© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

They Failed To Convince Their Iowa Neighbors To Ditch Trump. What Did They Learn?

The precinct captains for the Iowa caucuses’ losing campaigns have a lesson for anyone trying to take down Trump: He’s still the center of everything.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night party in Des Moines, Iowa. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

MARQUISVILLE, Iowa — Cyndee Davis made her final case against Donald Trump on Monday in front of a high school stage decked with signs for Ron DeSantis and adorned with a nutcracker holding an American flag.

“I was a Trumper for eight years. He’s not the same man that he once was. He has backtracked,” Davis, the county Republican leading the night’s proceedings and precinct captain for the Florida governor, said in a short speech before the balloting began in this Des Moines suburb. “He didn’t drain the swamp in the four years he had. DeSantis is going to do it in eight — or four!”

Trump was declared the victor of the Iowa caucuses by a giant margin before some Iowans even had a chance to vote. When counting finished at Davis’ precinct, Trump won 52 to DeSantis’ 39 handwritten ballots.

There’s a lot to be said for ignoring all of this. Turnout for Iowa’s quixotic caucus system is always tiny; the state population is not remotely reflective of the U.S.; it rarely picks eventual nomination winners; and the process for voting is about as difficult as participating in American democracy possibly can be. In 2024, it meant braving temperatures in the negative 20s on the evening of a federal holiday.

But speeches like Davis’, delivered by the swag-bedecked super volunteers known as captains, are Iowa’s One Thing. They are the culmination of a process that at its best is about neighbors talking to neighbors about who would make a good president. Or more importantly, this time, who would not.

Two hundred miles, give or take, to the northwest of Davis’ caucus site, Ben Parsons cautiously stepped up to a lectern in a massive hotel ballroom in Okoboji. In front of more than 800 of his neighbors, he read a speech Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign had trained him on in a recent Zoom session.

“They will not let Donald J. Trump win the White House again,” Parsons said, wearing a T-shirt that read: “Save Trump, vote Vivek.”

And another 195 miles south of there, Carmine Boal, a captain for ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, tried a different take.

“While I believe [Trump] is a great president for the time that he served, it’s time to move on,” she said, speaking third at the Ankeny Baptist Church caucus. “There’s a lot of chaos following him. And I have grown weary of it.”

The lessons learned by these volunteer activists will resonate across the Republican primary long after the non-Iowans here shift their attention to New Hampshire and never think about any of this again (likely within seconds of the caucus results being called).

These are lessons about Republicans and what moves them. What the precinct captains learned is there’s no ignoring Trump, no dancing around Trump, no respectfully setting him aside and distracting a neighbor with a shiny new and relatively baggage-free candidate.

This may seem extremely obvious in the wake of Trump’s Iowa win, but it’s not how the conversation here began. Back then, the professionals rolled in with the standard talk of Republican electorate “lanes” and the need for high-profile endorsements. Up through the last debate, which just a week ago pit Haley against DeSantis on a stage that the front-runner skipped, much of the conversation was about what the two Republicans thought about each other, not about Trump.

The plugged-in, idealistic Iowans who tried to stop Trump on Monday night have had a different experience. They’ve spent months talking with their friends and neighbors about just one guy. Either Trump is the only way forward for conservative politics or he’s the only thing holding conservative politics back. That was the argument. The other candidates were bit players.

What the captains learned, and what the remaining candidates themselves haven’t yet internalized, is there’s no use pretending otherwise: Trump is the first and last word on everything. Trump is what moves Republicans.

Election 2024 Trump
Caucus goers and Vivek Ramaswamy listen as Trump speaks at a caucus site in Clive, Iowa. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Ben Parsons’ job is to steer people away from the wrong turns of life and back onto the road toward happiness. In his day job, that means working as an independent contractor for Children & Families of Iowa, an organization that helps connect parents with drug treatment and works with state agencies to guide families broken up by drugs through the foster care and family court systems. He’s a recovering addict who can tick off the easily abused pharmaceuticals that poured into his community and conned so many people with promises of easy paths out of desperation. He speaks with ease and compassion about how hard it is to give up something that makes life more fun. For a little while, anyway.

