Published1 day ago
As Iowa finds itself at the centre of a brutal winter storm, it also sits, momentarily, at the centre of US politics.
It’s a position that voters here are used to finding themselves in – for more than 50 years, their state has been the first to pick the party nominees for president.
While the Democrats have changed their schedule this year, for Iowa Republicans Monday’s caucuses offer the chance to fire the starting gun on the 2024 race and offer crucial momentum to their preferred candidate.
This weekend, political attack ads played out nearly constantly on the TV screens of bars and restaurants, while campaign posters could be spotted in snow-covered yards and foggy windows.
In conversations with dozens of Republican voters, border security and the economy were the issues that seemed front of mind for many. But with Donald Trump dominating the race, it was rarely long before the former president’s name was mentioned by his supporters and opponents alike.
“I’m pretty sure Trump’s going to win because most of the people I talk to are for him,” said Joe Van Ginkel, as he ploughed snow on a frigid morning.
It was the second blizzard of the week to hit Madison County, which lies south of the state capital Des Moines. Mr Van Ginkel is chair of the county’s Republican Party and like many local party officials, supports Mr Trump.
Polls suggest former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are running neck-and-neck for second place, though the final poll of the race put Ms Haley slightly ahead of Mr DeSantis, with 20% to 16% respectively.
Trump was the first choice of 48% of likely Republican caucusgoers in the Des Moines Register/NBC News/MediaCom poll.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons [people support him]. He did a good job when he was in there as president,” Mr Van Ginkel said of Mr Trump, adding that he watched most of the Republican debates which the former president did not attend but “none of them swayed” him.
His wife, however, is planning to vote for Ms Haley because she doesn’t like some of the things Mr Trump has said in public.
Wayne Fry, 69, a lifelong Republican from Waukee, west of Des Moines, also said he would vote for Mr Trump, who he described as “the best president of my lifetime”.
“Usually people say something and then you never see it [happen],” he said. “This guy said it and, most of it – he got done. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. That’s all I care about.”
He continued: “Now we have the complete opposite in Washington and that’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Mike Williams, who works in the trucking industry and supports Mr Trump, acknowledged the former president had “a lot of baggage”, referring to the raft of legal cases against him. But like Mr Fry he said he believed the former president would solve problems if elected.
“The economy, the border, everything. Things are bad now,” he said, adding he believed the contest would be a blow-out. “Trump’s going to win by 30 points or more I think.”
While many other caucus-goers said they would back Mr Trump, even those who were less certain about who to support said it was difficult to see another Republican candidate emerging victorious.
Bryan Moon, who owns a bar in West Des Moines, said he was still making up his mind.
“I like all of our candidates,” he said. “If we could just make a super candidate where I could take a bit from this one, and a bit from that one, I’d be happy. But it doesn’t work that way.”
When asked why Mr Trump was polling so strongly in the state, he said: “For being a billionaire, he’s really an everyday man. He likes coming out, he’s engaging, self-deprecating, and I think that helps make a connection with people in Iowa.”
Those supporting other candidates, such as Mr DeSantis and Ms Haley, often expressed a desire for something new. Many said they wanted a change in tone or a fresh start after a long period where Mr Trump has never been far from the headlines.
Ronald Forsell, 34, a lifelong Republican based in Dallas County, in the centre of the state, said Ms Haley represented a chance for the Republican Party to hit the reset button.
“We need to get out of this sort of era that’s just dominated by what somebody tweeted, or grievances,” he said.
“It just feels like the last six, eight years we’ve been moving from one crisis to another and I just think that she presents an opportunity, an ability to really have substantive discussions about issues.”
“I think she’ll be able to bring a lot of people back to the Republican Party who have just been turned off the last couple of years.”
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Jennifer Turner, 41, from Urbandale is a Ron DeSantis supporter.
She said she admired what Mr DeSantis had done in Florida, including his opposition to Covid lockdowns and ban on the teaching of gender identity in schools.
“Donald Trump would have been my other candidate, but all he focuses on is what he did. I don’t hear about what he’s going to do or how he’s going to accomplish it,” she said.
“A lot of grassroots people were huge Trump supporters. But I’m seeing them jump ship,” she said. “Some people that I never believed would leave Donald Trump are saying they’re off that wagon.”
Other Iowan Republicans made clear that their eyes are already firmly locked on November – when their candidate will almost certainly face President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the general election.
Mary Weston, 23, lives in Linn County in the eastern side of the state. She said she would vote for one of Mr Trump, Ms Haley or Mr DeSantis but mostly wanted to caucus for the candidate with the best chance of beating Mr Biden.
Whomever won, she would support them “1,000%”. But Ms Weston made clear she felt it would not be an easy task for the Republican Party to stitch together a broad coalition of voters at the national level in order to win the White House.
“I think it’s going to take a bit more effort to sway the moderates and independents and libertarians. I think they have to work hard to do that,” Ms Weston said.
“That will be the only way Republicans can win.”
Additional reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr and Holly Honderich in Iowa