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Network Correspondents Talk About Covering A Trump-Dominated Iowa Race, And Why They Don’t Rule Out A Frigid Caucus-Night Twist

The Iowa caucus on Monday will be like no other —- and that was apparent from the start, well before subzero weather raised doubts about turnout, stymied campaigns in the final sprint and left an army of reporters and consultants seeking the warm refuge of Des Moines hotel lobbies.

The expectation is that Donald Trump will win —- but like past caucuses, that will only tell part of the story. In the race for second place, rival Nikki Haley is looking for momentum for a potential victory next week in New Hampshire, and Ron DeSantis wants to defy pundits who have written him off.

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The release of the final poll before the caucuses on Saturday night —- one sponsored by the Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom —- helped set expectations for the results, with much coverage framed on whether candidates exceed or under perform. The poll showed Trump at 48%, Haley at 20%, DeSantis at 16% and Vivek Ramaswamy at 8%.

The caucus is typically a boon for the state, given the revenue that the media and political classes bring to the state. It’s not as big this cycle, perhaps due to the shrunken field of candidates in a Trump-dominated race. According to the Des Moines Register, less than half the numbered of journalists are credentialed this cycle than last — around 1,000.

Deadline spoke separately last week to anchors and correspondents about this year’s caucuses —- a much different landscape than the last competitive Republican primary in 2016 —- to get their take on this kickoff to 2024, talking to voters in an age of media mistrust and embrace of conspiracy theories, and the possibility of an unexpected twist.

2024 Isn’t 2016

JEFF ZELENY, CNN: [A year ago] we were going out with a few of the different candidates… But it was not just about them, it was about them in relation to Donald Trump and that makes this caucus different in every way… All the candidates are judged in their relation to him or if they have called him out or not. He is the centerpiece of the Republican orbit. The candidates, really, have in some respect struggled to sort of break free from that, because Donald Trump is the centerpiece of the story.

VAUGHN HILLYARD, NBC News: I came with Trump on his very first visit to Davenport one year ago, after his announcement, and I essentially have been coming back consistently ever since. I realized that very little has actually changed over the course of the last year, let alone since he won the presidency here. And at that rally, it was about 20 degrees that day with wind chill coming off the Mississippi River. And there were at least 2,000 supporters that were there waiting in line in the depths of the cold, and it was just so obvious then that there was little evidence that the Republican electorate or the MAGA movement had shifted in any significant way. And I have been looking for tea leaves to suggest otherwise ever since then. Every time I come into Iowa, every conversation that I have with Republican activists around the state, things have been unchanged. There is so often talk that retail politics means everything in Iowa, but just this weekend I was talking to a GOP county chairman and he told me that this is just evidence that Donald Trump is his own unique political figure, and the same rules don’t apply to him.

RACHEL SCOTT, ABC News: It is an unconventional and an unusual primary, and I get the sense that Iowa voters really understand that. They will tell you that their job is not necessarily to pick the winner. They know that they may not end up picking who will go on to be the eventual nominee. Their job is to really winnow the field. … Unlike in previous cycles, where so much of the focus is on who can win Iowa, so much of the focus this time around is on who can get second place in Iowa.

Rachel Scott of ABC News
Rachel Scott of ABC News

ED O’KEEFE, CBS News: I spent the [first January] weekend inside [Trump’s] campaign headquarters here in Iowa — dozens of people on a cold Saturday night —- senior citizens, suburban moms, lots of college kids, making the phone calls, sending the texts, going through lists of hundreds of voters and trying to make contact again. And you might think, well that’s what you’re supposed to do. But [Trump] didn’t do that eight years ago, and because he didn’t do it then, because he thought it was like everywhere else, he lost. This time, he realizes, this is what you have to do. They’re doing it and they have money. And it’s why his name identification and his history as a former president is going to help him. But that kind of work is going to help them probably even more.

