POLITICS

There’s No Good Reason Trump Should Lose Iowa. But He Probably Will.

The state is filled with would-be Trump voters. But thanks to Clinton's ground game advantage, that might not matter.
Iowa's demographics favor GOP nominee Donald Trump, but recent polls show him narrowly trailing Hillary Clinton.
Iowa's demographics favor GOP nominee Donald Trump, but recent polls show him narrowly trailing Hillary Clinton.

ORANGE CITY, Iowa – In a county where just 11 percent of Republicans supported Donald Trump in the caucuses this winter, a table full of voters is nevertheless getting behind him for November.

It’s not because those in this deeply religious corner of the state have changed their minds about him. It’s just that the alternative is even worse.

“I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton over my dead body,” said one woman, speaking, as did her tablemates at the Dutch Bakery coffee shop, on the condition her name not be used.

“I guess he’s the lesser of two evils,” her friend sitting across the table said about the developer-turned-reality TV star.

“I’m going to hold my nose and vote for him,” said a retiree who had backed retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the primaries, even donating to his campaign.

Retired farmer Jim Olinger, a rare Democrat from the area, could only shake his head. “If Charles Manson were running on the Republican ticket in northwest Iowa, he’d get elected,” he said.

If Charles Manson were running on the Republican ticket in northwest Iowa, he’d get elected

Fortunately for Olinger, and unfortunately for Trump, even the Dutch Bakery klatch’s solidarity may not be enough in one of the few states President Barack Obama carried in 2012 that Trump has a realistic chance of flipping this autumn. Around the corner from the retirees’ afternoon gathering spot is the investment office of county GOP Chairman Mark Lundberg, who estimates that while Trump will get the vote of the overwhelming majority of Sioux County’s 15,000 Republicans, he likely won’t receive the level of support George W. Bush did in 2004 – the last time Iowa went for a Republican in a presidential election.

“This is like the Bible Belt of Iowa,” said Lundberg. The second President Bush, an outspoken evangelical Christian, was an easy fit for the area. Lundberg said 2008 GOP nominee John McCain won 90 percent of the Republican votes Bush had won, while 2012 nominee Mitt Romney got only 85 percent, largely because some viewed his Mormon faith with suspicion.

It’s not that those voters went to Obama either of those times. They simply didn’t cast a ballot. Trump, with his three marriages and general vulgarity, will perform somewhere between McCain and Romney, Lundberg estimates, thereby leaving thousands of Republican votes from Iowa’s most conservative region on the table.

If that Republican voter who cannot come around for Trump has a face, it belongs to Katie Adame, a 27-year-old sales representative for the local Hampton Inn. Filling up her black Kia Forte at a Sinclair station on the road to her home in Le Mars, she said that while she agrees with some of Trump’s views, she will not be voting for him.

“Too loud-mouthed,” Adame said. “In a president, that’s just not so good.”

Why Trump’s Failing In This Key State

With Trump in danger of losing Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, what happens in Iowa may not wind up mattering in November. Clinton could win the White House by a large margin while still losing the state, particularly if she picks up North Carolina, Arizona or Georgia – all of which have more electoral votes than Iowa’s six.

The state nonetheless represents perhaps the best pickup opportunity for Trump among those states carried by Obama four years ago. It has both a tiny percentage of non-white residents – 8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – as well as some of the lowest educational attainment levels among its white population: Twenty-eight percent of white Iowa residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, 6 points below the national average.

Trump has done best with white voters who lack a college education. That makes Iowa a better fit for him than Virginia and Colorado, where a significantly larger proportion of whites have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Despite this, an average of recent polls still shows Trump 2 points behind in Iowa. And a top GOP strategist thinks even that number may overstate Trump’s ultimate vote share because of how much more groundwork Clinton and the Democrats have done to turn out their supporters.

