JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – Rarely has a frontrunner had such a commanding lead in a seriously contested United States presidential campaign.
Donald J. Trump certainly looks like the prohibitive favorite to win the 2024 GOP nomination.
Nationally, the former president leads his closest rival – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – by 42.5%, according to the Real Clear Politics average of recent credible polling.
What makes this all the more remarkable, and impressive, is that Trump is so far ahead despite vicious and relentless attacks by Democrats and by so much of the so-called “mainstream” media, and despite four state and federal indictments on 41 separate counts.
Indeed, every time he has been indicted, his poll numbers have gone up, not down.
Given the tremendous influence the next American president can exert over Israel and the Arab/Muslim world, many Israelis – myself included – are quite curious about the state of the American campaign and curious to see if 2024 will be a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, or if there will be dramatic and unexpected twists and turns along the way.
KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON THE HAWKEYE STATE
That said, keep a close eye on Hawkeye State.
Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation voting in the presidential contest, at least for Republicans. (Democrats earlier this year decided to make South Carolina their first state, though New Hampshire law says that it must be the first primary in the nation, so we’ll see.)
Yet Evangelical, conservative, and Republican leaders, officials, and political operatives that I’ve spoken to and texted with in recent weeks tell me that something odd is happening in Iowa.
The Trump campaign, they say, is doing surprisingly little to build up its organization and ensure a strong turnout on election night.
As they drive across the state, they see very few Trump signs.
They don’t detect an intensive door-knocking or phone-banking effort to contact voters directly and persuade them to show up on the night of caucuses.
What’s more, Trump has only made seven visits to Iowa in 2023.
By contrast, many of his rivals have effectively moved to Iowa and have been spending much of their time campaigning aggressively there.
Why has Trump been doing so little there?
TRUMP IS LEADING IN IOWA, BUT NOT WORKING HARD TO SOLIDIFY HIS SUPPORT
True, Trump has a commanding lead in Iowa, but not nearly as commanding as he does nationally.
The Real Clear Politics average of recent Iowa polls put Trump at 46%, with DeSantis at 15.8% – that’s a 30-point spread, but closer than the 42-point national spread.
Those who want Trump to be reelected are growing concerned – frustrated, even – worried that Trump is taking victory there for granted.
They note that Trump lost Iowa to Texas Senator Ted Cruz because he didn’t work the state hard enough.
Now they’re concerned that Trump and his senior advisors aren’t doing what it takes to solidify his support, win the Iowa caucuses in a blowout and bury his potential rivals once and for all.
After all, on election night, one doesn’t simply go to the local public school or church or town hall, stand in line for a few minutes, go into a voting machine, cast one’s ballot, and then go home.
Caucuses require people to show up on a snowy and bitterly cold winter night.
You have to huddle with friends and neighbors for hours, listen to speeches by representatives for every candidate in the race, and discuss and debate the merits of the candidates.
And then you have to publicly announce who you’re going to vote for.
No secret votes in Iowa.
That’s why only the super-committed show up for the caucus events.
Few people casually drift in on those crazy cold January nights.
I was deputy campaign manager for Steve Forbes in 2000.
I’ve crisscrossed icy Iowa roads and navigated through the huge snow drift and the unforgiving temperatures.
I’ve been there on caucus night – seen it for myself – and can tell you from first-hand experience, it is not for the faint of heart.
So, tracking down supporters who will show that level of devotion and emotion to really show up, and really vote for your candidate, and not switch at the last minute to another candidate, takes and enormous amount of careful planning, relentless preparation, tremendous attention to detail, and typically a great deal of money.
If Trump doesn’t work much harder this fall, some key grassroots organizers I’m talking to are worried he is opening the door for a rival to pull off a surprise victory.
That, they tell me, would dramatically upend the race.
After all, if Trump wins Iowa, he almost certainly creates a snowball effect and wins the GOP nomination, barring some unforeseen development.
But if a rival breaks out and beats Trump in Iowa – especially after he’s been so far ahead – that rival is going to get an enormous amount of free media coverage and could suddenly become a very serious contender to steal the nomination away from Trump.