Vaughn Hillyard of NBC News
Vaughn Hillyard of NBC News

BILL HEMMER, Fox News: I like to go to all the campaign headquarters of the main candidates, and I like to do that throughout the capital city, because I think sometimes they often reflect the campaign itself. For example, Ted Cruz 2016. He eventually won by three, three and a half points, but at his campaign headquarters, he had bussed people in from Texas in Florida, and they were evangelical voters who were making phone calls and reaching out to people all across the state. So he brought in his own volunteer army. And they also remember going to Trump headquarters. It was somewhat businesslike, and it wasn’t very crowded in terms of personnel. … Well, he still finished second place. I think the lesson that I think about from that eight years ago, is how proactive his campaign has been this time around. What do I mean? The Trump team tells me that there’s about roughly 1,700 caucus locations, and they’ve named 1,800 captains. So there are 100, they say, over what they need, in order to have a precinct captain at every precinct site throughout the state of Iowa, which is a far cry from the stripped down version of the Trump headquarters that I witnessed in 2016.

ZELENY: Eight years ago at this point right now, evangelical voters were very skeptical of Donald Trump. He was a new Republican, no conservative voting record, from New York City…. Dramatic change eight years later, and I think it is largely because of the three Supreme Court justices he appointed. … But it’s also different than that. We say evangelicals. Of course, they don’t vote as a monolith. And it’s not all church-going evangelicals. … It’s confounding when you talk to some pastors, who just do not believe that his harsh rhetoric on immigrants and a variety of other things is Christian, but when you talk to some evangelical voters, they really credit him for what he did to the Supreme Court that ultimately overturned Roe vs. Wade. That’s about as simple as you could describe it. But again, it’s not a monolith.

SCOTT: One of the biggest challenges is deciding where to be. You have a front runner who has a commanding lead in this race, who is dividing his time between the campaign trail and a courtroom. And so as reporters, we are making decisions on where we should be just days out before the Iowa caucuses. Do you travel to Washington D.C. where the former president is going to be in court, or do you stay in the state that will be having the first major real test of this Republican primary?

Trump Indictments

ZELENY: At the beginning [the reaction from Trump’s Republican rivals] was surprising because you thought like, ‘You’re running against him. Here’s your opening.’ But then it came clear that it was probably a death sentence for them inside the Republican Party if they were to either pile on or call on Trump to get out of the race or what not. So the candidates and the campaigns obviously are operating with more information in real time than we have, and they clearly detected that the Republican base was rallying around him.

KELLIE MEYER, NewsNation: For his supporters, they … feel the need to stand behind him even more where they say folks are coming after him and attacking him. And they feel as though their support is even stronger than in 2016.

Jeff Zeleny of CNN
Jeff Zeleny of CNN

O’KEEFE: If you listen to him and how he spins it, you know that he’s taking the victim and the ‘I’m taking it on the chin for you’ approach. It proves popular with his supporters. He has done such an effective job of making it seem that, ‘They’re doing this to me, and they’re doing this to me because people like you support me, and the ones that stand to do better if I win. I’m looking out for the little guy.’

Ed O’Keefe of CBS News with Ron DeSantis
Ed O’Keefe of CBS News with Ron DeSantis

HILLYARD: There is such a significant part of the Republican electorate today that is entangled in conspiracy theories around Donald Trump’s 2020 loss, and there is a major swath that have been emboldened to stand by him and defend him in a way that is more than political support, but it is a loyalty to a movement that is … predicated on a cadre of lies. There are there are legitimate policies that people want Donald Trump to support in the White House, which are all completely legitimate political conversations. But Donald Trump here in Iowa leads his campaign not with policy but with conspiracy theories that make people feel like they have to support him or they are giving way to this idea of the deep state and Democratic control.

MEYER: His campaign … went just through the roof with donations as he was kind of campaigning off of the indictments and calling it a witch hunt. ‘They’re after me. They’re after you. And I’m going to stand up for you,’ and then now, with what we’re seeing with the ballot challenges in Maine and Colorado. I was talking with supporters this weekend in Iowa and they were saying, ‘You know, this is election interference.’ They were getting very frustrated that President Biden’s speech was saying that former President Trump is a threat to democracy. They instead said that Democrats are a threat to democracy because they believe that they are taking away people’s right to vote for Trump in those states.

