Trump's campaign banks on its loyal supporters to turn out and caucus in Iowa despite frigid weather

URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) — Donald Trump was stuck in Florida, forcing his presidential campaign to cancel his in-person events two days before Iowa's kickoff Republican caucuses.

But at his campaign's Iowa headquarters in a nondescript brick building northwest of Des Moines, volunteers were busy working the phones, trying to turn out the vote for Monday's contest as the snow whipped in frigid winds outside.

“He has sacrificed so much for our country and I need to do my part to support his efforts to save America because America is dying,” said Melissa Davis, 56, a small-business owner from Windsor Heights who has spent the past few months phone-banking, knocking on doors and encouraging voters in her district to turn out on Trump's behalf. For Davis, who will also serve as a Trump caucus captain on the night of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, the connection is deeply personal.

“I couldn’t love him any more," she said. “He’s like a member of my family." She lost her father in 2012, she said, "so I think he’s kind of taken the role in my life as a father figure.”

It's people like Davis who are giving Trump's campaign confidence that his supporters will turn out even as Iowa braces for the coldest caucus night in modern history, with temperatures forecast to plunge to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 degrees Celsius).

While much of the recent focus has been on the race for second and whether former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will finish ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s campaign is hoping for the kind of blowout that will blunt his rivals' momentum as he tries to lock up the nomination and pivot to the general election.

“The enthusiasm level for the (former) president’s supporters is so much higher,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told reporters at an event hosted by Bloomberg News. He and other aides point to the scores of people who routinely stand in line for hours and sometimes overnight to attend Trump's rallies. The campaign believes these people are very likely to attend the caucuses, even if they haven't done so before.

Organizers have also been hard at work for DeSantis and Haley, who hope to use Iowa as a springboard for the rest of the campaign contests.

The pro-DeSantis super political action committee Never Back Down, which contends DeSantis has the best organization in Iowa, said it has collected 40,000 commitment-to-caucus cards, signed up 1,699 precinct captains and knocked on more than 921,000 doors across the state.

“People involved in this process say it’s the best yet,” DeSantis said while campaigning in northwestern Iowa on Thursday.

AFP Action, the organizing arm of the conservative Koch brothers' political network, has been trying to get out the vote on Haley’s behalf. The group said it had more than 200 staff and volunteers out on Saturday, knocking on doors in a blizzard.

Among them was Drew Klein, a senior adviser with AFP Action. He navigated unplowed streets in a black GMC Sierra pickup and trudged through snowbanks as high as mailboxes to try to find voters who may be open to backing Haley.

“It’s vitally important,” said Klein of the face-to-face contact, despite his limited success during that particular outing. He found one woman deciding between DeSantis and Haley, several undecided voters and a man who responded, “I’m a Trump guy. Go Trump!”

Trump has held huge leads in Iowa polls conducted over the past two months. The final Des Moines Register/NBC News poll before the caucuses found he was supported by nearly one-half of likely caucusgoers compared with 20% for Haley and 16% for DeSantis.

A commanding victory would help to lessen the sting of 2016, when Trump lost in Iowa to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. At the time, Trump barely knew what a caucus was. Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita often recalls Trump telling the story of how his daughter Ivanka showed up at one large caucus site that year only to discover there was nobody there to speak on behalf of her father.

The instructions Trump gave his aides for 2024: not this time.

Planning began even before Trump launched his campaign to regain the White House. Since then, the campaign says it has made hundreds of thousands of voter contacts, held hundreds of training sessions and signed up 2,300 “caucus captains” — volunteers tasked with representing Trump at caucus sites and speaking on his behalf. The captains, who have been given special white hats with gold embroidery, are tasked with turning out 10 first-time caucusgoers from lists provided by the campaign.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of supporters have attended “commit to caucus” events across the state.

“These were like little practice runs for actual caucus events, from a turnout standpoint, from an organizational standpoint, for who we’re targeting, for who we’re talking to," said LaCivita. "These are not just done, you know, like pin-the-tail on the donkey.”

The campaign is leaning heavily on first-time caucusgoers and has tried to educate supporters on the ins-and-outs of the obscure caucus process, where voters turn up at community centers and school gymnasiums at 7 p.m. and are wooed by each campaign. To attract new participants, the Trump campaign produced an animated “Schoolhouse Rock!”-style video and sent mailers that tell voters their caucus sites.

Trump’s campaign cites other advantages. Because this is his third time running, Trump entered the race with three campaigns worth of experience, data, and personnel.

Aides also stress their operation is driven by local volunteers and overseen directly by the campaign, in contrast to other candidates who have left organizing to outside groups.

It's a difference that matters, said Dan Heffernen, 64, a Trump caucus captain who owns a small construction business in Altoona. Heffernen said he is suspicious of campaigns that have to pay for organizers and he didn't trust a pro-DeSantis organizer who stopped by several weeks ago.

“He was from Florida,” he said of the visitor. “I’m pretty sure he was paid to come up here.”

But his wife, Cheryl Heffernen, a fellow caucus captain, noted that despite her personal connection to the people she's trying to organize, only about 20% to 30% of those she's spoken with plan to caucus.

“Some people, I think, are reluctant to take the time,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people, yes, they support Trump. Most people are supporting Trump that I contact. Most of them do not go to caucus.”

And she worries about the impact of the weather, noting her reluctance to have her own mom, who is 87, go to caucus.

“I don’t want her to go out, you know, and there’s going to be a lot of people like that, that live in Iowa, that are older. It’s just not safe for them,” she said. “So I do think that the overall turnout will be less.”

But at Trump’s campaign headquarters Saturday morning, where volunteers with plates of free pizza sat making phone calls in a room plastered with campaign signs, many brushed off those concerns.

“We’re used to this,” said Miriam Schultz, 74, a retired teacher. “We have this every winter. We have many cold snaps,” she said, predicting a majority would turn out regardless.

___ Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.


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