The Democratic Speaker of the House during much of the 1980s, Tip O’Neill, was famous for saying that “all politics is local.” The Republican caucuses in Iowa next week will test that claim, as a mode of politics focused on state and local connections clashes with a more nationalized form.
Defenders of early primary contests in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally emphasize that these states prioritize close-up, retail politics. Candidates have to eat in diners, press the flesh, field questions (some bizarre) in town halls, and do the hard work of face-to-face politicking. In the past, state and local figures often had considerable influence in these races. Iowa was barely contested in the 1992 Democratic cycle because Tom Harkin, the state’s Democratic U.S. senator, was on the ballot. (He won in a landslide.) Winning the endorsements of prominent locals was not only a marker of strength for presidential hopefuls but also gave them access to local political machines, boosting them on Election Day.
The on-the-ground crucible could make or break a candidate. Iowa was key for the Democratic primary victories of both John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. Hillary Clinton’s narrow Iowa win over Bernie Sanders in 2016 prefigured the hard-fought Democratic primary that year. In recent cycles, Iowa has not had the same luck predicting the winner of the Republican primary. While George W. Bush’s victory there anticipated his later triumph in 2000, the winners in 2008, 2012, and 2016 dominated in the “social conservative” lane but failed to clinch the nomination. (The 2012 cycle gets an asterisk: while Rick Santorum ended up winning the caucuses in the final tally, the initial tabulation gave Mitt Romney—the eventual nominee—the win, so Romney benefited from positive coverage as the “winner” of the caucuses.) Still, even for Republicans, Iowa was a major testing ground, and a performance that beat expectations could be a springboard to success in New Hampshire and other early states.
This year, many of Donald Trump’s challengers have gone the retail-politics route. Perhaps most prominently, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has focused his campaign on Iowa, completing the “full Grassley” (named after the state’s senior Republican senator) by holding an event in every county in the state. He has rallied the traditional kingmakers of Iowa politics, securing endorsements from many state legislators as well as prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has backed every Iowa winner since 2008. DeSantis has also won the coveted endorsement of the popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds.
Conversely, Trump has spurned retail politics in Iowa and other states. He has often been absent from the campaign trail and has refused to participate in primary debates. The former president is instead betting on a national strategy. Though he often positions himself against “the swamp,” Trump enjoys the overwhelming support of Republicans elected to serve in Washington, D.C., including more than 100 Republican House members, and many senators, too. (DeSantis boasts a handful of endorsements in the House and none in the Senate; Nikki Haley has just one House endorsement.)
This asymmetry in endorsements highlights a difference in the temperament of state Republican politics compared with that of the national GOP. The national media’s incentives for florid drama count for less in many state and local races. In state capitols, Republican legislators and governors have compiled robust governing records, and they know that voters will punish them for paralysis. In Iowa, Reynolds signed ambitious bills expanding school choice, cutting taxes, and restricting abortion. In Florida, DeSantis has been the architect of transformative efforts on education, the environment, gun rights, taxes, and workforce development.
It’s different in Washington, where Republicans have not enjoyed a governing trifecta since 2006. In 2017 and 2018, the party was torn by internal conflict and built a thin legislative record as a result. There’s not much institutional memory of assembling large, Republican-led coalitions for ambitious legislative agendas. Many Republican voters see recent Congresses as a series of defeats, frustrations, and betrayals.
While negative partisanship has increasingly defined politics on both sides of the aisle, it has particular force in Republican circles, where it also connects with a performative opposition to the Republican “establishment.” Criticisms of the establishment or the “uniparty” resonate among the Right’s grassroots. Many House members represent heavily gerrymandered districts, meaning that House Republicans often fear a primary challenge from the right more than defeat in a general election.
This dynamic discourages party discipline on the Hill, as Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson well know. It also means that a politics driven by negative partisanship has more appeal in national contests than in those local races that remain competitive. This plays to Trump’s advantage. Trump is perhaps the epicenter of negative partisanship in contemporary politics: he portrays his opponents as a radical threat to the nation and provokes them to denounce him and his voters in the same terms. His “retribution”-centered primary campaign has tapped into those sentiments.
By contrast, DeSantis has pitched his presidential campaign to post-Trump conservatives—that is, those who probably voted for Trump and are sympathetic to populism but have grown disillusioned with Trump himself. (This is a demographic heavily represented among pundits who were friendly to populism in 2016.) Iowa will be a test case for whether this strategy works.
On the one hand, DeSantis remains broadly popular. A recent Suffolk poll in Iowa found him with a 58 percent approval rating among GOP voters, making him the candidate closest to Trump (at 72 percent). On the other hand, this same poll also put DeSantis in third place behind both Trump and Nikki Haley, who has focused more on consolidating the anti-Trump vote and pummeling DeSantis. Haley’s overall approval rating is much lower than DeSantis’s, but many of the voters who like both Trump and DeSantis ultimately prefer the former president. The intensity of Trump’s national brand may simply overpower DeSantis’s local efforts.
The polls have been wrong before (though rarely by this large a margin). The Iowa caucuses tend to reward organizational discipline, and the DeSantis campaign has invested great energy in mobilizing supporters and cultivating local figures. Part of what Monday’s result will decide is how much local networks still matter in an age of nationalizing politics.
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