With Trump only midway through a speech that touched on hot issues such as immigration policy and his attempt to appeal to African American voters, things almost became awkward: Branstad, Ernst, congressman Steve King, lieutenant governor Kim Reynolds and state party chair Jeff Kaufmann all gathered behind the candidate, squeezing in for a photo opportunity.
As Kaufmann told the Guardian, this rare embrace of a candidate who blew the establishment to pieces in primary season and has not dialled down his rhetoric or style since came about thanks to Iowa’s vulnerable status as the state that kicks off each presidential election.
“As a first-in-the-nation state,” Kayfmann said, “our folks are discerning and even our officeholders dig a little bit deeper.”
However, the real fuel for Iowa Republicans’ love for Trump is to be found in the strong ties between the candidate and Branstad. The governor has long been an enthusiastic supporter and has stumped the state on thebusinessman’s behalf. Furthermore, Trump’s Iowa campaign director is Branstad’s son, Eric, a veteran operative who during the caucuses led a bipartisan advocacy campaign on behalf of the renewable fuels industry. In Iowa at least, as election day approaches, Trump can count on the party machinery going into fully into gear.
This is not to say Iowa Republicans are unfamiliar with intra-party conflict, and a vocal “Never Trump” contingent is to be found among those who supported Ted Cruz, the victor of the caucuses. But it receives no establishment support. Even congressmen in swing districts are happy to appear with Trump.
In contrast, Democrats are off the pace they set in the past two election cycles, regarding organizational goals like absentee ballot requests and thanks to lingering bad blood from the caucuses, when many supporters of Bernie Sanders felt the state party chair, Andy McGuire, tilted the scales on Clinton’s behalf. There is open campaigning to replace McGuire after the presidential vote.
New Trump supporters have, however, presented new challenges. Traditionally, Republican operatives scorn Democratic campaigns, which tend to be based on hiring hundreds of staffers to go door to door, getting marginal voters to sign up for absentee ballot requests. Republican voters have been far more consistent, meaning the party’s campaigns have instead focused on tapping into networks of social conservatives, in particular home-schoolers.
In the shifting political math of 2016, all this makes Iowa far more winnable for Trump than many traditionally more competitive states. Accordingly, his campaign has committed significant resources. It is expected that Trump will campaign in the state three or four times a month until election day. Saturday’s Roast and Ride was a taster.
Even if this is not enough, and Trump loses Iowa, the coalition he has built may point to a long-term shift which will make the state less purple and more red. As Kaufmann said, win or lose: “I think we have the ingredients for a realignment.”
That was a statement with which one well-connected Democrat agreed, though he did not want to attach his name to such an opinion. As he said mournfully this weekend: “Increasingly, it seems like it is a Republican state and they just let Democrats live here.”