Get Ready For the Final Debate Before Iowa

Happy Wednesday! Andrew and David are off to beautiful, balmy, zero-degree Iowa this morning—spare a thought for us and our coddled East-Coast constitutions as we do our best to keep all our toes.

Up to Speed

  • President Joe Biden followed up his weekend Valley Forge speech with a campaign stop in South Carolina Monday, taking to the pulpit of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME church, where nine parishioners were massacred in 2015 by a white man who said he hoped to spark a race war. “The word of God was pierced by bullets of hate and rage propelled by not just gunpowder, but by a poison,” Biden said. “And what is that poison? White supremacy.” Biden also continued his recent attacks on Trump as an enemy of American democracy itself, needling him as “a loser” in 2020. 
  • Both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis held primetime Fox News town halls in Iowa this week, with Haley taking the stage Monday night and DeSantis following on Tuesday. The two will face off tonight in a debate in Des Moines, airing on CNN. Donald Trump, who has blown off all the Republican debates, will hold his own Fox News town hall concurrently.
  • As the candidates jockey for position in Iowa, Haley continues to eat into Trump’s lead in the next state to go, New Hampshire. The most recent CNN poll there was her best of the cycle, with Trump down to 39 percent in the Granite State and Haley hot on his heels at 32 percent. Trump leads Haley by 14 points, 43-29, in RealClearPoliticspolling average of the state, with Chris Christie at 12 percent and Ron DeSantis down to 6 percent. 
  • As Haley has surged, Trump has continued to step up his attacks on the former governor this week. On Monday, he took to social media to promote an article from the conspiracy-theory site The Gateway Pundit arguing that Haley was constitutionally ineligible for president since “her parents were not U.S. citizens at the time of her birth in 1972.” Haley became the fourth politician about whom Trump has made such erroneous attacks: After famously promoting the “birther” conspiracy against Barack Obama ahead of the 2008 election, Trump went on to argue at various points that Ted Cruz and Kamala Harris were both ineligible for the presidency because of supposed questions about their citizenship.

Iowa Debate Tonight: DeSantis and Haley Jockey for Second

Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama on December 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama on December 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Republican voters will be able to tune in to CNN tonight to witness an unusual event: a GOP presidential primary debate that may actually matter.

Only two candidates will be taking the stage at Drake University in Des Moines ahead of Monday’s caucus: Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. With Trump lightyears ahead in the Iowa polls—52.3 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average—neither candidate seems likely to catch him in the few short days remaining before Iowans make their decision. But both Haley (16.3 percent) and DeSantis (16 percent) are straining to notch the second-place finish that would position them as the standard-bearer for Trump-skeptical voters to unite behind at last.

DeSantis has continued to take shots at Trump, but Haley’s late surge has forced him to focus on defense after a year of consistently polling as the runner-up both in Iowa and nationally. His closing-pitch TV ad, which will run on Iowa screens through caucus day, spotlights Haley’s recent campaign-trail quip that New Hampshire voters will “correct” the Iowa results. “Haley disparages the caucuses and insults you,” the narrator intones. “It’s Ron DeSantis who embodies and defends Iowa’s values of faith, family, and freedom.”

Since Haley’s early-campaign strategy focused primarily on New Hampshire, she’s benefitted from lower expectations in Iowa, a state DeSantis bet heavily on winning outright. (DeSantis allies point out that this narrative may be a bit stale, since Haley has since poured major resources into Iowa and will close out the caucus as the biggest advertising spender there.)

Haley hit DeSantis and Trump in roughly the same tone at Iowa events this week, accusing both of lying about her record and occasionally lumping them together, as in a comment about abortion policy during her Monday night Fox News town hall: “The fellas just don’t know how to talk about it.”

Her super PAC, SFA Inc., has been a different story. For nearly a year now, it has forged ahead with the single mission of slagging DeSantis. “Phony and failing. A weaker nominee than Trump,” one recent ad sneered. “Ron DeSantis: Too lame to lead, too weak to win.”

We can expect plenty of attacks to fly between the two candidates during their head-to-head faceoff tonight, but it’s likely the showdown will also offer some of the most illuminating policy conversations we’ve seen on the debate stage so far this year. 

