Will You Vote for Trump Again?

It’s the question weighing on Republicans across the country. But Iowans get to decide first. We listened as they grappled with their choices.

There is no way around it: The Iowa caucuses on Monday, the kickoff of the 2024 presidential election, are not really about competing visions for the future of the Republican Party. They are not a battle between dueling ideologies or policy priorities or America’s role in the world.

They revolve around one man, the gravitational center of Republican politics for nearly a decade: the former — and perhaps future — President Donald J. Trump.

Republicans are in the throes of deciding whether they want Mr. Trump to continue his total dominance over their party. Do they want four more years of his brand of personality-driven, divisive and combative politics? Do they see him as a victim, or as a demagogue? Are they willing to risk nominating a candidate facing 91 charges and who could be a felon come Election Day?

Polling shows Republicans are preparing to take the leap; Mr. Trump appears to likely win in Iowa. But the numbers don’t capture the ambivalence and anxiety weighing on many as they grapple with their decisions.

We listened as nearly two dozen Iowa Republicans talked through the factors guiding their choices — the worries about high prices and high interest rates, concerns about divisions and morality, a deep skepticism about the justice system and the news media and, for some, an abiding loyalty to Mr. Trump. His rivals, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, have struggled to break that bond.

But if there was a common theme, it is one shared with Democrats this year, too. Republicans do not feel good about their choices — or the political system that served them up. In Iowa, they are taking their first steps into this election year with trepidation, fear and their fingers crossed.

“I’m hanging with Trump by the whiskers,” said John-Charles Fish, a 45-year-old who works in marketing in Waukon, a small town in the northeastern corner of the state. Mr. Fish considers himself an independent and libertarian but will vote in the Republican caucus on Monday.

“The alternatives don’t seem appealing. Things were better with him in office than they are now. That’s what keeps me hanging in.”

Still, Mr. Fish worries about chaotic sideshows from the former president “when we start this all over again.” But he is weighing that concern against more personal ones.

“All the buzzwords are real: economy, inflation, all the job situations. I have been pretty lucky, though, in my personal instance. My situation hasn’t changed a heck of a lot. But I am not in any kind of improvement.”

Instead, he said, he is “kind of stuck” in his house because of elevated interest rates, putting thousands of dollars in his home and van rather than buying new ones. The father of two children, ages 2 and 5, Mr. Fish often lies awake at night anxious about their future.

“What does the American economy look like for them, what will the geopolitics look like when they are older — will there be another world war? There are so many hot spots. There is not a lot of stability and we know full well there might be stuff that tears us apart internally.”

He sees the kind of crime and homelessness in Chicago as inevitable for smaller cities like his. “There’s is a lot that is approaching and it’s going to close in on us sooner or later.”

For years, Mr. Fish has felt pulled between the country’s political poles: he toggles between CNN and Fox News, often with both on at the same time on his computer, “literally split screen.” After voting for George W. Bush, he voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Mr. Trump twice.

“We’ll see if I do it again.”

Emilia Sanchez, a 24-year-old customer service representative in Evansdale, a small town south of Waterloo, has no hesitation: “I am standing by President Trump.”

Ms. Sanchez enthusiastically voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, her first presidential election. As a young adult starting a life with her fiancé, she believes a second Trump administration would create the most opportunities for people like her.

“We had him for four years and I think he did a terrific job,” she said. “When Covid happened, he made sure the American people were taken care of, gave us the stimulus package, especially with groceries and gas prices.”

Now, she watches his legal cases grind through the system with disbelief. Mr. Trump is charged with mishandling classified documents, defrauding the government and obstructing Congress, among other charges stemming from his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Ms. Sanchez has no doubt of Mr. Trump’s innocence in each case and sees his desire for televised proceedings as evidence. “The fact that he would want to broadcast all of that shows that he’s brave and believes the American people have a right to see it,” she said, adding that she relies primarily on TikTok and Reddit for news. “So many Democrats, they are not happy that Trump is running again — the media is especially eager to paint him as a criminal.”

She worries about crime now, more than she did when Mr. Trump was president. More than anything, she worries about the southern border, which she calls “wide open,” and said she was particularly anxious about people coming in who “are not for America.”

She dreams of buying a house not far from where she grew up, but it feels increasingly out of reach as prices and interest rates both climb. She routinely checks her receipts from the local grocery store and is taken aback by the price of staples like ranch dressing and bacon.

“We’re giving money for other countries, like Israel and Ukraine, which I know are our allies, but we are already severely in debt and we are digging ourselves deeper,” she said. “We need to be standing by America, taking care of American people’s needs first.”

