Republicans Battle for Runner-Up as Trump Leads Iowa Caucuses

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s three closest rivals for the Republican presidential nomination each see a strong chance of finishing second in the Iowa caucuses as the race for runner-up comes to a head, according to people familiar with the campaigns.

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With Trump widely expected to win Monday, attention will quickly turn to the second-place finisher, who would be seen as the most viable alternative to halt the former president’s comeback bid for the White House.

The campaigns of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy set expectations within their operations that they would end the night in second place, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the vote. A strong finish would deliver fresh momentum heading into the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary.

Campaigns have typically tempered expectations before a primary so they can beat predictions.

Iowa will be a key test of support for the candidates as caucusgoers battle subzero temperatures to participate in the meetings, which can last several hours and require more time than a primary election.

The optimism of the campaigns is at odds with the latest poll data from the Des Moines Register/NBC News. Those findings show Trump at 48%, Nikki Haley at 20%, followed by Ron DeSantis with 16% and Ramaswamy at 8%.

Initial estimates of a historic turnout — surpassing the Republican caucus record of 186,000 from 2016 — have dropped with the temperatures and hazardous winter conditions.

In addition to public polling, campaigns in Iowa use other metrics to measure support. Those include caucus cards — a non-binding commitment to caucus for a specific candidate. A Trump campaign adviser said he had over 50,000 caucus cards. The DeSantis campaign said it had 30,000 while Ramaswamy claimed more than 60,000.

A Haley spokesperson said the campaign had not set on a specific number as the result but had been pressing volunteers and precinct captains to get voters out.

One person familiar with DeSantis advisers’ private conversations said that high turnout would only benefit Trump, whose supporters are most enthusiastic about his candidacy. Models created by the DeSantis campaign show Trump winning more than 50% of the vote if 230,000 people show up to caucus, or as little as 30% with a turnout of 160,000.

Trump was personally telephoning his precinct captains on Sunday, an aide said.

J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the famed Iowa poll, said she couldn’t rule out any of the three having a second-place finish.

Iowa’s caucus system means that campaigns get one last chance to persuade late-deciding voters. Selzer’s data suggest that Trump is untouchable in first place but that second is within reach — even for the current fourth-place candidate.

“It’s hard to rule out Vivek Ramaswamy,” she said. “He’s in the back of my mind going, ‘Could be interesting.’”

--With assistance from Hadriana Lowenkron, Christian Hall and Stephanie Lai.

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