CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Hawkeye State is on the verge of breaking the ice on the 2024 Republican presidential cycle with its caucuses Monday.
The party’s four main candidates have been bouncing between campaign events in the heartland of American politics ahead of the 2024 GOP kickoff event — and The Post was there over the past week to get a sense of the vibe among voters before Caucus Day.
Here are some observations from the ground — as well as a few critical lessons learned.
Don’t worry, those aren’t cops
It was unnerving to see random cars planted in median strips and off to the side of the road when getting around.
Rest assured, the vehicles weren’t part of police speed traps. Unfortunately, they belonged to unlucky drivers who had slipped off the slick roadways in the midst of Iowa’s brutal winter weather.
While driving all across Iowa, The Post observed hundreds of cars abandoned from the perilous winter conditions.
It underscored the daunting weather that awaits Iowans ahead of caucus night and served as a stark reminder about the consequences of underestimating Mother Nature’s winter fury.
Some of the voters The Post spoke with expressed concerns about braving the sub-zero weather Monday and were particularly nervous about elderly relatives doing it.
The Post learned the hard way why muscle cars were the cheapest rental option.
Venturing between campaign events in a cherry-red Dodge Charger seemed alluring, but after a while, the good old bungee cord trick to free it from the snow and pushing it out of parking lots became a Herculean task that lost its luster.
By the second blizzard, the rear-wheel drive Charger was promptly returned for a four-wheel drive pickup truck.
Some voters haven’t made their minds up yet
As of Saturday night, there were numerous voters The Post spoke with who were either undecided or soft on who they were ultimately going to back Monday.
Granted, this is from a sample of voters who were exploring different campaigns at this late stage of the game.
But it could have an impact on the pitched battle for second place given the discussion portion of the caucuses when these voters will deliberate the 2024 race with their neighbors.
Unlike typical elections held in most state primaries, Iowa has caucuses, or meetings run by political parties in communities in which each candidate’s group gives speeches to try to convince listeners to vote for their preferred candidate. Specific rules of these meetings vary from caucus to caucus.
Afterward, the voters cast their vote secretly, and the ballots are tallied up across the state, producing an overall winner.
Trump voters seem really, really locked in
Every viable poll has former President Donald Trump far ahead of his Republican foes.
Having attended multiple events from all four top campaigns, one thing that stood out is that Trump events seemed to feature almost exclusively Trump voters.
Meanwhile, the campaign events for the three other top candidates — Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy — generally had a mix of fervent supporters and Iowans who were simply sampling the various hopefuls.
At the Trump events, there were a lot of voters who didn’t seem to even really consider backing an alternative, let alone attend an event for one of the other three.
Conversely, the other three candidates seemed to draw a fair amount of people who had been mulling the four main options in addition to dug-in backers.
The vibe check
Some voters justified the candidate they supported by rattling through some policy positions and the many characteristics they sought.
But when The Post drilled down on why a given voter was backing one candidate over another, there were also a lot of lever-pullers who seemed to be listening carefully to their gut.
“There’s just something about DeSantis I just don’t like about him,” Chris Harris, 56, from Iowa City told The Post at a Haley event last week, struggling to put his finger on it.
“He’s just not right for me right now,” Harris said, noting “some edginess” to the struggling DeSantis that he doesn’t “care for.”
There were many similar responses from voters especially when pitting Florida’s governor, DeSantis, and Haley, former US ambassador to the UN, against one another.
As the candidates made their closing pitches to voters, many seemed to be going off the vibe.
All four top contenders bring dramatically different personalities to the campaign trail, and that seemed to loom large for some swaths of voters.
Vivek backers iffy on Trump
More than any other 2024 aspirant, biotech entrepreneur Ramaswamy has seemingly hewed the closest to Trump, both by being the most reticent to knock him and by aggressively pitching himself as the other “America First” candidate in the arena.
Given the overlap between the two, it would seem that many of the anti-Trump voters would choose between DeSantis or Haley.
Yet a surprising amount of Ramasway voters The Post spoke with in Iowa seemed to have notable reservations about Trump.
These concerns included a range of issues about the legal dramas surrounding Trump, his competence and his viability in a general election.
Voters think differently than the Beltway
It didn’t require a trip to Iowa to know that there’s a significant chasm between Republican voters and Beltway elites. But the fissure stood out nonetheless.
Most voters The Post spoke with seemed to have a decent grasp on big-picture news developments even if they weren’t living and breathing politics quite like DC’s prominent politicos and pundits.
And their perspectives would sometimes veer from conventional wisdom.
For example, there were some voters that were stuck between Haley and Trump, despite the very different personas of the two candidates.
Trump’s lean public schedule
Trump dispatched a lot of surrogates to do campaign work in Iowa for him. His stand-ins included Dr. Ben Carson, Arizona Senate contender Kari Lake and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green.
He held the least amount of campaign events in the homestretch of his rivals — by far.
And his voters didn’t seem to mind in the least.
As for his closest GOP rival, Haley, she has seemingly been increasingly on guard lately and refrained from publicly taking questions from voters as her position in the polls has risen.
Perhaps the hallmark of any campaign cycle is endlessly hearing the same talking points over and over again.
Candidates barnstormed Iowa and would just regurgitate a lot of the same canned lines — some more than others.
Voters were also asking a lot of questions that candidates had probably answered hundreds of times already.
Still, nearly all of the locals The Post engaged with seemed to take their responsibility to probe the candidates for the nation’s first contest very seriously.
The Iowa Caucus is set to get under way around 7 p.m. local time, or 8 p.m. in New York, on Monday.