DES MOINES, Iowa — Former President Donald Trump isn’t just out to win the Iowa GOP. Caucuses on Monday. He is looking for a big win.
For that, he’ll need supporters like Gene Pinegar to show up.
Pinegar, a 72-year-old veteran of Marshall County, has never run for a Republican caucus before. A self-proclaimed independent, he registered with the Republican Party to run this year and support the former president.
“Donald Trump deserves to go with all the crap the Democrats have given him,” Pinegar told NBC News in a phone interview Saturday morning. “You know, I can stand up for him.”
A new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey Trump has the upper hand among first-time voters, with 56% of Iowa commissioners released Saturday saying he is their first choice candidate.
Just 14% support former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, 13% support Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and 11% support entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
That’s more support among first-time voters than caucusgoers overall, and slightly less support for Haley and DeSantis than among GOP voters overall, according to the poll. The overall results are 48% for Trump, 20% for Haley, 16% for DeSantis and 8% for Ramaswamy.
“Logic would suggest that a better way for competitors to perform would be to attract new people,” said veteran pollster J. Ann Selzer of Iowa, who conducted the survey. “And it appears from this data that it hasn’t happened to the extent that Trump is bringing in new people.”
Alex Latcham, Trump’s first state director, said in a phone interview that Trump’s strength among first-time voters reflected his popularity in Iowa more broadly, noting that Trump has “fundamentally changed the nature of this state.”
Iowa supported former Democratic President Barack Obama twice before turning to Trump in 2016 and 2020. Trump increased his margin in rural areas and brought more blue-collar voters to the GOP in Iowa and across the country thanks in part to a populist message. hardline positions on issues such as immigration.
“I looked at everybody, but he’s my only choice,” Jamila Jones, who plans to go to the caucus for the first time because of concerns about the southern border and human trafficking, said in a recent interview with NBC News.
The hard part
Trump campaign officials have emphasized that they are not relying solely on first-time voters to ensure victory.
“We prefer to get everyone out, whether they’re Trump supporters or first-time voters,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said Saturday at the campaign’s Iowa headquarters in Urbandale, as volunteers manned the phones at tables around him.
But the first-timers could increase Trump’s potential margin of victory as he calls for a decisive victory.
“We’re trying to break records,” Trump told supporters at a televised rally Thursday, according to audio of the rally obtained by NBC News. If the recent polls are any indication of Monday night’s results, Trump could break the GOP 13 points record for the victory of the caucus.
Gary Leffler, the precinct captain for the Trump campaign in West Des Moines, who was at Trump headquarters on Saturday, said it was an “insurance policy” for first-timers to come out.
That insurance policy for campaigns can be expensive and time-consuming.
First-time voters are less likely to participate, with just 37% saying they will definitely caucus in a new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll. Overall, 55% of likely group members said they would definitely participate in a caucus. 38% of first-time voters who support Trump say they will definitely participate in the caucus.
“It takes a lot of data,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist. “It keeps them on the email list, the text list, the direct mail list, so you can keep them updated on what the caucus process is.”
Trump’s campaign has made a concerted effort to target and remove members of the new group. Precinct captains were tasked with joining at least 10 first-time caucuses, which could earn them a trip to the Republican National Convention in July, where they could meet with Trump.
Trump precinct captain Leffler said he secured 10 Trump supporters and was told, “Come hell or high water, we’re out.”
The Trump campaign is also running a more organized operation than the 2016 campaign in which Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Trump by 3 percentage points in Iowa, using voter data collected at Trump events over the past few years.
This year, Trump rally-goers who waited in line for hours outside the venue were met by scores of volunteers asking for contact information and signing “organizational meeting” cards. At Trump’s campaign headquarters on Saturday, two dozen stacks of these cards, each about a foot high, sat on a table at the far end of the room.
Trump rallies also begin with videos explaining how to find a caucus seat and how to attend, including one featuring a cartoon character named Marlon. The pre-show program often features panels with state leaders discussing the ins and outs of caucus night.
“It’s all part of a strategy to clarify the caucus process,” Latcham, Trump’s first director of staff, said in December.
First-time group member Josh Blegen, 44, of Benton County, received a text from the Trump campaign with the Marlon video, which he said in a phone interview helped him understand the process. As it snowed Friday afternoon, Blegen was browsing his caucus’ website, and he was leaning toward Trump.
Other candidates target first-timers
Trump isn’t the only candidate targeting first-time voters, who are more likely to be young men with less education, according to the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.
Ramaswamy believes the new group members can help “disrupt expectations” in Iowa. Recent interview with NBC News and The Des Moines Register this poll “underestimates” his support among this group.
About half of those who attend Ramaswamy events are not registered Republicans, with the other half split between traditional caucus attendees and registered Republicans who don’t typically attend caucuses, Ramaswamy campaign spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin said, citing the commission’s ballot and event RSVP data.
“We know Vivek voters exist, but we have to get them out,” McLaughlin said, explaining that part of the campaign’s decision to stop running TV ads was to shift resources to more targeted digital efforts aimed at first-time voters. She pushes videos explaining her smell on Instagram and TikTok.
Haley’s campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement that Haley “reached out and appealed to all kinds of voters, and her message for a strong and proud America resonates.” The Republican Party should be a story of gathering, not leaving.”
DeSantis’ campaign and allies are also trying to elect newcomers. Never Back Down, the super PAC behind the pro-DeSantis activism operation, contacts DeSantis supporters “almost daily” and has “tens of thousands of first-timers” in the caucus for DeSantis, the group’s representative, Jess Szymanski, said in a spokeswoman.
Bob Van Der Plaats, a well-known Iowa evangelical leader who has supported DeSantis, said a strong activism operation is crucial to the emergence of new group participants.
“Everyone is always a little sensitive [their] it’s the first time I’m doing something,” Van Der Plaats said Saturday after addressing Never Back Down volunteers at the group’s Urbandale headquarters. “Throw the weather, it’s a good excuse to stay home. So that’s the biggest thing — that’s why organization is important. Get your people to the commission. call.”
Freezing temperatures expected Monday night won’t deter Pinegar, a first-time Trump supporter. Pinegar, who spoke on the phone while plowing snow with his tractor, said he would definitely show up Monday night to support Trump.
“I’m going to stand with him—and I’m going to freeze,” Pinegar said.