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Nikki Haley Increasingly Confident in Second-Place Iowa Finish
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Nikki Haley Increasingly Confident in Second-Place Iowa Finish

Plus: How the changing Iowa caucuses have affected the mighty biofuel lobby.

Happy Friday! Good morning from Des Moines, where we’re writing to you from under a thick blanket of fresh snow. With temperatures in the teens today (and dropping), likely blizzard conditions thanks to winds expected to hit 45 miles an hour, the Iowa Department of Transportation urging people in areas east of Des Moines not to travel, and major interstates already closing due to accidents, it’s unclear what the weekend of last-minute campaigning is going to look like—but we’ll be here to keep you posted!

Up to Speed

  • With the Iowa caucuses just three days away, every remaining presidential candidate will be hitting the trail here this weekend, although how much those plans will be upended by a forecast of bitterly cold weather remains unknown. Nikki Haley opted to convert all her Friday events to tele-town halls; Ron DeSantis snuck in a quick early-morning event with Gov. Kim Reynolds before winds picked up too much, but has postponed a number of stops planned for later today. Vivek Ramaswamy, who has made braving dangerous weather to get to his events part of his campaign brand, said on social media he was moving forward with four events across the state. Donald Trump, who was in New York yesterday for the conclusion of his civil fraud trial, is scheduled to return to Iowa on Saturday.
  • Ron DeSantis on Thursday rallied supporters at a Jethro’s BBQ in Ames, Iowa, a college town north of the state capital, as he hustled to surpass increasingly diminishing expectations for his prospects in the caucuses. Watching DeSantis deliver his stump speech and take questions from raised hands in the crowd of a couple hundred, it was clear the past eight months have transformed the notoriously stiff and prickly politician into a more comfortable, fluid campaigner.
  • But is it too little, too late? The governor’s top supporters insist not, optimism they credit at least partly to an extensive voter turnout operation unrivaled by that of either Trump or Haley. “I believe on Monday night, this guy—Ron DeSantis—will shock the media, shock the nation, shock the world, win the Iowa caucuses,” Bob Vander Plaats said as he introduced the governor to the standing-room-only gathering in Ames. Vander Plaats, a top evangelical activist in the Hawkeye State who is backing DeSantis, has never endorsed a caucus loser.
  • Fresh New Hampshire polling shows Nikki Haley’s momentum possibly stalled in the Granite State, although she remains within striking distance of Donald Trump. In the new survey from St. Anselm College Survey Center at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Trump led Haley 45 percent to 31 percent, with a margin of error plus or minus 2.8 percentage points—virtually identical to the results from the same polling outfit last month. This new survey was conducted Monday and Tuesday, prior to Chris Christie exiting the presidential race. He garnered 9 percent in this poll, which, even if all of his support moved to Haley, would not be enough for her to surpass Trump. The New Hampshire primary is January 23.
  • Sen. Rand Paul revealed in a video posted on X, formerly Twitter … that he is not yet ready to endorse in the GOP presidential primary. But the Kentucky Republican said he has reached one conclusion about the race. “I’m not yet ready to make a decision, but I am ready to make a decision on someone I cannot support. So I’m announcing this morning that I’m Never Nikki,” he said. “I don’t think any informed or knowledgeable libertarian or conservative should support Nikki Haley.” Paul, who urged voters to visit “NeverNikki.net” suggested he was mulling endorsements of Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy, while mentioning he had met with independent presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Haley Eyes Upset Elimination of DeSantis in Iowa, Targets Trump

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters following a campaign event on January 11, 2024 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters following a campaign event on January 11, 2024 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

ANKENY, Iowa—Nikki Haley won’t say it out loud but the Republican contender now appears convinced second place in Monday’s presidential nominating caucuses is within reach—and her campaign, exuding confidence while managing expectations, is aiming to eliminate Ron DeSantis from contention here to create a clear shot at frontrunner Donald Trump in New Hampshire.

