DAVENPORT, Iowa — Months of tenacious politicking on the campaign trail has culminated in a high-stakes clash between Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley to be the No. 1 alternative to Donald Trump.
The Post spoke to dozens of DeSantis and Haley voters across the first-in-the-nation state in the week leading up to the Jan. 15 caucus.
Trump continues to be the GOP frontrunner in the polls, but those attending DeSantis and Haley campaign events tend to see themselves as lifelong Republicans who are fed up with Trump’s “chaos” and are looking for a candidate to beat President Biden.
Some say both DeSantis and Haley are viable options, and many voters say they are waiting until caucus day to decide their ultimate position and will vote strategically at the polls.
Those who lean one way or another cite the following reasons:
The DeSantis voter
Voters who say they will likely vote for the Florida governor often mention his successful gubernatorial record, followed by his pro-life policies and his family image.
His support in the state is also backed by his endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and some voters say DeSantis’ commitment to hitting all 99 counties plays a part in how they perceive him.
Brett Altman, the CEO of a local hospital in Atlantic, Iowa, said he’s committed to DeSantis largely due to Reynolds’ endorsement and his “impressive” public image.
“His wife Casey first impressed me. He impresses me and our governor endorses DeSantis. I have a personal and professional relationship with our governor and have respect for her,” Altman told The Post. “He’s had a similar track record in Florida to what Governor Reynolds has had in Iowa. They’re a young family with young kids and they want what’s best for their kinds and all of us in America.”
Buffy and Ian Barrs, two Iowa voters who attended DeSantis’ event in Atlantic, Iowa, said they weren’t 100% set on the governor but appreciated his pro-life policies. They also were looking for the best Trump alternative.
Ian Barrs, who is a Republican, said he’s “leaning” DeSantis due to “policy” and “pragmatic” reasons.
He believes DeSantis “has a higher chance in winning” compared to Haley, and likes what he’s done in Florida.
“I think he would probably be an effective ‘small c’ Conservative president. I am not as conservative as some of my friends. I tend to be more pragmatic on a lot of issues. But there are certain issues that are very important to me: the rule of law, the expansion of federal executive power… and sanctity of life issues,” he added, arguing Haley is trying to “juggle” her views on abortion.
“I am not set on voting for DeSantis, but definitely not Trump,” Buffy Barrs said. “Honestly, I may just end up voting for someone strategically, just seeing where my particular area is voting.”
Another Iowa voter at the Atlantic event said he was tired of Trump, and that DeSantis could deliver a lot of the same policies “without the noise.”
“I’m just tired of the division in the country all the time, and don’t think that I want to watch what happened the last four years. I think Governor DeSantis is the type of candidate I want and represents my values the most,” the voter said, noting what DeSantis has done in Florida.
According to the latest Iowa poll, DeSantis is polling in third at 16% behind Haley (20%) and Trump (48%).
The Haley voter
Likely caucusgoers who favor the former UN ambassador often cite her experience with foreign policy and her support of Ukraine and Israel.
Haley is the most hawkish candidate in the GOP race, as others, like DeSantis, have embraced a more “America First” stance.
John Weihs, 58, and a precinct captain from Hudson, favors Haley over DeSantis because of her international experience and he feels that the Florida governor “tosses bull—t red meat.”
“[DeSantis] saying that’s a regional dispute is totally naive naivete. And I think Nikki’s got it right. Peace through strength, and no giving cash to anybody,” Weihs said.
Others are betting on Haley over DeSantis because they believe she has the best chance of winning.
“I think she has a real chance. She’s a great candidate. I think if she gets the nomination, she’ll blow any Democrat out of the water,” Edward Wildanger, 70, from Iowa City said.
“I would be happy with [DeSantis] too. But I don’t think he has as much potential for winning the national nomination as Nikki Haley does.”
Jeff Sell, 62, from Cedar Rapids backed Trump in the past and is between Haley and the 45th president. However, Haley’s event on Saturday in Cedar Rapids had him thinking.
“I keep thinking Trump’s gonna be a four-year revenge tour and I can’t have that,” he said. “I need to have an eight-year president.”
Philip Herman, a lifelong Republican voter who can’t handle the “chaos” of Trump anymore, is 90% certain he will vote for Haley.
“I had it narrowed down between DeSantis and Haley, and I’ve seen them both live and I think she understands foreign policy better, Herman told The Post at a Haley event stop in Ankeny.
“For me, that’s the deciding factor. I think both of them would be great. I think both of them could lead. I’ve seen their work as governors, but foreign policy, to get that right, is really important right now.”
Vince Newendorp voted for Trump in the past but now sees him as too “divisive” and filled with baggage for the future.
To him, Haley is “very impressive,” and DeSantis will “have to pull out all the stops” before Monday to convince him otherwise.
“I appreciate almost everything that she said. I appreciate her honesty, her authenticity, her transparency. I appreciate that she wants to communicate with us,” Newendorp said. “I was 50/50 before I came in here today between DeSantis. I’m going to see Ron tomorrow, but he’s going to have to pull out all the stops because I’m very impressed.”
Jack Nolin, a first-time voter at a DeSantis event in Ames, said he was “split” between DeSantis and Haley, and that foreign policy would be the decider.
“I’m still split between DeSantis and Nikki Haley, and I wonder if this will win me over. I’m a big national security guy, so funding to Ukraine, funding to Israel,” Nolin said.
Both Haley and DeSantis are sprinting to garner enough “momentum” to carry them through to New Hampshire and beyond.
Their allies hope that once they hypothetically knock off the other candidate and graduate to a one-on-one with Trump they can puncture through the former president’s toehold on the nod.