Our DeSantis and Haley Reporters Switched Places. Here’s What They Found.

For months, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, Republican contenders locked in a heated rivalry for second place in their party’s 2024 presidential nominating contest, have been crisscrossing Iowa ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

And so have we.

As beat reporters, we’ve been trailing these two candidates for so long that we can recite every punchline, anticipate the applause and guess their potential responses to questions from voters on the campaign trail. Normally, Nicholas Nehamas is on the road with Mr. DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Jazmine Ulloa follows Ms. Haley, former governor of South Carolina.

On the final Saturday before Iowans vote, we switched roles for a day. Nicholas drove northeast from Des Moines to a Haley event at a brewery in Cedar Falls. Jazmine headed west to a DeSantis event in Council Bluffs.

Here’s what we learned.

NICHOLAS The first thing I noticed when I walked into Second State Brewing in Cedar Falls: Ms. Haley’s warm-up music wasn’t deafening. At DeSantis events, the music drowns out every thought and makes it difficult to talk to voters. Which almost feels intentional.

The Haley crowd, roughly 60 people, was also a little younger and more suburban than I was used to. One voter told me she was a New York Times subscriber — not something I typically hear when I’m following Mr. DeSantis.

About 15 minutes before Ms. Haley went onstage, someone announced over the sound system that reporters needed to go to the back of the room. I ignored that and kept talking to voters. Eventually, a very polite Haley staffer came to retrieve me. The tightly controlled environment felt like the early days of the DeSantis campaign, when harried staff members tried to keep us away from voters and sometimes even the candidate.

JAZMINE As I approached the doors of the Grass Wagon in Council Bluffs, I could already hear the music pounding. The set list of pop and classic rock is not unlike the one that plays ahead of Haley events. But inside, at least today, the volume was not overbearing. Sorry, Nick!

Most likely because of the freezing temperatures (my eyes were watering from the cold, and even the locals were complaining), the crowd appeared to be small, no more than 100. But it was energetic and, during Mr. DeSantis’s remarks, quick to offer applause. What struck me immediately was the number of attendees holding DeSantis signs and wearing campaign stickers. When I spoke to voters, it was clear many were firm Republicans — and firmly decided on Mr. DeSantis.

Looking around, I saw only a couple of large American and Iowa state flags, trimmings that seemed sparser than I expected. Ms. Haley has argued that Mr. DeSantis is a prolific spender of campaign dollars, citing his flights on private planes and the staffing cuts he made amid a cash crunch, but his display, at least now, appeared similar to Ms. Haley’s: just enough.

NICHOLAS Haley-curious voters feel like a totally different slice of the Republican electorate: more moderate, less concerned with what people do in private, not necessarily part of the local G.O.P. activist set. Most of the people I spoke with described themselves as socially moderate. Two had never caucused before. Most said they were Never Trumpers. Several were undecided, although leaning toward Ms. Haley.

DeSantis voters I’ve spoken with are more likely to be hard-line conservatives who are heavily involved in local Republican politics.

One undecided voter especially surprised me: Peter Salmon, 35, an evangelical pastor. His No. 1 issue was abortion, on which Ms. Haley has been far less strident than Mr. DeSantis. But Mr. Salmon appreciated her inclusive language. “I think she has the same pro-life convictions that I have,” he said, even as he acknowledged that her position was “a little confusing.” Still, Mr. Salmon said, “she doesn’t talk about the issue like a typical Republican candidate. She knows how to win people over.”

JAZMINE Many of the voters I spoke with had decided on Mr. DeSantis long ago. Some had even done so before he started his presidential bid. They could rattle off his battles against Disney; Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s former top infectious disease expert who was the face of the government’s Covid-19 response; and left-leaning academia. They admired his military experience. They liked his wife, Casey DeSantis.

Michael Durham, 47, a service manager, and his wife, Jenny, 45, cited Mr. DeSantis’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his hard-line stance on immigration and his promises for “educational freedom for parents” as reasons for their support.

“I was personally hoping that he would run, just seeing what he had done in Florida,” said Ms. Durham, a nurse.

Attendees at Ms. Haley’s events definitely tend to be more varied: independents, Republicans and Democrats, many of whom are undecided and eager to have their questions answered.

JAZMINE So many surrogates! Ms. DeSantis warmed up the crowd, talking up her husband and earning laughs when she said she did not mind his critics calling her “the Walmart Melania,” a reference to Melania Trump.

“OK, she’s gorgeous,” she said. “And yes, I show up at Walmart because of Joe Biden and his economic policies. Everything is expensive.”