DESANTIS GROUND GAME IN IOWA IS “VERY IMPRESSIVE,” I’M TOLD
Evangelical pastors, ministry leaders, and lay people in Iowa that I’m talking to – folks who are uncommitted at this point, but leaning against voting for Trump – say there are several attractive options.
DeSantis, a devout Catholic, is currently in a solid second place in Iowa with 15.8% support.
Popular Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds seems to be leaning towards DeSantis.
Though she’s officially neutral at this stage, wanting to help all GOP candidates feel welcome in the state and get their chance to introduce themselves properly to Iowa voters, she and her team have built a powerful grassroots political machine.
And Trump has publicly and repeatedly blasted her for not endorsing him already.
Should she decide to endorse someone late in the game, it’s unlikely she’ll back Trump.
If she actually endorses DeSantis and throws the full weight of her machine behind him, my sources say DeSantis could rapidly accelerate in the polls and overtake Trump on caucus night.
That could be a game-changer.
“Iowans break late,” one key Evangelical leader told recently. “DeSantis is very conservative, very articulate, very well organized, and his record in Florida is incredibly impressive.”
The leader reminded me that past Iowa caucus winners were polling in single digits in the fall, and then suddenly surged in December and January to victory.
These include Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, Senator Rick Santorum in 2012, and Senator Ted Cruz in 2016.
“DeSantis is doing everything right,” another Evangelical leader told me. “He’s spending a lot of time here. He’s well on his way to visiting all 99 counties. He’s winning dozens of endorsements from Iowa legislators. And he’s making a good impression.”
“I don’t think the polls reflect yet the goodwill DeSantis is building among Iowa Republicans,” said yet another influential Evangelical leader. “But in terms of preparation and organization, the Governor is far ahead of where Huckabee, Santorum, and even Ted Cruz were in past years.”
Sure enough, DeSantis now has the endorsement of 40 members of the Iowa State Legislature.
He now has at least 120 grassroots organizers signed up and actively canvassing voters.
And four months ahead of the caucuses, the DeSantis team tweeted this week that they have already knocked on 355,000 doors in Iowa.
BUT EVANGELICALS ARE STILL SHOPPING, IN CASE DESANTIS STUMBLES
That said, it would be foolish to predict that DeSantis is going to beat Trump in January – or even do well.
Many Evangelical leaders who haven’t already backed Trump tell me they are still shopping.
Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator, is an Evangelical Christian.
He’s got a great personal story, is a very winsome communicator, is making a great impression, I’m told, and thus has been steadily gaining ground.
Scott is now averaging 9% in the polls in Iowa.
Nikki Haley is also an Evangelical.
A former governor of South Carolina and more recently President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Haley impressed many Republicans at the first GOP debate a few weeks ago.
This has given her a slight bounce nationally but an even stronger bounce in Iowa.
Haley is now averaging 7%.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the highly successful CEO and entrepreneur, is doing rather well in Iowa, averaging 6.5% in the polls.
That’s impressive, given that he started the campaign earlier this year with zero support and almost no name recognition.
Many Iowans are intrigued with Ramaswamy and continue to look at him carefully.
However, as I’ve reported on ALL ISRAEL NEWS and THE ROSENBERG REPORT, I believe Evangelicals in Iowa and elsewhere are going to have a real problem with Ramaswamy’s positions on abortion, Israel, Iran and possibly other issues, as well, as they study him more closely.
Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, another strong Evangelical Christian and, himself, a midwesterner from Indiana, is widely liked and respected among Iowa Evangelical Christians.
However, so far, he has not gained any traction in the Hawkeye State.
Currently, he’s averaging only 3.5% in the polls.
WHAT WILL TRUMP DO NEXT?
The big question is this: How serious is Trump about winning Iowa?
For the past several months, it has looked to many I’ve talked to like the former president isn’t taking Iowa seriously, or even that Trump is concerned that he’ll lose Iowa – especially if Gov. Reynolds endorses someone else – and thus is laying the groundwork to explain away a loss there by saying he didn’t work that hard in Iowa because the deck was stacked against him.
Is that true?
That’s what I’m hearing from people I trust there.
But now comes this news: Trump just announced that he’ll be making seven new trips to Iowa over the next five weeks.
Maybe he’s going to play to win there after all.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.