Donald Trump returns to Iowa planning for more disciplined campaign

Former President Donald Trump addresses the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on March 4, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

To outsiders, they looked like simple stacks of paper. But for Donald Trump's first presidential campaign, they represented a missed opportunity.

A month before Iowa's 2016 presidential caucuses, mountains of so-called pledge cards sat in the corner of Trump's suburban Des Moines state headquarters. 

They contained the names and contact information of roughly 10,000 Iowans who attended Trump campaign events and responded by returning the cards suggesting they were open to backing the reality television star who was now seeking the White House.

In what's considered political malpractice by Iowa standards, those who returned the cards received no follow-up contact from the campaign.

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"None of that data was used. None of it was entered," said Alex Latcham, the former political director for the Iowa Republican Party and now Trump's early-voting state director. "And those people weren’t encouraged or mobilized to caucus."

Chuck Laudner, who was Trump's Iowa state director in 2016, didn't respond to requests for comment. But by ignoring the cards, Trump's team essentially left a pile of uncashed checks out in the open, leaving him vulnerable to better-organized GOP rivals. He was beaten in Iowa by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who would go on to fight Trump state by state for three months.

As Trump returns to Iowa on Monday, he and his team are aiming for a more disciplined approach. They are particularly focused on building the data and digital engagement he will need to persuade Iowans to traipse through the cold and snow early next year to participate in the caucuses.

Though his swing through the eastern city of Davenport marks his first trip to Iowa since launching his third bid for the presidency, he's held roughly three dozen events in the state since entering political life. They include several rallies that have attracted thousands since he left office in 2021.

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His team is using information from those events to compile an exhaustive list of supporters to engage. The list now includes the data from the 2016 campaign that sat gathering dust.

"One of the advantages we have is that’s an awful lot of data," said Trump senior consultant Chris LaCivita. "From every donor to rally attendee, we have all that information, which is important in a state like Iowa. This is ground-game stuff. It’s about finding and identifying favorable voters and making sure the campaign is turning them out."

In the early phase of the 2024 campaign, Trump remains in a dominant position. But he faces notable challenges, including growing interest in the expected candidacy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made his debut swing through Iowa last week.

Early polls show Trump remains widely popular among Iowa Republicans, though views of the former president have slipped somewhat since he left the White House. Now, 80% say they have a favorable rating of Trump, down slightly from 91% in September 2021, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released Friday.

The poll found DeSantis also gets a rosy review from Iowa Republicans, with 74% saying they have a favorable rating. Notably, DeSantis has high name recognition in a state over 1,000 miles away from his own; just 20% say they aren’t sure how to rate him.

Meanwhile, legal scrutiny surrounding Trump is also intensifying with potential indictments in the coming weeks that would make him the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. 

He has been invited to testify this week before a New York grand jury that has been investigating hush money payments made on his behalf during the 2016 campaign, a move that often indicates a decision on indictments is near.

Elsewhere, the district attorney in Atlanta has said decisions are "imminent" in a two-year investigation into possible illegal meddling in the 2020 election by Trump and his allies. A Justice Department special counsel is also investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to undo the election as well as the handling of classified documents at his Florida estate.

The dynamics make the stakes particularly high for Trump in Iowa. As a former president who boasts of his standing atop the GOP, he can’t afford even a narrow loss in the contest that kicks off the nomination process.

And even the most sophisticated data and digital operation may not be enough to satisfy some Iowans, who are accustomed to having intimate conversations with those seeking the White House. Iowa GOP activists say Trump would do well to hold smaller events, including with influential local Republican leaders.

Trump on Monday will deliver what has been billed as an education policy speech, but he is expected to touch more broadly on his accomplishments as president and his agenda for another term, including trade policies and agriculture, according to a person familiar with his plans who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview his remarks.

Trump will also take questions from local reporters and is expected to make an unannounced stop at a local establishment, as he has during other recent trips. The campaign will also roll out endorsements from East Iowa elected officials, the person said.

When he began his Iowa campaign eight years ago, Trump was unsure what a caucus even was. The quirky contests — more than 1,000 simultaneous, local political meetings sponsored by the state Republican Party and run by volunteers — are not state-sanctioned primary elections and require intense organization to have supporters in place at each location.

In 2016, Trump hired Laudner, the former Iowa Republican Party executive director who helped former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum squeak out a win in the 2012 Republican caucuses. 

But Trump's national team was led by a small band of aides with far less experience than the talent scooped up by prospects expected early in the campaign to be strong contenders, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

While Trump's celebrity drew crowds of sometimes several thousand to his rallies around the state, there was almost no follow-through with interested supporters. Many of Trump's supporters were first-time caucus prospects unfamiliar with the process. Some missed their chance to weigh in by wrongly going to their typical voting polling place, rather than the designated party caucus site.

The assumption that crowds would equate to votes would be a costly lesson. Had Trump netted fewer than four more votes per precinct, he could have beaten Cruz.

This year, Trump's campaign named Marshall Moreau as its Iowa director. He managed the successful state attorney general campaign last year for Brenna Bird. She defeated Democrat Tom Miller, who was first elected in 1978.

More Iowa staff announcements are expected soon, aides said.

The goal of a sharper Iowa approach reflects broader changes to how Trump has structured his latest campaign. While his 2016 bid was a scrappy upstart bid, with a national headquarters in unfinished commercial space at Trump Tower in New York, his second campaign, as a president seeking reelection, was a sprawling behemoth run out of a shiny Virginia office tower.

Both were riven by rivalries as Trump cycled through top staff.

This time, Trump has chosen a middle-of-the-road approach and eschewed the traditional hierarchy. Instead of a campaign manager, he has entrusted Florida operative Susie Wiles, a longtime adviser, to lead his Florida-based operation, joined by LaCivita and former White House political director Brian Jack.

The campaign has been rapidly adding staff and is quickly outgrowing its office space.

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.