On Monday night, trying to steer people away from choices he thinks will doom them was also Parsons’ hobby. It was his first time participating in Iowa’s quirky process and he picked a doozy. All of the caucusing in Dickinson County — a deep red span on the border with Minnesota in Iowa’s northwest — took place at the Arrowwood Resort, a tourist hotel on the edge of a golf course in Okoboji. Twelve precincts held votes under one roof. Parsons’ volunteer responsibility was to convince hundreds of his fellow Iowans that Trump was now an obstacle to the revolution he started and that only Ramaswamy could keep the dream alive.

The vision started to come together five months or so ago when Parsons, a two-time Obama voter and two-time Trump voter, turned his attention to 2024. He quickly became focused on Ramaswamy’s unlikely bid, which Parsons said was the only way for MAGA-ism to continue. The “deep state” is simply too powerful for Trump to defeat it a second time, he said.

“I think they’re going to absolutely try everything possible to not get him on the ballot somehow,” he said at a Ramaswamy event the Friday before the caucuses, echoing the campaign message. But Parsons has a darker spin on the idea.

“It could be even a very morbid way, too,” he added, going there. “You never know. I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m sure everybody’s headhunting for Trump.”

Ramaswamy is Trump without the court dates, Parsons reasoned. It started to excite him. “A vote for Vivek is also a vote for Trump,” he said. “It really is, because they do back a lot of the same stuff.”

Parsons is one of those Republican voters who doesn’t trust many other Republicans. Haley is a “plant,” he said, by the same “deep state” crowd that’s going after Trump. Other candidates may have been cool once, he said, but they’ve been pressed into a donor-shaped mold as the campaign has gone on.

He tried to spread this vision. But even before Trump turned his fire on Ramaswamy — as he finally did on the night before the caucus after months of giving tacit support — Parsons said his dream of a Trumpless Trumpism was not finding many buyers.

“People — a lot of people — you know, they just say, ‘It’s Trump all the way,’” he said of his discussions with fellow Iowans throughout the campaign.

After Parsons’ speech and his months of efforts, Ramaswamy came up with only 11% of the vote in Dickinson County. Hours later, he would end his campaign. Standing in the emptying ballroom, Parsons was disappointed but not surprised.

“I do think that they are a little bit addicted to him,” he said of his neighbors’ fealty to Trump, who won the county with 52% of the votes cast. “Because it was so good when Trump was in office. We knew that was going to be the issue.”

He couldn’t come up with any advice for the next Ben Parsons in New Hampshire or South Carolina who is trying to save Trumpism from Trump. The Ramaswamy message just makes sense, he said, expressing a hope that his candidate sticks around with an independent bid in case (morbid reasons or otherwise) a replacement for Trump needs to be found. Until then, Parsons said, Trump voters probably can’t be swayed.

“In addiction, too much of anything can be a bad thing,” Parsons said.

Election 2024 Haley
A campaign worker prepares for a Nikki Haley event outside Drake Diner in Des Moines. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

In Ankeny, Carmine Boal — a retired state legislator who started the group Northside Conservatives in 2020 to try to counter Democratic wins — and her husband, Steve, spent months rallying their friends to put their support behind Haley. The Boals said they’re over Trump’s drama and chaos. “I don’t like his style” or his “name-calling,” Carmine Boal said in an interview on Sunday.

What did Trump in for her? “I’d say it’s a million small things,” she said.

She and her husband decided they had to do something to keep Trump from walking away with the nomination, or at least try. “We just couldn’t sit back,” Boal said. “And, you know, we saw what happened in 2016. Nobody did anything. And he got it.”

The Boals made up their minds to support Haley after going to a campaign event last October. Carmine Boal joined a group of 72 prominent Iowa Republican politicians and political operatives to publicly endorse Haley, and decided that she would take on the task of speaking at the caucus.

Monday night, once the secret ballots were collected in large plastic bowls and then counted, re-counted and re-recounted again on a folding table in the lobby of the church, the results were read loud and clear: 92 votes for DeSantis, making him the winner of this location; 71 votes for Trump; 53 votes for Haley; 16 for Ramaswamy; and just one for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

While Boal said she wasn’t surprised by the results, she didn’t think Trump would be so dominant in her community.

