By James Oliphant and Gram Slattery
KEOSAUQUA, Iowa (Reuters) – In coffee shops and churches, on farms and front porches, on the phone and through text exchanges, Ron DeSantis’ grassroots supporters are trying to pull off a long-shot win in the Iowa caucuses and upend the 2024 Republican presidential race.
Any hope Republicans have of stopping former President Donald Trump, the runaway frontrunner, from securing the party’s nomination likely begins and ends with Iowa on Jan. 15.
Even a close finish could reshape the race. If Trump takes Iowa, he is all but assured the 2024 presidential nomination.
While the Florida governor trails Trump by 37 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, the last three winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses were in similar positions to DeSantis in Iowa polling at this stage of the race.
To slow Trump’s momentum, DeSantis is banking on a ground game far more extensive than the one Trump employs in the state, and on a strategy of building support in a cluster of rural and lightly populated Iowa counties.
While Trump prefers to hold large rallies mostly in metropolitan areas and has made fewer than 10 trips to the state, DeSantis has held close to 50 events in Iowa since launching his campaign in May.
The DeSantis campaign has also relocated one-third of its campaign staff – about two dozen people – to Iowa and has committed to a $2 million TV ad buy to run through the caucuses.
DeSantis isn’t the only candidate banking on Iowa. Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Tim Scott have also staked much on performing well in Iowa.
Unlike in a primary, which features votes cast at a polling place, the caucus voting system in Iowa involves community leaders gathering in a room to convince others to support their chosen candidate. That means personal relationships are vital.
When Troy Scheuermann, a chiropractor in Van Buren County stood up to introduce DeSantis at a campaign stop in Keosauqua (pop. 920) this month, he first asked how many of his patients were in the crowd of about 100. About a third raised their hands.
Scheuermann, who has been practicing in the region for 23 years, said he had been talking up the event at his clinic.
“That’s part of the grassroots game,” he said.
DeSantis’ positions on restricting abortion and reducing U.S. aid to Ukraine won him over and convinced him to become a county leader – but only after meeting DeSantis in person first.
DeSantis’ organization, Scheuermann said, “is better than any candidate I have helped in any election.” Meanwhile, Trump, he said, “doesn’t have a ground network in Van Buren County at all.”
PEOPLE WHO KNOW PEOPLE
Reuters traveled to far-flung corners of the state with DeSantis, speaking to campaign workers who said they are going door to door in places most campaigns never bother with.
DeSantis is also relying on a tight-knit network of influencers that includes business leaders, pastors, politicians, veterans and farmers. “Both those two things have historically made a huge difference here in a caucus situation,” DeSantis told Reuters after the Van Buren County event.
On a crisp autumn morning in Le Mars, Iowa, the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Capital of the World,” (pop. 10,572) about 100 people waited outside an ice-cream parlor for DeSantis. Le Mars sits in the northwest corner of the state, in a heavily evangelical region where anti-abortion signs dot the roadways.
Standing outside the shop were Don Kass and Mike Van Otterloo, both members of the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors and there as organizers for DeSantis.
“It’s knowing people who know people,” said Van Otterloo, also a former long-time county sheriff. “It’s knowing where to place yard signs, it’s knowing who to contact.”
Outside, the street was lined with signs supporting DeSantis. Trump signs could not be found.
Is DeSantis’ strategy working? It’s hard to say. Most caucus-goers make up their minds in the final six to eight weeks before the contest, said David Kochel, a Republican operative who worked on Iowa campaigns for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Mitt Romney.
“We still have plenty of time,” Kochel said.
For farmer Lance Lillibridge of Benton County, Iowa, a personal touch from DeSantis, a politician not known for his warmth, is what secured his support.
A former president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Lillibridge met DeSantis in June at a discussion on agricultural issues. After Lillibridge was in a motorcycle accident in July and injured his leg, DeSantis called to check on him.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Lillibridge said.
Lillibridge soured on Trump after his trade war with China led to tariffs that damaged his business, a 2,700-acre farm that grows corn and soybeans.
Lillibridge now heads a farmers’ coalition backing DeSantis. He said he has 2,500 contacts in his phone and plans to try to convert one or two people each day to the candidate.
The odds of DeSantis vanquishing a popular former president who has only been buoyed by a string of indictments are steep.
But there is precedent for DeSantis’ rural-heavy approach: the last three winners of the caucuses, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2016, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum in 2012 and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, all utilized it to some degree.
In a recent three-day swing through Iowa, DeSantis traveled through Davis County (pop. 9,138), Van Buren County (7,243) and Buena Vista County (20,771).
DeSantis told Reuters he expects to have visited 98 of the 99 counties by the end of October.
“These voters want to see you, they want to be able to kick the tires, and a candidate that is willing to show up in rural counties and suburban areas, the whole nine yards, when you’re willing to do that, that helps,” he said.
Never Back Down, a fundraising super PAC backing his White House run, says it has already knocked on 475,000 doors in Iowa.
“We’ve hit all of our target homes in Iowa twice already,” said Jessica Szymanski, the group’s deputy communications director.
Szymanski said the group plans to return to the same residences a total of four or five times before the caucuses. It says it has 22 staffers on the ground and has recruited close to 20,000 volunteers.
The Trump campaign said it has identified 1,800 in-state volunteers to support the campaign, as well as 200 county chairs representing all 99 counties.
Kochel said the scale of DeSantis’ operation has impressed him, particularly the door-to-door data collection on possible voters, as has DeSantis’ pledge to travel far and wide.
“The 99-county tour is a good contrast with Trump, who hasn’t done nearly as much. We’ll see if voters reward that.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant, Gram Slattery, additional reporting by Nathan Layne, editing by Ross Colvin and Claudia Parsons)