It’s Beginning to Dawn on Trump That Iowa Matters

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Karl Rove headlined “Iowa Could Open Up the 2024 GOP Primary”:

It’s beginning to dawn on Donald Trump that Iowa matters.

Until now it looked as if the former president was devoting more time to meeting with lawyers than engaging with voters, so his recent burst of activity in the Hawkeye State is revealing. His notoriously cheap campaign dropped $700,000 on Iowa TV last week. He finally hired a director to oversee his Iowa ground game. On Wednesday he stopped in Maquoketa and Dubuque, and he vows to return to the state four times in October. That means that over the next six weeks he’ll spend about as many days in Iowa as he has over the past nine months.

Team Trump appears to have realized that Iowa could end the GOP nomination or set up a long battle akin to what the Democrats went through in 1984. Before voting started that year, front-runner Walter Mondale, a former vice president, was way ahead. In the last Gallup survey of Iowans before they voted, Mondale scored 49% to 13% each for Jesse Jackson and Ohio Sen. John Glenn. Five percent went for South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and 3% for both Sens. Alan Cranston of California and Gary Hart of Colorado.

When Hawkeye Democrats caucused Feb. 20, Mondale won his 49%, but Mr. Hart finished a surprising second with 16%. Propelled by fawning coverage and aided by a well-organized New Hampshire apparatus, the Coloradan scored a 10-point victory in the Granite State primary eight days later. Mondale’s hold on the nomination suddenly was shaky.

The Minnesotan went on the offense, attacking Mr. Hart in a March 11 debate for his vacuous platform: “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” Still Mr. Hart won 24 more contests and the race wasn’t settled until June 5, when Mondale won enough delegates in New Jersey and West Virginia to clinch the nomination with only 22 delegates to spare. A campaign that looked invincible before voting began nearly collapsed when things didn’t pan out as predicted. It could happen again, and Mr. Trump’s recent Iowa moves shows his campaign knows it.

Mr. Trump’s insistence that his victory is inevitable makes a Mondale scenario more likely. The higher he raises expectations, the easier it will be for his performance to disappoint. Mondale’s performance in Iowa matched the polls, but Mr. Hart’s sudden jump was enough to shake public confidence.

This is particularly important in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the former president is running below his national number. Rivals claim their early-state polls show him in the mid-30s to the low 40s, compared with 58.8% in the RealClearPolitics national average. That’s because voters in early states are paying more attention than Republicans elsewhere and are seeing more of Mr. Trump’s competitors. It isn’t wise for Team Trump to keep claiming that “even the most conservative polls” in Iowa have him more than 24 points ahead of anyone else. What if he polls lower next year?

Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to like retail campaigning. He breezed in and out of the state fair Aug. 12 while other contenders spent hours and hours there. He prefers rallies of frenzied fans. Doors open two hours early and people are told to show up 90 minutes before he speaks. Taking no questions, his speeches are part ramble, part rant. It’s entertaining—or at least once was—but is it effective?

Mr. Trump’s competitors, unburdened by multiple criminal indictments, are making up in their volume of appearances in early states what Mr. Trump gets with his infrequent rallies. Last Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had six events in Iowa while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had eight stops there across Friday and Saturday.

Nor has Mr. Trump helped himself with his narcissistic insistence on full fealty. He wants political figures to fawn over him. If they don’t, he can turn on them, as when he attacked the popular Govs. Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

Then there’s his claim Sunday that “both sides” will be happy for him to mediate an abortion compromise. Understanding that the National Abortion Rights Action League won’t ever support limits, pro-lifers instead want a president who will work with the American people to fashion a consensus on reasonable restrictions.

Today, the former president has a big lead in national GOP primary polls. But beware: Republican primary voters don’t like being taken for granted. Right now that’s what Mr. Trump and his team are doing. Voters know how to register their unhappiness.

Karl Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is author of “The Triumph of William McKinley”

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