“Even though the polls show that Donald Trump is leading in the polls, I didn’t think that would be true in this precinct,” Boal said 10 minutes after the results were announced. “This precinct likes people who are established Republicans.”

The precinct went for Marco Rubio in 2016, she said, so she wasn’t shocked by DeSantis winning. But the level of Trump support was a surprise.

“Even the lady who spoke for him tonight, I would have not guessed that she would have been a Trump supporter,” she said, referring to Trump’s caucus captain, who donned a white and gold hat. But ultimately, she said of Trump, “his people are dedicated.”

“I’m sorry that people want to stick with what we’ve already had,” Boal said.

Her message for those hoping to stop Trump? “I don’t think you can ever get your message out too strongly. We could always do more.”

Election 2024 Haley
Iowans caucus in Des Moines. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

On the Saturday before the caucuses, at the Iowa headquarters of the Never Back Down super PAC in West Des Moines, a new tune by country star Billy Dean rose over the speakers as DeSantis walked off the stage. The song is, not coincidentally, also called “Never Back Down,” and was written for the Florida governor, handily summarizing his culture war-heavy campaign approach.

“They shame us for our faith, our flag, our family … ” Amid the din was Cyndee Davis, the Marquisville DeSantis captain. She chatted with DeSantis’ mom, who was in town for what many were already speculating was the end of her son’s run for president.

Davis appeared unfazed by the hoard of reporters — trapped by the weather and desperate to find quotes within safe driving distances of their Des Moines hotels — nearly outnumbering the room’s DeSantis supporters and staff. She had been to more than a dozen DeSantis rallies.

Her argument for supporting someone other than Trump was different from the Boals’ and Parsons’. Davis’ take: Trump may have been fun once, but he’s not the same candidate. “They remember how Trump was — they haven’t seen him in action like those of us that have been involved in the election process,” she said.

She was horrified when Trump told Iowans, “We have to get over it and move forward” after a shooting at a Perry, Iowa, high school on Jan. 4.

“When a tragedy like that happens, when someone comes along and says, ‘Eh just get over it’ — he lost a lot of voters, I’m sure he did,” Davis said.

But her prediction didn’t pan out on Monday. Her husband, Gene Davis, a genial man who nicknamed himself Mean Gene to NOTUS, attributed Trump’s Iowa win to their neighbors’ focus on the past: “I think it’s a get-even type thing,” he said, referring to voters still agitated by 2020. “Too many people thought he was railroaded, that maybe he did win and we’re going to get even.”

Arguments that Trump’s base is driven by revenge — or that a vote for him is a vote against democracy, or that he’s too unpredictable and only in it for himself — aren’t new to the Trump supporters NOTUS spoke with ahead of an event scheduled to be hosted by the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, on the icy Monday hours before caucusing.

In fact, a few have heard direct pleas to change course.

The detractors “simply don’t believe that Donald Trump is cut out for the job even though he had a smashingly successful term,” Ron Krull said. “They just don’t think he’s right for the job. And that’s about all they can come up with.”

Asked about the argument that a vote for Trump is a vote for the past? “Oh, hell no!” Krull responded.

The argument that he’s too chaotic?

“All that chaos is put on him by the liberals, 100%,” said Lee Harris, another Trump voter. “As far as I’m concerned, Donald J. Trump has no baggage. None that wasn’t thrust upon him.”

Or that he’s flat-out just too mean?

“If you want a nice person to be president, they should have elected Governor Huckabee. He’s the nicest guy in politics and couldn’t get elected president,” said Kat Cunningham, referring to the former governor of Arkansas and erstwhile presidential candidate. “When you’re dealing with foreign countries, murderers, dictators, you think you can be a nice little guy? No.”

(Non-Trump backers strongly disagree with that sentiment; Davis, the DeSantis supporter, predicted that Trump would get the U.S. into a war.)

But even the Trump detractors at the Iowa caucuses mostly agree with their Trump-loving neighbors on one thing: Joe Biden is worse. Despite months of efforts against Trump here in Iowa, most said they’d vote for the ex-president come November if he’s the nominee.

“All that being said, whoever comes out on the final ballot that’s a Republican, that’s who I’m going to vote for,” said Davis, the ride-or-die supporter of DeSantis. “Biden has to get out.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS. Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.