“I don’t think there’s time to catch up. This should have started months ago,” said David Kochel, a Des Moines-based consultant who ran Romney’s 2012 Iowa operation. “The Clinton campaign looks like Katie Ledecky in the 1,500. We look like the swimmer from the refugee team. We’re just way off the mark.”

The Clinton campaign looks like Katie Ledecky in the 1,500. We look like the swimmer from the refugee team. We’re just way off the mark. David Kochel, Iowa GOP consultant

The Trump campaign did not respond to queries about how many staff members it or the Republican National Committee – to which Trump has largely outsourced both his fundraising and voter turnout operations – has in Iowa. In the weeks leading up to the caucuses, Trump resisted adding field staff even though top advisers requested it.

Trump disliked spending money on his campaign when the bulk of it was coming out of his own pocket. He also expressed skepticism that field staff had much value, and largely continued his preferred method of staging large rallies and relying on publicity from TV coverage. Despite holding a lead in Iowa for weeks heading into voting, Trump wound up losing the state to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who invested heavily in finding and targeting his likeliest voters.

Yet Trump appears to have largely continued that model anyway, both nationally and in Iowa. According to one Iowa Democratic source, Trump and the RNC combined have 15 paid staffers in the state, while Clinton already has 25 field offices open. One Democratic-leaning Iowa newsletter put the Clinton paid staff in the state at between 42 and 60 in late July.

“What they’re putting together still falls short of where they need to be,” Kochel said of the Trump effort.

The Other Victims Of Trump’s Missing Ground Game

The lack of a field operation hurts not only Trump, but could also hamper other Republicans sharing the November ballot below him. And that’s in addition to whatever drag Trump’s poor favorability ratings could have on them already.

In that regard, the party is lucky in Iowa that its U.S. senator up for reelection this year is the immensely popular Charles Grassley, who is seeking his seventh six-year term. Grassley appeared at a recent Republican event in Des Moines with Trump ― his first common appearance with the nominee ― but said any future events will depend on how their respective schedules happen to line up.

“Every senator ― from the first day I ran for the Senate in 1980 ― we’ve got to run regardless of who’s running for president,” Grassley told The Huffington Post. “You run your own campaign.”

I was not a big fan of Romney, but he was my guy. I’m not an all-in subscriber to Trump, but he’s my guy. You get what you can take. That’s how politics are. There’s only been one perfect person, from my standpoint, to walk the Earth, and we don’t have that choice. Mark Lundberg, Sioux County Iowa GOP chairman

Even Iowa’s junior senator, freshman Joni Ernst, said any possible appearances with Trump were at the mercy of her own schedule over the next two months – despite the fact that she doesn’t face reelection for another four years.

“If he has events that I am able to work into my schedule, I am happy to do that,” Ernst said. “He does understand, though, that I am engaged in a 99-county tour, and when I already have events locked on, I can’t just leave my Iowans behind.”

Kochel said Iowa’s three Republican House members probably have it easier than those in many other states who are facing potentially competitive races because of Trump’s dismal standing with minorities and female college grads. “It’s really hard to say now what impact Trump has down-ballot,” Kochel said.

Back in the district of Rep. Steve King, the anti-immigration firebrand who is almost certain to win reelection easily, Sioux County Chairman Lundberg said the GOP congressional delegation has nothing to fear. In fact, Lundberg said the GOP has a decent chance of winning the state’s sole Democratic seat this fall because of Trump’s appeal to non-college voters who’ve seen manufacturing jobs dwindle in the state’s southeast quadrant along the Mississippi River.

“We have a better chance of picking up a seat than the Democrats do,” Lundberg said, adding that he hopes Republicans come around to supporting their presidential nominee, even if they don’t particularly like him.

“I was not a big fan of Romney, but he was my guy. I’m not an all-in subscriber to Trump, but he’s my guy,” Lundberg said. “You get what you can take. That’s how politics are. There’s only been one perfect person, from my standpoint, to walk the Earth, and we don’t have that choice.”

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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