The arctic chill that upended the final weekend of the Iowa Republican caucus provided a fitting end to a contest that has seemed frozen in place for months.
This caucus has felt unusually lifeless, not only because former President Donald Trump has maintained an imposing and seemingly unshakable lead in the polls. That advantage was confirmed late Saturday night when the Des Moines Register, NBC, and Mediacom Iowa released their highly anticipated final pre-caucus poll showing Trump at 48 percent and, in a distant battle for second place, Nikki Haley at 20 percent and Ron DeSantis at 16 percent.
The caucus has also lacked energy because Trump’s shrinking field of rivals has never appeared to have the heart for making an all-out case against him. “I think there was actually a decent electorate that had supported Trump in the past but were interested in looking for somebody else,” Douglas Gross, a longtime GOP activist who chaired Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Iowa, told me. But neither DeSantis nor Haley, he adds, found a message that dislodged nearly enough of them from the front-runner. “Trump has run as an incumbent, if you will, and dominated the media so skillfully that it took a lot of the energy out of the race,” Gross said.
In retrospect, the constrictive boundaries for the GOP race were established when the candidates gathered for their first debate last August (without Trump, who has refused to attend any debate). The crucial moment came when Bret Baier, from Fox News Channel, asked the contenders whether they would support Trump as the nominee even if he was convicted of a crime “in a court of law.” All the contenders onstage raised their hand to indicate they would, except for Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, two long shots at the periphery of the race. With that declaration, the candidates effectively placed the question of whether Trump is fit to be president again—the most important issue facing Republicans in 2024—out of bounds.
That collective failure led to Christie’s withering moral judgment on the field when he quit the race last week: “Anyone who is unwilling to say that he is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit themselves to be president of the United States.” But even in practical political terms, the choice not to directly address Trump’s fitness left his principal rivals scrambling to find an alternative way to contrast with the front-runner.
Over time, DeSantis has built a coherent critique of Trump, though a very idiosyncratic one. DeSantis runs at Trump from the right, insisting that the man who devised and articulated the “America First” agenda can no longer be trusted to advance it. In his final appearances across Iowa, his CNN debate with Haley last week, and a Fox town hall, DeSantis criticized Trump’s presidential record and 2024 agenda as insufficiently conservative on abortion, LGBTQ rights, federal spending, confronting the bureaucracy, and shutting down the country during the pandemic. He has even accused Trump of failing to deport enough undocumented immigrants and failing to construct enough of his signature border wall.
On issues where politicians in the center or left charge Trump with extremism, DeSantis inverts the accusation: The problem, he argues, is that Trump wasn’t extreme enough. The moment that best encapsulated DeSantis’s approach came in last week’s CNN debate. At one point, the moderators asked him about the claim from Trump’s lawyer that he cannot be prosecuted for any presidential action—including ordering the assassination of a political rival—unless he was first impeached and convicted. DeSantis insisted the problem was that in office, Trump was too restrained in using unilateral presidential authority. He complained that Trump failed to call in the National Guard over the objections of local officials to squelch civil unrest in the Black Lives Matter protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. When DeSantis visited campaign volunteers last Friday, he indignantly complained “it’s just not true” that he has gone easy on Trump in these final days. “If you watched the debate,” DeSantis told reporters, “I hit on BLM, not building the wall, the debt, not draining the swamp, Fauci, all those things.”
Perhaps the prospect of impending defeat has concentrated the mind, but DeSantis in his closing trek across Iowa has offered perceptive explanations for why these attacks against Trump have sputtered. One is that Trump stifled the debates by refusing to participate in them. “It’s different for me to just be doing that to a camera versus him being right there,” DeSantis told reporters. “When you have a clash, then you guys have to cover it, and it becomes something that people start to talk about.” The other problem, he maintained, was that conservative media like Fox News act as “a praetorian guard” that suppresses criticism of Trump, even from the right.
Those are compelling observations, but incomplete as an explanation. DeSantis’s larger problem may be that the universe of voters that wants Trumpism but doesn’t think Trump can be relied on to deliver it is much smaller than the Florida governor had hoped. One top Trump adviser told me that the fights Trump engaged in as president make it almost impossible to convince conservatives he’s not really one of them. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa evangelical leader who has endorsed DeSantis, likewise told me that amid all of Trump’s battles with the left, it’s easier to try to convince evangelical conservatives that the former president can’t win in November than that he has abandoned their causes.
The analogy I’ve used for DeSantis’s strategy is that Trump is like a Mack truck barreling down the far-right lane of American politics, and that rather than trying to pass in all the space he’s left in the center of the road, DeSantis has tried to squeeze past him on the right shoulder. There’s just not a lot of room there.