SCOTT: I’ve talked to some of his supporters who didn’t know whether or not he would still maintain such a strong hold on the Republican Party, especially after January 6. But most of them tell me that they’re voting for him for the same reasons that they voted for him last time around. They believe that he is strong on immigration, strong on the economy. While some of his comments have sparked controversy, they like how off the cuff the former president can be. And so despite the criminal charges that he’s facing, despite the fact that the former president is now facing multiple trials, they still believe that he is the best Republican candidate in this race and they are still backing him.

HEMMER: I don’t know over time, based on how these court cases go, how the voters will feel about each case as its prosecuted.

I don’t believe [a conviction] would have that great of an impact, but I don’t know if you can rely on that until and unless it happens. My sense is that if you’re going to get a guilty verdict, what is the guilty verdict about? And until we’re there, I don’t think we know. I don’t think we know the effect on voters.

What happened to Ron 

SCOTT: I was out here for his first stop in Iowa, when [Ron DeSantis] hadn’t announced that he was running just yet. He was promoting his book. And there was so much anticipation around him. Voters that I spoke to at those events, where he was drawing up hundreds of people, hoped that he would jump into this race. They truly believed that he would pose the biggest challenge to the former president. … In recent months, he has started to slip in the polls and he has really started to lose ground to Nikki Haley, and he has dealt with some major shakeups within his campaign — laying off staff, turmoil in the super PAC. We reported that there was confrontations that almost came to blows among staff. And so all of that can have a trickle down effect to the campaign and the message that’s been in turn is being put out to voters. And so we have seen DeSantis start to lose traction in this state. No voters have weighed in yet of course, so we’re all going based off of polls. But I will say that DeSantis has a lot on the line in Iowa, he bet big on the state. He visited all 99 counties. He’s endorsed by the Republican governor.

ZELENY: A year ago this week. I was in Florida for his inauguration. We were in Tallahassee to do a story on the guy who is not only going to challenge Trump, but he was the leading Republican presidential candidate at that point. And boy, what changed in a year. Almost by the time he got the race in May, he was already diminished from where he was in January, and it just kind of went from there.

Bill Hemmer of Fox News
Bill Hemmer of Fox News

MEYER: We were covering him even before he announced, and a lot of interest remember. Everybody was talking about, ‘Will Ron DeSantis enter the race? He’s gonna challenge Trump, and Trump was already gearing up to attack him.’ And then when he announced, we started seeing him on the road, he wasn’t, at least what voters told me, he wasn’t resonating or connecting with voters as much as they might have thought. It’s interesting, because you hear everything from the polling and that he might not be as personable on the trail, but when I was at one of his events, talking with his folks, they say the energy is still inside. And I talked with some of his supporters and they actually are Iowans but they winter in Florida, and they came back to Iowa to support Ron DeSantis because they say they like when he did in Florida. They want to see what he can do across the country and they like Trump, it’s nothing against him. But they like the fact that Ron DeSantis could run for eight years if if he needed to.

ZELENY: [At the Iowa state fair] Trump literally came in and you know, stole the thunder away from Ron DeSantis. I remember standing on this hot August Saturday and looking overhead and Trump’s plane was flying over the fairgrounds making a loop on its way to the Des Moines airport. Less than an hour later, his motorcade arrived and he commanded all this attention. And he was in and out very quickly. He didn’t have to give a speech. He didn’t have to take questions from reporters or supporters or others. He didn’t appear on the Des Moines Register soapbox stage, like all candidates do. He was in and out, but he completely stole the thunder of DeSantis that day, and that was another sort of sign that this is going to be a challenge for the Florida Governor.

