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In Iowa, Trump Relies on MAGA Surrogates

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, seen here in New York on Jan. 11, 2024, is relying heavily on his brigade of disciples in Iowa. Credit - Getty Images—Michael M. Santiago

In the final days before the Iowa caucuses next Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are both embarking on a tried-and-true tactic: Barnstorming the state to meet and win over as many voters as possible.

Donald Trump? Not so much. While the former President recently participated in a Fox News Town Hall in Des Moines and plans to hold four virtual rallies over the weekend, it has fallen on MAGA World surrogates to engage in the kind of one-on-one voter interactions that are the lifeblood of Iowa politics.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Eric Trump all visited the Hawkeye State last week. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Donald Trump, Jr. each held events on Thursday where they kibitzed with voters and took selfies with fans. Arizona Senate candidate and Iowa native Kari Lake came to Des Moines on Friday to mobilize her fellow America First adherents. And 14 prominent MAGA Republicans—including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz—are holding a meet-and-greet with voters on Monday.

The brigade of Trump disciples are key to the former President’s Iowa ground game and show how Trump’s starpower has elevated him beyond mundane retail politics. They may also be a sign of how he plans to campaign over the coming year when he’s bogged down in four separate criminal cases against him.

That was the scenario on Thursday, when Trump was in a New York courtroom for the closing arguments of a $370 million civil fraud trial and he unleashed a barrage of attacks against the judge presiding over the case. “This is a fraud on me,” Trump said. More than 1,000 miles across the country, Trump’s on-the-ground campaigning was outsourced to proxies. Carson attended a faith event outside Cedar Rapids, and Trump's eldest son revved up an Urbandale crowd with punchlines and provocations. That same day, DeSantis held five events in Iowa and Haley had two.

It was a microcosm of a larger trend in the campaign cycle. Trump has held 25 events in Iowa since announcing his campaign in January 2023. During that same time period, DeSantis has held 136 and Haley 75, according to a Des Moines Register tracker.

“Trump has always played by a different set of rules,” says David Kochel, a veteran of Iowa Republican campaigns. “DeSantis goes to 99 counties. Trump goes to six counties, but people show up from 99 counties because they come from all over the place. DeSantis has to go to them. For Trump, they come to him.”

DeSantis has roughly a dozen campaign events scheduled statewide from Saturday until caucusing begins Monday night. Haley has eight. After a snowstorm hit the midwestern state overnight Friday, with wind chills below zero, Haley turned her three scheduled town halls that day into Zoom gatherings. The wintry weather has impacted all comers. Trump was planning on holding large in-person rallies over the weekend, but will now have them online.

Retail politics have always played an outsize role in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation nominating contest that has the power to shrink the field and reshape the contours of the race. Given Iowa’s small population and the nature of conducting caucuses instead of voters casting traditional ballots, it’s a state that rewards politicians with an endearing personal touch. And it often means that candidates have a chance to meet many of the individual voters who will decide their fate. Hence the old joke about the Iowa voter who's asked whether they will support a candidate: “I don’t know,” they say. “I only met them four or five times.”

DeSantis and Haley are going into overdrive to cover as much state territory as they can. The two are currently locked in a battle for second place. The current FiveThirtyEight average of polling has Trump with 51% of the vote, and Haley and DeSantis neck and neck: 17% to 16%. The aim for each campaign in Iowa is to have a convincing enough second place finish that they cement their status as Trump’s only obstacle to the nomination. That way, they surmise, they can consolidate enough Republicans in the coming months to put an end to Trump’s reign of the GOP.

DeSantis may have the most at stake in Iowa. He has wagered his primary strategy on winning the Hawkeye State and is polling poorly in the upcoming primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. “The delta between him and Trump needs to be smaller than the delta between him and Haley,” says Kochel. According to Steve Deace, the popular right-wing radio talk show host who endorsed DeSantis and campaigned with him Thursday night, the Florida governor needs to show that he’s “the clear alternative to Donald Trump in the race.”

For the Trump campaign, the objective is to have such a dominant win that it deprives either DeSantis or Haley of the oxygen for a sustained challenge. Trump campaign officials tell TIME they hope to beat the record for the largest margin of victory in Iowa caucus history—13 points—set by Bob Dole in 1988.

At the heart of Trump's Iowa effort is to ensure that his loyal base turns out for him during what is expected to be one of the coldest nights in Iowa caucus history. Trump’s team has been pursuing that endgame through a one-two-punch of having Trump hold large rallies while his surrogates—many of whom have risen in popularity through the conservative media ecosystem that Trump helped to create—meet with voters at smaller, more intimate gatherings.

For some, it’s working. Philip Hansen, 77, says he’s seen Trump before but appreciated the opportunity to listen to Trump Jr. at an Urbandale restaurant on Thursday. “I’ve never seen Donald Trump’s son before,” the retired open road trucker says. “This is the first time I get to see him.” Hansen says he caucused for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again on Monday night.

Contact us at letters@time.com.