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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 11 January 2024

This week Martin casts an eye over the 2024 Presidential Election and looks at the unique way America picks its candidates...

The Presidential Election campaign formally kicks off next week with the Iowa Caucus.

In American politics, selection of the candidates to represent the two major parties in the Presidential race is an election contest of its own, with candidates spending millions of dollars on campaigning, flirting for funds and donors, and ruthlessly slaughtering their party opponents on their political, social and personal record in order to get the nod.

These selection contests are run in every state – but the rules of how and who can compete differ widely from state to state and from party to party.

The first state to start the selection process is traditionally Iowa who hold a Caucus rather than a Primary. What is the difference? Well, most significantly, they are staged by the State Political Party rather than the State Election Officials and therefore have a look and feel of their own.

Iowa Republicans, at least registered ones over 18, will gather at about 1700 different locations ranging from Schools, Town Halls and even Living Rooms, to listen to speeches and arguments in favour of one candidate or another, before holding votes and informing State Republican officials of their decision. There are no digital remote options, you must turn up to vote – a rule which makes it difficult for the elderly, those with childcare struggles or disabilities, or even the employed to engage.

And it isn’t as simple as the candidate who gets the most votes wins. Instead, in Iowa’s caucus – like all the primaries – the votes win you delegates to the Republican Convention based on proportional representation.

But what is most significant is that Iowa goes first.

Because politics is often all about momentum, the Iowa field of candidates attracts a lot of attention, lots of money is spent on in-state advertising and media events to give the wannabe nominees the best chance possible, and Iowans – a state with a population of only 3.2million who are largely rural, 90% white and 77% Christian – receive a national focus they enjoy only once every four years.

So Iowa matters.

Well, sort of.

Because Iowa is not representative of the rest of the nation and selects only a fraction of the delegates larger states like Florida, Texas and California do, winning Iowa is no guarantee of ultimate success.

But not doing well in Iowa can prove fatal.

What to watch out for this week?

Former President Trump, facing nearly 100 criminal charges, is miles ahead of the field according to every poll.

However, DeSantis’ people say he’s ‘doing well’ and Nikki Haley’s team are managing expectations nicely – both claiming they “will come second, but third isn’t bad.”

Later this week, the final Des Moines Register Poll – the most reliable unbiased filter of what the state’s registered Republicans are thinking – will be published.

It is unlikely to reveal anything other than Trump is 50% points ahead, and the others will be nowhere near.

Chris Christie, a long shot candidate who was avowedly anti-Trump chose to not even participate in Iowa, knowing his brand of Republicanism wouldn’t be taken to heart by the soybean, maize and pig farmers or Christian evangelists in this state, and is likely to drop out of the whole contest any minute now.  

Vivek Ramaswarmy – in my opinion the scariest of all the candidates – also knows he has no chance in Iowa but is using the Caucus to test his messaging that ‘Republicans need a younger candidate’ and he is somehow a kind of ‘heir to Trump’s throne’ – with libertarians, independent voters and fans of his weird ‘anti-woke’ agenda – he wants to ban the Department for Education – before getting seriously involved in other states.

The Democrats don’t use the same model. They have a ‘mail-in’ vote in Iowa and just include the result in the roll up of Super Tuesday in early March when 17 states tally their delegate count.

So, with the Iowa Caucus being a Republican-only affair, what can we look out for and how can we interpret it?

Trump will win but he may not get the large majority the polls suggest.

The Caucus is occurring on Martin Luther King Day – not an event high on the calendar of many Iowans I imagine, but a national holiday many may take advantage of anyway.  Because Trump’s base may be more rural, it might be more difficult for them to travel to precincts for the caucus events too. If Trump sees a significant fall off between the final polling numbers and the actual Caucus result then expect his detractors, both within the GOP and beyond, to point to numerous factors they attribute the decline to – his legal worries, the fact he lost last time, his age, the favourability of other candidates, etc.

More interesting is the fate of Ron De Santis.

He has seen his polling numbers slide nationally as Trump has attacked him and, as Governor of Florida, has had a few high-profile initiatives and policy issues blow up in his face. He has sunk a lot of money, time, and effort in Iowa to get his campaign as a serious rival to Trump back on track.

If he finishes second, he will feel vindicated and be encouraged to get back on the fundraising circuit before heading to New Hampshire for the traditional first orthodox Primary for both parties – scheduled for Jan 23rd.

If he comes third, he may be out of the running before the race has even really begun. Politics in America is unabashedly about money – and donors, corporations, and lobby groups will quickly close their cheque books and wallets if they feel the candidate can’t win.

Nikki Haley will be desperate to finish second, to both knock De Santis out of the running and cement her position as the alternative to Trump before Ramaswarmy has even entered the race.

Haley, a 51-year-old second generation Indian immigrant, is attracting funds from not just business-minded Republicans who she appeals to, but from Democrat donors like Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman who see her as the best bet to stop Trump even getting on the ticket.

Her non-profit vehicle, Stand For America, is doing well with traditional Republican supporters too and has received big cash sums from hedge fund managers, casino moguls and some of the Republican funding families and trusts already.

If Haley does come second, behind Trump, it makes it difficult for the rest of the field. As Chris Christie has found the party faithful haven’t moved on from Trump, and as Ramaswarmy and De Santis are learning the attraction of Trump Lite or Trump 2.0 fails when the OG Trump is still in the race.

Haley will be desperately hoping that she is in a strong second place when the courts and supreme courts rule Trump, if convicted of insurrection or a felony, can’t run for President.

For her that’s the perfect outcome, with De Santis out of the race she can step back, cry crocodile tears and watch the bloodless coup remove Trump from the contest leaving her in the sweet spot with no other candidates with a realistic hope of raising the funds or support to catch her.

But the most likely outcome is Trump wins and wins big. And with the Primaries coming up looking favourable for him too, he may have the nomination battle wrapped up by Super Tuesday.

But this is America, and one thing is for sure – when it comes to money and politics, there are plenty of twists and turns ahead.

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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