MEYER: I believe I asked Governor DeSantis at that time, Did it bother him that Trump was there, or you know, was he kind of stealing the spotlight? And he at the time and still is, really focused on his own campaign and what he’s going to deliver to voters. At least that was his response to us. More recently, I we’ve seen him and other candidates come out more against Trump and speak more actively about him.

ZELENY: Just last week I was at two events with Ron DeSantis and two voters stood up and asked him why he hadn’t been tougher on Trump. One guy said, ‘Why are you going so soft on Trump? We need to win back the White House.’ The theme of the campaign is the balancing act that these candidates have had to do, vis a vis Trump —- how much they focus on him how much they don’t.

Kellie Meyer of NewsNation
Kellie Meyer of NewsNation

O’KEEFE: We spent the few days we were here first with his super PAC watching how they were already going door to door knocking trying to find potential DeSantis supporters. And that’s critical in this state because it’s such a precinct by precinct, county by county, methodical, surgical attempts to find support. And if you’re doing that early, when nobody else at the national level maybe is monitoring as closely, it’s a sign that you are financed that potentially staffed well enough to do it that way. And it’s part of why I continue to believe, and this is rooted in reporting, not on from-the-hip opining, that he has a pretty sustainable operation here that could deliver him a result that is better than prognosticators might think. And that doesn’t mean he’s gonna win. … But I just think DeSantis may have built something stronger than people realize. And again, it speaks to why it’s so important to be here, and be here early, and to be able to take the time to see these things, even as there are so many other things going on in the world.

Nikki Haley’s Rise

O’KEEFE:  As far as we can tell, she’s playing catch up in terms of the methodical surgical ground game you need to prevail in an Iowa Caucus. So we’ll see how well she does without much of an operation, and maybe she can pull it off, but that won’t be easy.

ZELENY: You can’t turn on television at a commercial break or two in the local news or Wheel of Fortune and not see multiple Nikki Haley ads. She’s closing in the strongest position of her campaign. We will see what type of an effect that has. We’ll see if that sort of eats into Trump’s lead. But what I see talking to voters, it’s very clear that she’s …kind of in the moderate Republican lane, although no one would look at her voting record and thanks and say she’s not a conservative, but she definitely has filled the vacuum of people looking for a Trump alternative. And she doesn’t talk about her gender very often. But it became clear a lot of the people in her crowds are women, and women bringing their daughters and granddaughters … She doesn’t talk about the fact that she’s a woman. She’s certainly not running because she’s a woman. But it is clear that that is something that has captured the attention and interest of women. And boy, you don’t see many children at Donald Trump rallies. You see a lot of young girls and kids at Haley rallies.

Don’t Trust The Media

HILLYARD: [Supporters] have been told not to trust the media for eight plus years now, and there has not been a major effort within the Republican Party over those eight years to tell the voting electorate otherwise. I think the conversations that I am having with Republican voters in 2024 is a wildly different conversation than I was having in 2015. And it’s because there is an extreme lack of trust and a different plane of reality in which a good number of votes are viewing our democracy today.

O’KEEFE: You will get certain people [at rallies and events] who try to give you a piece of their mind before they give you an answer, and what I think they very quickly realize is that we are seriously and earnestly trying to listen to them and convey how people who support whichever candidate … are feeling. And there are those who go, ‘Well you’re not this outlet. So you must be —-‘ All sorts of different terms. But what I just do is try to keep my head down and keep doing my job and demonstrate through my reporting, both in interacting with them and then what results on the air, that we’re not what they think we are.

[I say] I’m just trying to talk to you and explain to people in the United States what’s going on here in Iowa. And often by making that kind of simple ask for help, and allowing them to be the expert on what’s going on in their neck of the woods, they understand what we’re trying to do. And I have walked out of some of those conversations where people go ‘Oh, you’re not as bad as I thought you were.’

ZELENY: A lot of Trump supporters want to explain their support for him. They also feel a little bit like they’ve been sort of caricatured and given a bad name. So I’ve met just as many Trump supporters who are eager to tell me why they support Donald Trump as those who tell me to pound sand.