Even so, DeSantis’s complaints about Trump look like a closing argument from Perry Mason compared with the muffled, gauzy case that Haley has presented against him. DeSantis’s choice to run to Trump’s right created a vacuum that Haley, largely through effective performances at the early debates, has filled with the elements of the GOP coalition that have always been most dubious of Trump: moderates, suburbanites, college-educated voters. But that isn’t a coalition nearly big enough to win. And she has walked on eggshells in trying to reach beyond that universe to the Republican voters who are generally favorable toward Trump but began the race possibly open to an alternative—what the veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres calls the “maybe Trump” constituency.
The most notable thing in how Haley talks about Trump is that she almost always avoids value judgments. It’s time for generational change, she will say, or I will be a stronger general-election candidate who will sweep in more Republican candidates up and down the ballot.
At last week’s CNN debate, Haley turned up the dial when she that said of course Trump lost the 2020 election; that January 6 was a “terrible day”; and that Trump’s claims of absolute immunity were “ridiculous.” Those pointed comments probably offered a momentary glimpse of what she actually thinks about him. But in the crucial days before the caucus, Haley has reverted to her careful, values-free dissents. At one town hall conducted over telephone late last week, she said the “hard truths” Republicans had to face were that, although “President Trump was the right president at the right time” and “I agree with a lot of his policies,” the fact remained that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.” Talk about taking off the gloves.
Jennifer Horn, the former Republican Party chair in New Hampshire who has become a fierce Trump critic, told me, “There’s no moral or ethical judgment against Trump from her. From anyone, really, but we’re talking about her. She says chaos follows him ‘rightly or wrongly.’ Who cares? Nobody cares about chaos. That’s not the issue with Trump. He’s crooked; he’s criminal; he incited an insurrection. That’s the case against Trump. And if his so-called strongest opponent won’t make the case against Trump, why should voters?”
Gross, the longtime GOP activist, is supporting Haley, but even he is perplexed by her reluctance to articulate a stronger critique of the front-runner. “I don’t know what her argument is,” Gross told me. “I guess it’s: Get rid of the chaos. She’s got to make a strong case about why she’s the alternative, and it’s got to include some element of judgment.”
The reluctance of DeSantis and Haley to fully confront the former president has created an utterly asymmetrical campaign battlefield because Trump has displayed no hesitation about attacking either of them. The super PAC associated with Trump’s campaign spent months pounding DeSantis on issues including supporting statehood for Puerto Rico and backing cuts in Social Security, and in recent weeks, Trump’s camp has run ads accusing Haley of raising taxes and being weak on immigration. In response, DeSantis and Haley have spent significantly more money attacking each other than criticizing, or even rebutting, Trump. Rob Pyers, an analyst with the nonpartisan California Target Book, has calculated that the principal super PAC supporting Trump has spent $32 million combined in ads against Haley and DeSantis; they have pummeled each other with a combined $38 million in negative ads from the super PACs associated with their campaigns. Meanwhile, the Haley and DeSantis super PACs have spent only a little more than $1 million in ads targeting Trump, who is leading them by as much as 50 points in national polls.
Haley’s sharpest retort to any of Trump’s attacks has been to say he’s misrepresenting her record. During the CNN debate, Haley metronomically touted a website called DeSantislies.com, but if she has a similar page up about Trump, she hasn’t mentioned it. (Her campaign didn’t respond to a query about whether it plans to establish such a site.)
“Calling him a liar right now is her strongest pushback, but I just don’t think GOP voters care about liars,” Horn told me. “If she engaged in a real battle with him for these last days [before New Hampshire], that would be fascinating to see. The fact that she’s not pushing back, the fact that she’s not running the strongest possible campaign as she’s coming down the stretch here, makes me wonder if she is as uncertain of her ability to win as I am.”
Some Republican strategists are sympathetic to this careful approach to Trump, especially from Haley. A former top aide to one of Trump’s main rivals in the 2016 race told me that “nobody has found a message you can put on TV that makes Republicans like Trump less.” Some other veterans of earlier GOP contests believe that Haley and DeSantis were justified in initially trying to eclipse the other and create a one-on-one race with Trump. And for Haley, there’s also at least some argument for preserving her strongest case against Trump for the January 23 New Hampshire primary, where a more moderate electorate may be more receptive than the conservative, heavily evangelical population that usually turns out for the caucus.
“She has to draw much sharper contrasts,” Gross told me. “And to be fair to her, once she gets out of here, maybe she will. What she strikes me as is incredibly disciplined and calculating. So, I do think you’re going to see modulation.”
DeSantis has the most to lose in Iowa, because a poor showing will almost certainly end his campaign, even if he tries to insist otherwise for a few weeks. For Haley, the results aren’t as important because whatever happens here, she will have another opportunity to create momentum in New Hampshire, where polls have shown her rising even as DeSantis craters. Still, if Haley is unable or unwilling to deliver a more persuasive argument against Trump, she too will quickly find herself with no realistic hope of overtaking the front-runner, whose lead in national polls of Republican voters continues to grow. That’s one thing common to winter in both Iowa and New Hampshire: It gets dark early.