knocked on more than 750,000 doors and had 30,000 people commit to caucus for him, while DeSantis has secured big endorsements, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’. DeSantis has visited all 99 counties, holding far more events in Iowa — 120 since May — compared with Haley’s 32 Iowa events in the same time frame, according to an NBC News tracking of campaign events.
But it’s former President Donald Trump who holds a consistent, commanding lead in the state, with the new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa voters showing him 32 points ahead of DeSantis, who was at 19%, and Haley, who was at 16%. The gap between DeSantis and Haley was within the margin of error.
“It’s a big advantage to have those kinds of resources on the ground in the closing weeks. So it’s meaningful, no doubt,” David Kochel, a longtime Republican analyst who is neutral in the race, said of AFP’s assisting Haley. “But there’s also no doubt that Never Back Down has built a hell of an infrastructure.”
Klein said AFP has been in the field in Iowa since February, identifying voters who were open to supporting someone other than Trump, which candidates they were leaning toward and what issues they care about. As part of the data collection, it has knocked on roughly 350,000 doors and made 700,000 more calls, he said. That data will now benefit Haley, he said.
“There’s an old Iowa caucus saying: ‘Organize, organize and get hot at the end.’ She is getting hot at the end,” said David Oman, a former co-chair of the Iowa Republican Party and a Haley supporter. Oman introduced Haley at an event here Sunday. “She’s getting hot when she needs to,” he said.
Oman, however, conceded that Trump is likely to win the caucuses. Haley’s strategy is longer-term, he said; she needs to do well in New Hampshire and hope for a one-on-one contest with Trump in South Carolina.
“Our campaign is built to last, and AFP’s endorsement ensures we have a ground game that matches and exceeds Trump and DeSantis,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley spokesperson.
Both Trump’s and DeSantis’ teams dismissed the assertion, saying it was too little too late.
“Nikki Haley’s 11th hour rent-a-campaign gambit won’t work, especially given that many of the AFP staffers her team is touting are now defecting to support Ron DeSantis,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “Only the Washington establishment would try to pitch that grassroots success can be bought. In contrast, Ron DeSantis has the most robust ground game in Iowa Republican caucus history and no other campaign is close.”
Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, diminished AFP’s efforts, saying there’s no long-standing loyalty to Haley, “whereas our operation and ground game runs deeps with people who have been working for President Trump since 2015.”
“We have seen this rodeo before,” Cheung said in a text, referring to DeSantis’ super PAC Never Back Down, which has been mired in controversy, culminating in a recent spate of resignations. He asked of the timing of AFP’s efforts: “What are they going to do now, knock doors during Christmas?”
At her event Sunday, Haley cited a new Wall Street Journal poll that found her 17 points ahead in a general election matchup with Joe Biden. “If you win by 17 points, that’s a pretty good mandate,” she said of trying to get her agenda through Congress if she is elected president.
Rod Pierce, an area farmer, said before he listened to Haley that he was undecided. Afterward, he had a different take.
“I’m now leaning her way,” he said. “She was better than I thought. She was very good.”