HILLYARD: [Hillyard said that while he tries to point to facts to voters] I also feel like it’s not necessarily my job to convince somebody the truth. Instead, I feel like my role as a journalist is to also understand why voters believe what they do, and why they are following Donald Trump nine years on. And I think that factual reporting is essential, but also Donald Trump has a grasp over a movement and is not tethered to the facts that news organizations are reporting out.

HEMMER: One thing I have found is that the media gets fractured more and more every election cycle, and I think it happens because of technology. And I expect between 2024 and 2028, then it’ll be it’ll be fractured even more. In part it gives candidates of whatever political persuasion an opportunity to reach people in places where they could not reach them before. As far as Trump going after the media, that’s been that’s been his strategy going back eight years. And perhaps you make the argument that it worked for him in 2016, it did not work for him in 2020. But both of those elections were razor tight.

HILLYARD: I always tell voters that I’m with NBC News, and give them my name. And I think it’s important to have a baseline understanding of who we each other are in order to actually have any serious thoughtful conversations. The Trump campaign continues to provide access to NBC News, and I have no reason to believe that that would change in any way because I hope that there is a mutual understanding that our ability to engage with President Trump is essential to … our reporting on the election just a few months ahead, but also to ensure that our major platforms are also accurately reporting on the events that are unfolding around the Trump campaign, and the former president’s words.

O’KEEFE: I think there is a misguided belief among some Republican or conservative operatives and organizations that think the only way you need to spend time in the media space is by talking to Fox and Newsmax and One America network and Right Side Broadcasting Network and podcasts. I think the 2022 midterm elections show us that candidates who did that even in the general election, failed to win because there aren’t enough people watching just those outlets to turnout and win an elections. You have to be talking to nonpartisan, non ideological, traditional fact-based news organizations because they still have larger audiences too. … You have to be talking to CBS, because in the Des Moines market on KCCI and Cedar Rapids and in the Quad Cities, the CBS station is usually number one or number two. Therefore you’re reaching people who still watch television or who are watching football on Sundays or tune into newscasts local and national. And when I remind them of that often, communication aides who have built a primarily conservative news outlet strategy, stop and go, ‘You know, you’ve got a good point.’

What’s Next

HEMMER: If Trump captures 50% plus, his campaign has a major headline. If he doesn’t, my prediction would be that for the next eight days leading toward New Hampshire is that the media would put all of its focus on whomever is the second place finisher. As I state that, I’m assuming that second place finisher would be at a minimum of 20%, and they’d finish ahead of where the polling wisdom today.

O’KEEFE: At this point the story isn’t if Donald Trump will win, it’s how he will win and by how much. If it’s closer than polling has suggested, that won’t surprise me. Will it surprise others? Well, it shouldn’t if you’ve been out here, But also it might signal that despite what someone might tell a pollster on the phone for whatever reason, those people didn’t show up to help them out. Why is that? Was it as simple as being a cold night? Was it because they just wanted to say Trump because they’re worried about what their friends and neighbors might think if they don’t? Or because they wanted to say him because doing that in their view would make us bad, which we wouldn’t be we’re just asking questions?

MEYER: You can go and campaign all you want. Go to the state fair. Be out there in Iowa. Do two full Grassleys [by visiting all 99 counties]. But none of that matters if you don’t get people to turn up and caucus for you on caucus night. And that’s the biggest thing. And Trump supporters were saying at the rally there that they are going to show up. Trump was saying in his speech that my supporters would walk on glass to go out there and support him.

SCOTT: One thing I do think is important to note is that there are voters that still haven’t made up their mind. There are voters that, as we came into the new year, really just started to pay attention to what was going on in the Republican primary. I also think that you have some voters that may not want to openly express that they’re backing the former president with all the controversy that’s swirling around him, or may not want to express that they’re actually breaking from the former president. I would say my expectations for the Iowa surprise are a lot lower than in previous cycles, but I’m not ruling it out.

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