DES MOINES, Iowa – With just four months to go until the Iowa caucuses, nearly the entire field of Republican White House contenders is back this weekend in the state that leads off the GOP presidential nominating calendar.
The presidential candidates are speaking Saturday evening at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual fall banquet, as they each make their case to a large and influential crowd of social conservative leaders, activists, and Evangelical voters, who play an outsized role in Hawkeye State Republican politics.
“Labor Day is over. Kids are back in school and people are starting to really tune in,” longtime Iowa based Republican strategist and communicator Jimmy Centers said.
Pointing to last month’s Iowa State Fair, where all but one contender in the large field of Republican presidential candidates courted voters, Centers noted that “the state fair was when people started to wake up and realized that the caucus was coming.
Veteran Iowa Republican operative and consultant Nicole Schlinger highlighted that “once Labor Day has passed, school has started and the weather starts to turn, that’s when peoples’ minds start turning to elections and people get more serious about vetting the candidates in terms of making a decision.”
With the clock quickly ticking towards the start of the 2024 Republican primary and caucus calendar, former President Donald Trump remains the commanding front-runner for his party’s nomination, as he makes his third straight White House run.
And his historic four criminal indictments — including two for allegedly trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Biden — appear to have only strengthened his support among likely Republican primary voters.
The latest Fox News national survey in the GOP nomination race, conducted Sept. 9-12 and released on Thursday, pointed to Trump expanding his already enormous lead over the rest of the field.
But while still towering over his rivals, Trump’s lead in the latest surveys in Iowa, as well as New Hampshire and South Carolina, two other crucial early voting states in the Republican nominating calendar, is not as overwhelming.
“It’s closer in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that it is nationally, but it’s not close,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant and veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns in Iowa and nationally.
“These things do break late. There’s a lot of stuff we haven’t seen or heard yet. Whether it’s Trump’s trials, which I don’t think are going to move any numbers against him. Whether it’s future debates. Whether it’s something we can’t foresee now,” Kochel noted. “The door’s still open but it’s not as wide open as it was.”
Centers, a presidential campaign veteran in Iowa who also served as communications director to then-Gov. Terry Brandstad and current Gov. Kim Reynolds, noted that “Trump’s numbers aren’t budging.”
“At some point the rest of the field has to make a stronger and more compelling argument as they why them. Why are we changing horses from the former president. He’s been indicted four times, but he’s only getting stronger,” Centers stressed. “They have to speak more directly to that point and start doing it soon.”
Pointing to evangelical voters in Iowa, Kochel noted that they tend “to move as a group… and they move late.”
Trump is one of the handful of GOP presidential candidates who won’t be attending Saturday’s Faith and Freedom Coalition cattle call, although the former president returns to Iowa next week.
Schlinger, who’s well-connected to the social conservative community, said that Trump’s “track record on issues concerning life is extremely good,” and that “it’s not surprising that there hasn’t been much change” when it comes to his large double-digit lead in the Iowa polls.
But she added “I think there’s a path open for another candidate or two to perform well and exceed expectations in Iowa… The door’s open but someone needs to walk through it and that hasn’t happened yet.”
But the strategists all stressed that now’s the time for Trump’s rivals to make a move.
“This is where the rubber meets the road. We’re past Labor Day. We’re into debate season,” Kochel highlighted. “If you’re not firing on all cylinders now, and you don’t have the money to see your way through New Hampshire, it’s best to step aside and get out of this thing, so we can really determine who might be able to take Trump on one-on-one.”
And Centers noted that “this is not a primary. It takes organization. Campaigns need to be holding events, using those events to build an organization, and then follow up with those folks that they’ve recruited, either through door knocking, through phone banking, to build out a robust organization.”
“It doesn’t build itself. If you’re not starting it now, it’s too late,” he stressed.