Iowa Pandering Has Been Scarce in This Unusual Republican Primary

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Campaigning in Iowa in the months leading up to the caucuses has traditionally involved candidates embracing local customs, visiting iconic locations and championing policies aimed at helping the state’s farm-driven economy.

But this year, the Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination have largely avoided over-the-top pandering to local priorities — and any such attempts appear not to be as effective as in the past.

That’s largely because former President Donald J. Trump, who has run in the style of an incumbent, has dominated the state while barely setting foot in it. Though he refers to Iowa farmers in his speeches and talks about how he has poured money into the state, Mr. Trump has eschewed the classic retail politicking that is a mainstay of the caucuses in favor of larger rallies while focusing his message more on national issues.

In doing so, Mr. Trump is suggesting that it is perhaps not as necessary to show so much deference to local priorities to score a victory in Iowa — at least, for a former president with a huge following.

“Most of the talk is about border security and the economy and inflation, national issues rather than Iowa-centric,” said Brent Siegrist, a state representative in Council Bluffs. If Mr. Trump was “not in the field, maybe some other issues would have risen to a more prominent role,” he suggested.

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of Iowa’s Republican Party, said he was “surprised” that the state of the U.S. border with Mexico, rather than a more local issue, had “vaulted to the forefront” of issues for many voters.

The other candidates have still sought to make Iowa-specific pitches typical of a traditional race. But with Mr. Trump maintaining a nearly 30-point lead over his nearest rival — Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina — in the final Des Moines Register poll before the caucuses, their pitches do not always seem to land. Local issues have instead served more of a differentiator among the candidates competing for second place, rather than part of a winning strategy.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has visited all of the state’s 99 counties and was pinning his hopes on a strong showing in the caucuses, has leaned into proposals aimed at resonating with agricultural communities, such as calling to remove a “death tax” on family farms.

Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley briefly sniped at each other over ethanol and agricultural issues during the most recent CNN debate. On Thursday, Ms. Haley took aim at Mr. DeSantis at a biofuels summit for previously supporting legislation to repeal the Renewable Fuels Standard, a popular policy that requires ethanol to be blended into gasoline.

And Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy entrepreneur, has harshly criticized his rivals, including Mr. Trump, by name for not opposing carbon dioxide pipelines that would seize some Iowans’ land via eminent domain.

Yet such sparring seemed almost quaint at a time when Mr. Trump and his legal travails continue to suck up most of the attention.

Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Renewable Fuels Association, said that the lower-polling candidates had “inevitably ended up talking about Iowa issues” by way of engaging with voters at town halls or participating in debates. But, he said, Mr. Trump’s larger rallies, with less voter interaction, had “allowed him to stick to broader issues.”

“It’s not really a typical caucus because you do have a former president running,” Mr. Shaw said. “He does have the ability to come in draw big crowds,” he said, adding that “that is not your typical Iowa caucus style.”

Still, as Mr. Trump has sought to shore up support in the state, he, too, has made last-minute local pitches. In a video posted by Mr. Trump’s super PAC one day before the caucuses, Mr. Trump said he would “endorse ethanol” because “ethanol endorsed me”— though presented no specifics about what that would entail in terms of policy.

The heightened attention on national priorities may not make much of a difference to Iowa in the long term. After all, past candidates have, at times, made promises that they seem to forget when the primary calendar moves onward. During former President Barack Obama’s first term, for example, he faced criticism from farming organizations for not fulfilling an Iowa campaign promise to close a loophole that benefited “mega-farms.”

Iowans say the focused attention has largely benefited their state over the years. They point to examples like the appointment of Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, as agriculture secretary under the Obama and Biden administrations as proof that hosting presidential candidates pays off.

Iowa has influenced policy by forcing candidates to study up on the Farm Bill, a legislative package that oversees agricultural and food programs nationwide. And Terry Branstad, the former governor of Iowa, noted that former President George W. Bush — the last Republican candidate to both win the Iowa caucuses and to become the eventual party nominee — was “instrumental” in enacting the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“The use of ethanol under his leadership went way up, even though he’s from the oil state of Texas,” Mr. Branstad said. “That was something Iowans appreciated.”

Mr. Trump often boasts that he gave farmers $28 billion in bailouts to offset any repercussions from trade wars. But his focus on specific issues has been lacking.

But the state’s first-in-the-nation status — only for Republicans this cycle — remains important to lesser-known candidates trying to spark their campaigns. David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, suggested that years before presidential hopefuls join the field, they might consider how they would address agricultural policy and issues that affect rural Americans.

“If you’re a senator from a state that doesn’t have any agriculture, that doesn’t grow any corn, you’ve still got to think about ethanol subsidies, and, ‘Will that hurt me in Iowa?’” Mr. Peterson said. “It’s a cost-less thing to support, because your constituents won’t care, but it could potentially be a costly thing to oppose if you end up running for president.”

With that in mind, the 2024 candidates have made varying degrees of such promises. Mr. DeSantis has vowed to move the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Iowa. Ms. Haley has made general promises to take on China to “free America’s farmers and ranchers.” And Mr. Ramaswamy has suggested tying the U.S. dollar to agricultural commodities.

This week, Mr. DeSantis, Ms. Haley and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a long-shot candidate, appeared at a forum for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit to woo farmers, duly voicing their support for all eight parts of a “Biofuels Vision” plan, including promises to promote renewable fuels and oppose electric vehicle mandates.

Mr. Trump, however, who maintains a commanding lead over his rivals and remains a favorite among Iowa farmers, had not publicly taken a stance on more than half of them.

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