DeSantis and Haley have taken notably different stances on a number of important issues this year. There’s foreign policy: Haley supports ongoing U.S. aid to Ukraine, while DeSantis opposes it. There’s Social Security, which Haley has suggested must be gradually reformed to keep solvent but DeSantis has pledged not to touch. And there’s abortion, where the difference is more one of tone and emphasis. DeSantis has pledged to support a 15-week national ban with some exceptions. Haley has said she’ll sign any bill “that can pass,” but she’s suggested a 15-week ban wouldn’t meet that threshold in the current Congress and that Republicans would be better off focusing on more broadly popular measures like a possible late-term ban and conscience protections for pro-life doctors. 

Both candidates have fielded widely-viewed questions on all these topics in Fox News town halls aired this week, so there’s plenty of new material to fight over. It’s the last primetime opportunity for Iowa’s remaining undecideds to make up their minds; the race for second could very well be decided tonight.

‘Cold Outbreak’ Poised to influence of Iowa Caucus

Voter turnout for Iowa’s quadrennial Republican presidential nominating caucus could take a hit thanks to the bone-chilling cold expected across the state Monday evening, throwing some uncertainty into a contest that has favored Donald Trump from Day One.

Unlike a traditional primary election, which holds voting throughout the day, a caucus occurs during specific hours—in this case, beginning after dark at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time. And local meteorologists say it’s going to be cold—cold cold, as in 10 degrees below zero, with wind chills as low as minus 30. Meteorologists say this is the sort of extreme weather that might cause even hearty Iowans—no strangers to a deep Midwestern freeze—to stay home on caucus night.

“People are less likely to venture out into the cold, especially the elderly and those who may have to walk to caucus sites,” Jan Ryherd, a meteorologist with KCRG television in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told The Dispatch Tuesday in an email exchange. “Even those who have vehicles may simply be less willing to voluntarily leave the warmth of work or home. Those that are willing to may still find car troubles hold them back (battery issues).”

Ryherd said the winter in Iowa has been unseasonably mild until now, emphasizing this is the first “cold outbreak” of the season. As such, it could be jarring for some voters who are otherwise caucus veterans, not to mention first-timers. “Frostbite can happen in less than 30 minutes with wind chills in the -20s,” she said. “All things considered, I’d absolutely expect the cold to play a role in turnout, or lack thereof, on Monday, to at least some extent, unfortunately.”

Iowa Republicans concede the cold might keep some voters away. But they are optimistic turnout will be robust, saying their voters are used to challenging weather conditions and won’t be discouraged from showing up to their local caucus site. (There are roughly 1,700 across the Hawkeye State.) 

In any event, the Iowa GOP planned for this, spokesman Kush Desai said in an emailed statement.

“From the very beginning of the caucus-to-convention planning process, the Republican Party of Iowa has underscored to our county parties who are tasked with identifying and securing caucus locations the importance of providing a convenient and comfortable caucus process for their caucus-goers,” he said.

So, what does all of this mean for the final tally? “It may depress turnout among some marginal voters but not in a way I think might affect the overall outcome,” neutral Republican operative and Iowa caucus veteran David Kochel said.

Our sources say Trump remains on track to finish first—cold or no cold. But the forbidding weather puts extra emphasis on what’s already a crucial part of Iowa campaigning in particular due to the unusual nature of the caucus process: campaign organization. 

In that regard, Trump and DeSantis have an edge over Haley, Iowa Republican insiders tell us. Both the former president and the Florida governor have operations poised to phone-bank to remind supporters to vote, and transportation networks prepared to ferry them to caucus sites if necessary. The Trump campaign even worked closely with the county parties to choose sites with “ample parking” to reduce the prospect of voters having to park far away and walk.

Haley, meanwhile, is relying on the grassroots muscle of Americans For Prosperity Action. The group, affiliated with the Koch political network, endorsed the South Carolinian in late November. Comparatively, the Trump campaign has been organizing in Iowa for many months, as has DeSantis through his supportive super PAC Never Back Down. 

Incidentally, Never Back Down told The Dispatch in the fall that it estimated more than 216,500 Iowans could participate in the caucus, which would eclipse turnout in the 2016 contest by approximately 30,000. We’ll see whether that prediction holds up amid all the icicles.

Notable and Quotable 

“Sometimes, if you build it, they don’t come.”  

—Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota to reporters after no voters showed up for a Manchester, New Hampshire, event for his presidential campaign, January 9, 2024
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