Top endorsers, including Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa; Bob Vander Plaats, an influential leader of the state’s Christian right; and Representative Chip Roy of Texas, were on hand to extol Mr. DeSantis’s conservative credentials and paint a gloomy picture of the United States without Mr. DeSantis at the helm.

At Haley events, surrogates tend to be volunteers or state lawmakers who talk up her ability to build consensus and connect with people.

NICHOLAS Haley had no surrogates to augment her message on Saturday, perhaps reflecting her thin network of Iowa endorsers. Maybe her sweater was doing the work of introducing her. It bore the text: “She who dares wins.”

NICHOLAS Ms. Haley’s stump speech was where the contrast between the two jumped out at me most. She made her points quickly, directly and often personally. She didn’t use acronyms or delve very deeply into policy or her record. She talked openly about her family, including the difficulty that her husband, Michael, experienced after returning from Afghanistan.

“When he got home, life got hard,” she said. “He couldn’t hear loud noises. He couldn’t be in crowds.” I almost never hear Mr. DeSantis, a Navy lawyer who deployed to Iraq, say much about his military service.

While Jazmine tells me that Ms. Haley’s stump speech is almost word-for-word identical at each stop, it didn’t sound memorized or overly rehearsed. The whole experience seemed to make for much easier listening than your typical DeSantis speech.

JAZMINE There was definitely a more abrasive tone to Mr. DeSantis’s stump. He bellowed into the mic, largely standing in one spot, while Ms. Haley tends to pace back and forth across the center of the room.

At times, he got so granular on the issues that it was difficult to follow him. He ticked off his battles with Disney, China, Dr. Fauci and “D.E.I.” (diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives), and delivered long-winded broadsides against leftist ideology and big corporations.

“We’re going to take all the social stuff, all the politics, all the woke,” he said. “We’re going to rip it out. We’re going to throw it in the trash can.”

NICHOLAS Mr. Trump was almost entirely absent from Ms. Haley’s short, polished speech, other than her standard dismissal, “Chaos follows him.” Voters didn’t seem to require more. One woman in the crowd repeated that line back to me when I asked her what she liked about Ms. Haley.

Mr. DeSantis takes shots at Ms. Haley all the time, and his insults have been growing more and more cutting. But Ms. Haley barely said a word about him in Cedar Falls, only critiquing his electability: “Ron doesn’t beat Biden,” she said.

JAZMINE: Mr. DeSantis came out swinging at both Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley right at the top of his speech, delivering what — as Nick has reported — has become something of a campaign slogan: “Donald Trump is running to pursue his issues. Nikki Haley’s running for the donors’ issues. I’m running for your issues.”

Unlike Ms. Haley, who tends to wait until the end to deliver her sharpest blows, Mr. DeSantis laces his remarks with digs at her and Mr. Trump throughout. At one point he sought to portray her as an establishment figure too liberal for Iowa Republicans: “I had the debate the other night on CNN with Hillary,” he said, faking a slip. “I mean Nikki.”

JAZMINE Mr. DeSantis took questions from reporters! And from voters, too. Ms. Haley usually takes questions from voters and stays long after her events shaking hands and taking photos with supporters. But she mostly ignores the cadre of journalists trailing her from place to place.

Voters at Mr. DeSantis’s event pressed him on, among other issues, his plans to overhaul agencies, protect family farms from foreign interests and aid people affected by vaccine mandates. On nearly every response, Mr. DeSantis returned to the battles he had waged, or planned to, against his ideological opponents. He also delved with esoteric detail into conservationist efforts and health care policy in Florida.

NICHOLAS Wait, it’s over? Isn’t she going to take questions from voters? Nope, she’s really done.

This was the biggest shock of all to me. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are known to pepper presidential hopefuls with questions whenever they’re given the chance. But Ms. Haley has sometimes struggled in those situations, most notably when a voter asked her to discuss the causes of the Civil War and she didn’t mention slavery.

For a campaign-trail reporter, those Q. and A. sessions are where you really see who the candidates are, how they think on their feet and whether they can connect with voters.

I asked the Haley team, Would she answer questions from the reporters on hand? (In journalism jargon, that’s a “gaggle.”) The answer was no. Ms. Haley did field a few questions from a television reporter, however. And she took plenty of photos with voters and their children, chatting comfortably. When it was a 7-year-old girl’s turn, Ms. Haley leaned down and whispered into her ear, “Remember: You are great.”

I can’t recall too many interactions like that involving Mr. DeSantis.

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