As Republican 2024 primary ramps up, experts say Iowa has ‘never been more important’

(WASHINGTON) — The packed and growing GOP primary field is filled with big names, like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But to Iowa voter Kim Schmitt, the race feels wide open.

“There’s a lot of good people out there. We could talk all day about what we have now — like, 11 people running?” she said at former Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign launch in Des Moines last week. “That’s why we have the caucuses, so we can meet and hear each person, and Iowa will have that a few times, to meet and hear each candidate generally.”

Other Iowans echoed similar openness to ABC News in recent days, underscoring how the state’s crucial nominating contest early next year — and the press-the-flesh campaigning style Iowans expect and encourage — could loom even larger than in cycles past. Political observers said virtually every GOP candidate has much to gain or lose.

“I think the Iowa caucuses are always important. This year, I think they’re important times 10,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader and an influential Christian activist in the state.

Strategists said Trump needs to show he’s still king of his party; DeSantis — with many eyes watching how his culture-warrior ethos translates to connecting with voters, up close and personal — needs to show he can live up to the hype as the top Trump alternative and actually give the former president a run for his money; Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott need to show their faith-infused campaigns can connect with a heavily evangelical electorate; and lesser-known candidates looking to jumpstart their bids are hoping Iowa gives them the jolt it gave Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008.

“Starting in Iowa is just as important to Perry Johnson or Vivek [Ramaswamy] as it is to Donald Trump and to DeSantis, because all of them are starting here for different reasons,” said Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann, referencing two long shot candidates. “In the case of Trump, he wants to put his stamp of approval early. In the case of Vivek, what better place to get your name well known? It certainly isn’t going to be in Texas or California or New York.”

Several candidates are already signaling they view Iowa as paramount.

Pence announced his campaign there on Wednesday and is anticipated to visit all 99 counties and essentially camp out in the state, one adviser told ABC News. Meanwhile Ramaswamy has already held 43 events in Iowa. And Never Back Down, the main pro-DeSantis super PAC, has $100 million reserved for field operations across the country, including Iowa.

“We know the next Republican nominee for president and the next president of the United States will get their start right here in the Hawkeye State,” Pence said at his campaign launch in Des Moines.

To be sure, observers said candidates don’t have to win in Iowa — some past presidential nominees didn’t — and that coming somewhere near the top spot should maintain enough momentum to keep a campaign going.

But meeting or exceeding expectations can provide a major jolt, influencing which candidates make it to other states and which ones receive more media attention. And falling far behind can be “devastating,” said a former Iowa GOP operative, who like some other sources in this story asked not to be quoted by name.

“I’m a little biased because I’m an Iowan, and so I think we’re important in every cycle,” this person said. “Obviously, this year, it’s very unique because we have a former president running again against a lot of candidates. That’s something that we haven’t seen in a long time on the Republican side. So yeah, I think in many ways this is going to be one of the most consequential caucuses that we’ve seen in a long time.”

Nearly all of the dozen GOP strategists and activists who spoke to ABC News said the preexisting narrative of Trump as a front-runner applies added pressure — both on Trump, to reinforce his lead, and on every other candidate seeking to best him.

Trump continues to hold a gargantuan lead in FiveThirtyEight’s national primary polling average, but his lead is less than half that in Iowa.

Should he have a massive victory in the state, he could be unstoppable in the rest of the nominating contests, strategists said. But a narrow victory or a narrow loss could mark a substantive setback.

“The expectation for him is he must win Iowa. A second-place finish or a third-place finish for him will be absolutely devastating,” said one source in touch with multiple Republican candidates. “When you’re the former president, and you’ve been out running for office for eight years straight, you must win big.”

Should Trump indeed win big, the person said, “It would be very difficult to stop that momentum.”

DeSantis has been the only candidate besides Trump to consistently hit double digits in national and statewide polling, fueling chatter that he could be Trump’s heir apparent in the Republican Party and a potential Iowa victor instead.

After formally announcing his 2024 campaign in late May, Iowa was the first place DeSantis headed. There, he’s mixed stump speeches with meeting and greeting, sometimes with wife Casey by his side. It’s a favored pattern for candidates. Pence, for example, made a pit stop for pizza with wife Karen last week, sitting down with a small number of voters.

“They’re gonna play hard. There’s no doubt about it. They understand there’s a lot at stake in Iowa,” said veteran Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel. “The reason that everyone’s taking Iowa so seriously, but particularly DeSantis, is because there’s definitely an opportunity there to try and make the case that they are the viable alternative to Trump.”

Outside of the top tier, Pence and Scott also have a lot riding on a strong performance in Iowa.

The electorate has an outsized number of evangelical voters, making the state a natural fit for the two Christian-based campaigns, strategists said — both raising their prospects for success and the expectations on how they may perform.

“It’s a little outsized, clearly, and this is where a lot of faith-based voters are, and this is where it starts. It’s a great starting line for Pence and Scott, and they also got to prove that they can do well here,” said an adviser to one 2024 Republican candidate.

For the rest of the field, local experts point to Carter and Obama’s victories as examples of how Iowa can slingshot a candidate into a primary field’s top tier.

“Everybody saw [Obama] as there’s no way he’s going to beat Hillary Clinton. … And then next thing you know, he wins the Iowa caucuses and becomes the nominee and president,” Vander Plaats said. “And so, I think for all those candidates … Iowa’s that crucial. You need to show that you can win, place or show here, be very, very strong. And then you have a shot.”

Strategists stressed that there is likely more than one ticket out of Iowa and that a strong second- or third-place showing by a candidate could also serve as a metaphorical shot in the arm. But if Trump — or anyone else — is able to run away with it, that could undercut the importance of placing second or third if second or third trails far behind first.

“It’s hard to say you made the case that you’re in the game if you’re fourth or fifth,” said the adviser to a 2024 candidate. “The old adage is there’s three tickets out of Iowa. I think that’s still real. And I think it’s probably somewhat different, is it 21- 20-19 or 50-20-10?”

With voters like Schmitt expressing openness as the contest starts to ramp up, the fight for support is only anticipated to intensify.

“A lot can change,” Kochel said. “I think it’s going to be a really interesting election, and I think Iowa’s never been more important than it will be in 2024.”

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