Politics & Policy

What’s the Secret of Trump’s Success in Iowa?

Trump speaks at an event hosted by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, August 27, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The GOP nominee is surprisingly strong in the Hawkeye State. Why?

Donald Trump has led four of the last seven polls in Iowa, and another was tied. In a year when a lot of swing states have looked out of reach for the GOP nominee, he’s doing pretty well in the Hawkeye State. Most Republicans didn’t expect Iowa to be winnable this cycle, based on past history: Obama won the state by six points in 2012 and by nearly ten in 2008; George W. Bush barely won it 2004 and barely lost it in 2000. What’s more, Trump lost the state’s caucus to Ted Cruz in February. So why is he doing so well there now?

The first-in-the-nation caucus creates a unique political culture in Iowa, and some Republicans believe that instead of spotlighting differences within the party, it created an Iowa GOP more unified behind Trump than Republicans are in other states.

“No question that the Iowa GOP, [Governor Terry] Branstad, and other state leaders have been pushing unity earlier than any other state,” says one Republican campaign strategist who’s worked on several races in the state. “They had to do it. It was very clear that a 17-person caucus field could really fracture the party. Since almost day one, there have been appeals to unity — well before it became such an imperative nationally.”

There is at least some evidence that Iowa Democrats aren’t quite as unified behind their nominee; in the most recent Emerson poll, Clinton is supported by 78 percent of Democrats, while Trump is supported by 86 percent of Republicans. She won the an incredibly close victory in a caucus that featured “inconsistent counts, untrained and overwhelmed volunteers, confused voters, cramped precinct locations, a lack of voter registration forms and other problems.” (Perhaps some Bernie Sanders fans are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, but so far, they’re not opting for Green Party nominee Jill Stein; she had only 1 percent of the vote in the Emerson poll.)

It’s easily forgotten during this dramatic political year, but the February caucus also pointed to a more energized GOP base, with Republican turnout up 54 percent from 2012 and Democratic turnout down 22 percent from 2008, the last time their nomination was contested.  Republicans had 84,000 first-time caucus-goers, versus 75,000 for Democrats. The GOP doesn’t have a huge edge in enthusiasm, but it feels like a big difference compared to previous cycles.

“We used the caucuses to build a political network that actually reached into 99 counties,” says the veteran GOP consultant. “This network has helped Iowa unify faster and avoid infighting. If a county chair is pissed off about something, it just takes a phone call to the Iowa GOP to have their concerns heard.”

#related#Iowa Republicans had a particularly good midterm cycle, and perhaps it’s easier to be unified and enthusiastic when you’re coming off some big wins. In 2014, Branstad won reelection 59 percent to 37 percent; Ernst ended up with a striking victory over Democrat Bruce Braley, 52 percent to 43 percent; the GOP won three of five down-ticket statewide offices, picked up a third U.S. House seat, and expanded its state House majority. That statewide success appears to have carried over to this cycle, too: In a year where quite a few incumbent GOP senators have found themselves in surprisingly tough reelection bids, Senator Chuck Grassley looks like a sure bet to win reelection.

It’s far too early to say if Iowa’s six electoral votes will prove decisive. But it’s unlikely Democrats figured that the Manhattan real-estate mogul would be enjoying a small but consistent lead in an iconic farming state that until recently seemed more blue than purple.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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