“So, get excited. Four days until caucus,” Haley told a midday crowd of more than 400 supporters and late-deciding voters who filled up a shiny new conference center in this bedroom community just north of Des Moines. “I trust you; I trust that you did your homework. I trust that you know where you want the country to go.”

Three days before the first votes of the 2024 Republican primary, the former South Carolina governor has pulled ahead of DeSantis in the RealClearPolitics Iowa polling average, leading the Florida governor 17 percent to 15 percent—and she is going for the jugular. 

SFA Inc., Haley’s supportive super PAC, was on track to spend more money in advertising down the stretch in Iowa than any similar group or campaign. The lion’s share of that investment is dedicated to attacking DeSantis.

Indeed, SFA Inc. overall has clocked more than $21 million in ads blitzing DeSantis, trailing expenditures against the Florida governor from Trump’s supportive super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., by just $2 million, according to Rob Pyers, a researcher with the California Target Book who tracks political spending. (Super PACs are prohibited by federal law from coordinating with campaigns, but they can certainly take their cues from them.)

In one television ad SFA Inc. is running in Iowa, the group calls DeSantis “phony … failing … too weak to win.” In a new spot put into the rotation Friday, SFA Inc. mocks DeSantis’ previous adulation of Trump, declaring: “America needs strength, not a suck up.” But it’s Haley’s latest broadside against DeSantis, one that she has been delivering personally, that reveals her campaign’s view of where this race stands with just days to go.

“How could you blow through $150 million in your campaign and you [went] down in the polls?” Haley asked incredulously during this week’s head-to-head CNN debate with DeSantis. “You’re invisible in New Hampshire; you’re invisible in South Carolina; you’re in fifth place; you’ve [spent] $150 million and you’ve gone down in the polls in Iowa.” (DeSantis is running fourth in the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polling.)

“The fact that he’s only running in one state is not the way you win,” Haley added. 

The former ambassador’s lengthy critique of DeSantis’ beleaguered campaign was framed as though it was intended to raise concerns about his ability to manage federal finances. But quietly, Republican operatives working to elect Haley explained to us that the real goal was to cast doubt about DeSantis’ ability to win the Republican nomination in a bid to depress his overall support and peel away any of his voters who prioritize blocking Trump.

If Haley’s strategy works, it’s unclear if DeSantis would respond to a third place finish in Iowa by exiting the 2024 contest.

But her top supporters are laying a foundation for that eventuality—if not in fact than by treating the race in New Hampshire as effectively boiled down to Trump versus Haley, regardless of whether DeSantis (and wealthy biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy) are still hanging around. Indeed, whereas in Iowa SFA Inc. is focused on the Florida governor, the television ad the group is currently airing in New Hampshire is a direct attack on the former president, and only the former president.

“Trump can’t stop lying about Nikki Haley, one temper tantrum after another. His entire campaign is based on revenge,” the spot’s voiceover says. “This is a two-person race.”

Team Haley’s approach might just yield results. But first she has to neutralize DeSantis in the Hawkeye State, and it was evident to us from conversations we had with likely caucusgoers in Ankeny that she still has some work to do. This growing community of more than 70,000 is a suburban stronghold where Haley must run up the score if she is to finish ahead of DeSantis on Monday.

“I’m leaning more toward DeSantis right now,” said Judy Seuferer, a Republican voter. “It’s DeSantis or Nikki.”

“It’s either between Nikki or DeSantis,” added Kelly Polich, a retired educator. Polich is trying to figure out if Haley is conservative enough for her on the issues of abortion and public education. “I’m worried about the pro-life issues, for sure, with her. I don’t know for sure if she’s that dedicated to pro-life, you know, if she would really protect the unborn.” 

Polich’s husband, David Polich, is impressed with Haley’s hawkish foreign policy, lately out of fashion with a significant portion of the GOP base. If he caucuses for the former U.N. ambassador, that issue will probably have closed the deal for him. But David Polich, too, has concerns about the depth of Haley’s conservatism on core concerns, such as public education. 

