February 26, 2024

DeSantis is banking on a “full Grassley” approach to win Iowa and overtake Trump

For much of 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been out and about in Iowa, stopping at coffee shops, sports bars and barns — trying to convince voters that he should be the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, not former President Donald Trump.

At the core of DeSantis’ offer in Iowa, the first state to vote in the Republican presidential candidate, is a tour of all 99 counties known as the “full Grassley,” named after Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley who pioneered the all-county tour, and has been doing so for over 40 years. Previous Iowa caucus winners — former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 — made a similar effort during their presidential bids.

DeSantis will complete his own Iowa tour on Dec. 2 with an event at the “Thunderdome” wedding venue in Newton, according to details first shared with CBS News.

Still, the unprecedented nature of Trump’s campaign and its popularity with the Republican electorate could make Iowa’s political tradition of rewarding intense attention from contenders this cycle a moot point.

GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis campaigns in Davenport, Iowa
Republican presidential candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks with a guest during a campaign event at the Machine Shed restaurant on November 7, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa.

/ Getty Images

Trump has been the consistent leader in the race for the 2024 GOP nomination against a now-dwindling number of challengers, most of whom have largely avoided taking on him directly. The race is also playing out like Trump is being prosecuted in several casespartly because of his failed attempt to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election.

DeSantis has been the only active candidate so far to commit to hosting at least one event in every county, and he has made a total of 130 stops in Iowa. A majority of these events, 92, were organized by the super PAC that supported him. Never give upwho regularly had the governor on the bus as he traveled from province to province.

On the ground in Iowa vs. Trump ‘hurdle’

But DeSantis is not the only one one to focus intensely on Iowa in the final weeks before the Jan. 15 caucus.

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy announced earlier this month that he has rented an apartment in the state and says he will own more than 200 of them. events up to the caucus. Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has done more than 60 events in the state — and now keeps in close touch with DeSantis in Iowa and manages him in New Hampshire

By comparison, Trump has held just 17 events in the state since March.

Historically, Iowa voters have placed a high value on interacting with the candidates. Gathering that kind of grassroots support is key to building the organization needed to develop the kind of ground game that can deliver a win on caucus night.

Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican Party National Committeeman, has worked on four presidential campaigns in Iowa ahead of the caucuses. Compared to previous cycles, he said most candidates did not commit early enough this cycle.

“Winning the caucus is quite labor-intensive work,” Scheffler explains. “You’re looking at a group of people that you have to identify as going to caucus, then you have to work with them and try to get them on board, and then you have to get them into your database, and then you have to have a mechanism to to take them out. These things don’t just happen overnight.”

He added that Trump’s presence is “the hurdle” for his challengers, “as many caucusgoers in Iowa know what he has done.” They know he has kept his promises.”

The DeSantis campaign has called his tour of the 99 counties “an organizational effort” and said it gives them more flexibility to target areas with larger media markets, along with certain rural counties where DeSantis’ support is stronger. Never Back Down volunteers are often seen at his stops asking attendees to sign “commitment to caucus” cards. The group says it has collected 30,000 of these cards, which are not legally binding but do indicate support for a candidate.

DeSantis’ campaign said the state will be the “primary focus” in the final weeks before the caucus, but believed completing the “full Grassley” will give them more flexibility to campaign in New Hampshire, where DeSantis is behind Haley and the former New Jersey was hit. Gov. Chris Christie in recent polls.

“The Iowa caucus is littered with campaigns that lost because they thought they could only win on the air and relied solely on paid television advertising,” said DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo. “The reality is that you need a strong mix of paid media, candidate presence and ground game to win an Iowa caucus, and no one is performing better in all three areas than us as we reach the final stretch.”

“Cruz was only 10% at this point in the race in 2016,” Romeo said. “That’s a good reminder of how Iowa traditionally breaks out late, and that’s exactly when you’ll start to see the fruits of the historic ground organization we’ve built in the state.”

Strength of Iowa Recommendations

Romeo added that several notable DeSantis endorsers – Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and 41 state legislators – have a network they can tap into to get people to the caucus.

Iowa represents a fraught area for Trump, given that he lost the caucus in 2016. But he has a big advantage in the caucus polls so far, despite polling just 13 points. visits to the state since launching his third bid for the White House.

Both before and after Reynolds’ endorsement of DeSantis, Trump has criticized her this year. And in a somewhat surprising move, he also recently called out Iowa’s two U.S. senators, who have not publicly taken sides in the race.

As for Grassley and Senator Joni Ernst, Trump claimed at a rally in Fort Dodge earlier this month: “I chose them, remember that.”

Ernst won reelection in 2020, and Grassley in 2022, in what is now a reliably red state. Trump even praised Grassley about a year ago as the senator was running for re-election, calling him a legend at a rally in Iowa before the 2022 midterm elections.

Grassley, 90, has spent decades in Iowa politics and is the longest-serving senator in the state’s history, according to his congressional website. He was in office long before Trump had any kind of political influence over the Republican Party. Ernst was elected in 2014, before Trump won the White House.

“Here in Iowa, the voters want to see you”

“Here in Iowa, the voters want to see you,” said John Pentecost, an undecided voter who is considering DeSantis and Trump. Pentecost attended a DeSantis event earlier this month in Plainfield, DeSantis’ 98th county.

“That was the trick to winning Iowa. Grassley started it, and I think all the other candidates are following more or less the same winning strategy.”

When asked what will help him decide, Pentecost said he will “probably just keep coming to events.”

– Olivia Rinaldi contributed to this report.

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