Trump returns to Iowa for a more disciplined campaign

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) – To outsiders, they looked like simple stacks of paper. but for Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, they represented a missed opportunity.

A month before Iowa’s 2016 presidential caucuses, mountains of so-called pledge cards sat in the corner of Trump’s suburban Des Moines state headquarters. They contained the names and contact information of about 10,000 Iowans who attended Trump campaign events and responded by returning the cards indicating they were open to endorsing the reality TV star, who was now seeking the White House.

In what is considered political malpractice by Iowa standards, those who returned the cards received no follow-up contact from the campaign.

“None of that data was used. None of it was entered,” said Alex Latcham, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party and now Trump’s state director of early voting. “And those people were not encouraged or mobilized into a caucus. “

Chuck Laudner, who was Trump’s Iowa state director in 2016, did not respond to requests for comment. But by ignoring the cards, Trump’s team essentially left a stack of uncashed checks out in the open, leaving him vulnerable to better-organized GOP rivals. He was beaten in Iowa by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who would continue to fight Trump state by state for three months.

When Trump returns to Iowa on Monday, he and his team aim for a more disciplined approach. They are particularly focused on building the data and digital engagement he will need to persuade Iowans to trudge through the cold and snow early next year to attend the caucuses.

Although his swing through the eastern city of Davenport marks his first trip to Iowa since launching his third bid for the presidency, he has held about three dozen events in the state since entering political life. They include several rallies that have drawn thousands since he left office in 2021.

His team uses information from these events to compile an exhaustive list of supporters to engage. The list now includes data from the 2016 campaign that sat and gathered dust.

“One of the advantages we have is that it’s an awful lot of data,” said Trump senior consultant Chris LaCivita. “From every donor to conventioneer, we have all the information that’s important in a state like Iowa. This is ground-breaking stuff. It’s about finding and identifying favorable voters and making sure the campaign turns them out.”

In the early stages of the 2024 campaign, Trump remains in a dominant position. But he faces notable challenges, including growing interest in the expected candidacy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantiswho did his thing debut swing through Iowa last week.

Early polls show Trump remains very popular among Iowa Republicans, although views of the former president have fallen somewhat since he left the White House. Now 80% say they have a favorable opinion of Trump, down slightly from 91% in September 2021, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll published Friday.

The poll found DeSantis also gets a rosy review from Iowa Republicans, with 74% saying they have a favorable rating. DeSantis, in particular, has great name recognition in a state over 1,000 miles away from his own; only 20% say they are not sure how to rate him.

Meanwhile, the legal investigation surrounding Trump is also intensifying with potential indictments in the coming weeks that would make him the first former president in US history to face criminal charges. He has been invited to testify this week before a New York grand jury investigating hush money payments made on his behalf during the 2016 campaign, a move that often indicates a decision on charges is imminent.

Elsewhere, the Atlanta district attorney has said that decisions are “nurturing” in a two year study in possible illegal interference in the 2020 election by Trump and his allies. A special counsel from the Department of Justice is also investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the election, as well as the handling of classified documents at his Florida estate.

The dynamic makes the stakes especially high for Trump in Iowa. As a former president who boasts of his position at the top of the GOP, he cannot afford even a narrow loss in the contest that starts the nomination process.

And even the most sophisticated data and digital operations may not be enough to satisfy some Iowans who are used to having intimate conversations with those seeking the White House. Iowa GOP activists say Trump would be wise to hold smaller events, including with influential local Republican leaders.

On Monday, Trump will deliver what has been billed as one education policy speech, but he is expected to touch more broadly on his achievements as president and his agenda for a second term, including trade policies and agriculture, according to a person familiar with his plans who spoke on condition of anonymity to see his remarks .

Trump will also take questions from local reporters and is expected to make an unannounced stop at a local establishment, as he has during other recent trips. The campaign will also roll out endorsements from East Iowa elected officials, the person said.

When he began his Iowa campaign eight years ago, Trump wasn’t sure what a caucus even was. The lopsided contests — more than 1,000 simultaneous, local political meetings sponsored by the state Republican Party and run by volunteers — are not state-sanctioned primaries and require intense organization to have supporters in place at each location.

In 2016, Trump hired Laudner, the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party who helped former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum win the 2012 GOP primary. But Trump’s national team was led by a small group of aides with far-reaching less experience than the talent amassed by prospects expected early in the campaign to be strong contenders, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

While Trump’s celebrity drew crowds of sometimes several thousand to his rallies around the state, there was almost no follow-up with interested supporters. Many of Trump’s supporters were first-time electors unfamiliar with the process. Some missed their chance to weigh in by mistakenly going to their typical polling place instead of the designated party meeting place.

The assumption that crowds would equal votes would be an expensive lesson. Had Trump obtained fewer than four more votes per area, he could have beaten Cruz.

This year, Trump’s campaign named Marshall Moreau as its Iowa director. He managed the successful attorney general campaign last year for Brenna Bird. She defeated Democrat Tom Miller, who was first elected in 1978.

More Iowa staff announcements are expected soon, aides said.

The goal of a sharper Iowa approach reflects broader changes to how Trump has structured his recent campaign. While his 2016 bid was a scrappy startup bid, with a national headquarters in unfinished commercial space at Trump Tower in New York, his second campaign, as a president seeking re-election, was a grand behemoth that ran out of a gleaming office tower in Virginia.

Both were riven by rivalry as Trump cycled through the top staff.

This time, Trump has chosen a middle ground approach and eschewed the traditional hierarchy. Instead of a campaign manager, he has entrusted Florida operative Susie Wiles, a longtime adviser, to lead his Florida-based operation along with LaCivita and former White House political director Brian Jack.

The campaign has quickly added staff and is quickly outgrowing its office space.


Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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