“I think DeSantis has a little better [position] on the schools, in my opinion,” he said.

Iowa Ethanol Keeps Strong Hold on GOP Candidates—For Now

ALTOONA, Iowa—Let no one accuse Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley of shirking the coalition-building work the idiosyncratic Iowa caucuses have historically demanded.

After all, here they both were Thursday at the Prairie Meadows casino in this suburb just east of Des Moines, come to attend the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit—the annual policy conference of the corn-into-fuel ethanol industry.

In her conference keynote speech, Emily Skor, the CEO of ethanol trade association Growth Energy, commended the candidates in attendance for their “detailed, nuanced agendas for expanding the bio-economy.”

Where those details and that nuance came from wasn’t exactly a secret. In introducing DeSantis, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has endorsed the Florida governor, applauded him as “the first candidate to check all boxes” for the political-pressure group backed by Iowa Renewable Fuels, Biofuels Vision 2024. (The group dispatches legions of ethanol enthusiasts to candidate campaign events across Iowa to get candidates on the record on where they stand on a number of industry priorities; both Haley and DeSantis received full marks.)

“We’ve been able to go talk with a lot of people [about] what could be helpful to be able to take the industry to the next level,” DeSantis said when he took the stage. “And I have checked all the boxes that they were looking for.”

Ethanol production across the Midwest has boomed since President George W. Bush signed a pair of laws requiring a certain amount of the fuel to be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply—and Iowa, with the outsize policy influence of its first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, has become the industry’s political enforcer.

But the industry sees storm clouds on the political horizon. Democrats’ abandonment this cycle of Iowa caucuses have reduced corn growers’ grip on the primary process from full nelson to half nelson. Industry insiders spoke in dark tones from the stage about President Joe Biden’s strategic path for renewable fuel development—a strategy predicated not on burning biofuels, but on electric vehicles.

“There is no better time to educate policy-makers than in a presidential election year,” Skor said. “Granted, this campaign season is like no other: Democrats are shuffling their primaries and Iowa is seeing fewer opportunities for the kind of retail politics that voters expect. But we’re not letting any of that get in our way. We are working to cultivate allies and maximize the number of officeholders who make firm commitments to Bioethanol.”

“And I’m confident they will continue supporting the bio-economy,” Skor added of Haley and DeSantis, “regardless of whether they capture their party’s nomination.”

This is ethanol’s other current political headache: Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump backs ethanol, but he hasn’t spelled out chapter-and-verse support for the industry’s priorities. With his mammoth lead, he hasn’t had to; with his rallies-over-town-halls campaigning style, they haven’t had as much of a chance to try and make him.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to him and his campaign staff who he talks to. So if we’re not gonna get the opportunity to ask those questions at those town halls, then this is the best we can say: He has talked strongly about growing biofuels and he likes to talk about his ethanol record,” Biofuels Vision 2024’s Wilson Hedderich told The Dispatch, adding that Trump’s first-term ethanol record had been a mixed bag. “I wouldn’t say he’s not a friend to ethanol, but he has not given our organization an opportunity to ask those questions.”

It’s a striking image of what’s become the central dynamic of this caucus season, which has really featured two completely different campaigns. On the one hand, you’ve had the bulk of the candidates running the traditional Iowa playbook: Hustling to dozens of events, meeting with and taking individual questions from countless voters, doing debates, snuggling up to key state interest groups, and generally courting the discrete universe of highly-engaged Iowans who see themselves as key players in the candidate-winnowing process. On the other hand, you’ve had Trump, who’s campaigned like Trump: not really bothering with all that and relying instead on his direct parasocial connection with his base to carry him forward.

Which strategy will carry the day? In just a couple days, we’ll find out.

Notable and Quotable 

“Well, he is a good guy. He’s just not Trump. What else can I say?”—Urbandale voter and Trump supporter Hud Lainson telling The Dispatch his thoughts on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, January 11, 2024

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.