Kelly Nieuwenhuis, 64, voted for Trump twice, but no more. “I am really disappointed in the chaos created through his administration,” he said. What if the former president wins the Republican Party nomination? “I really don’t think I will vote for him again, and I can’t say I would vote for the Democratic nominee either.”

The possibility of a Haley administration offers some hope. “I think the key to everything is national security, and she has the best view on how to get there.”

The focus has to stay on the war in Ukraine and ensure that Russia does not win, he said. “I have traveled around the world,” said Mr. Nieuwenhuis, who owns soybean, corn and hog farms and lives in Primghar. “I want a president who is respected around the world and we can have good foreign relations with.”

Often, he thinks back to times when the country was not so divided. “I think Nikki Haley is a person who can unite the United States,” he said. “We don’t need a leader who creates more division. I travel a lot and connect with a lot of people around the Midwest who want to live in what unites us. That is where she will shine.”

Shannon Demastus, a 53-year-old grandmother and wife of an evangelical pastor, who also runs a ministry at the church in Des Moines, views Mr. DeSantis as the only candidate who “does what he says is he going to do.”

For the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, she said, “we could have somebody in the White House who we could be proud of.”

She ties much of her admiration to his wife, Casey, whom she views as a “strong woman and strong mama.” “Having that pride in the White House would be good for us all,” she said. “Strong character is not that they will never screw up, I believe that we are all sinners, but just to have somebody who doesn’t do immoral things,” she said, adding that she believed a vote for Mr. DeSantis represented “the word of God.”

She is especially enthusiastic about the governor’s fight against what she calls “woke ideology and the gay agenda pushed on my grandchildren,” who attend a private Christian school with support of state vouchers. “I am concerned about the moral decay and moral decline in America. I am concerned about the foreign countries coming in and taking away our religious freedoms.”

Though she recognizes that Mr. Trump remains far ahead in the polls, she said that most people she knows feel similarly ambivalent about his bid. “I will be sad if he is the nominee,” she said. “I would like to have somebody in the White House that represents us, who looks more like us, Middle America.”

“Without a doubt, I’m with Trump.” There is a certainty in Jan Altena’s voice, something he attributes to his belief that Mr. Trump “owes nobody anything.”

“He might have a hard time getting a caucus together, he can’t get deals with people, but he’s got principles, that’s the key feature there,” said Mr. Altena, a 69-year-old retired entrepreneur, father of four and grandfather of nine.

Mostly, Mr. Altena, who lives in Orange City, a rural part of the state, wants to see a return to what he describes as conservative values of morality, which is unlikely to ever come from Washington, he said. “Improvements that have come to our culture haven’t come from government, but from the free market and ideas. You have to believe in morality, you can’t legislate it.”

The real question, Mr. Altena said, is: “Which comes first, the morality in ourselves or in politics?”

When his wife recently said that their parents had lived through “the Golden Age,” he heartily agreed. “There are not people standing up for ethical views anymore. During the Reagan years there was potential, but I think that was never the dominant worldview. We need to be praying for God’s revival.”

Jesse Gutierres, a 52-year-old musician and economist in Polk City, spends much of his time advising local governments on how to prepare for economic shifts. But he is also preparing his family, and blames Democrats for what he sees as shrinking opportunities. He is eager for a second Trump administration.

“The world changes so fast, we’re in a different world now,” he said. “When Trump was in office, the economy was in absolutely terrific shape. There was more competition, more freedom.”

His wife now relies primarily on consignment stores to buy clothes for herself and their children. They brace for $150 grocery-store trips almost weekly, spending what he estimates is 50 percent more than two or three years ago. When he went to replace the tires on his car this winter, the price had climbed by 65 percent.

“Everything is extremely expensive,” he said. “Everything you do in life. It has people holding on to their money. There is so much uncertainty, because so many people are afraid of what’s next, what rules are going to pop up.”

He calls social issues such as abortion and debates over gender a “kind of distraction.” He’s primarily worried about the economy and the prospects for his children, now 9 and 2, though he considers himself “an optimistic person when it comes to America.”

“We always seem to find a way to grow the economy to keep it afloat,” he said. “Historically the electorate has changed parties to get the economy to grow, and hopefully that is what will happen now. ”

Joseph Van Hooreweghe, 66, sees all of the viable Republican choices as undesirable. He calls Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who dropped out of the race Wednesday, “the only adult in the room.” He appreciates some of Ms. Haley’s positions, but finds her stance on China “a little bit ridiculous” given what he has seen in his roughly 40 business trips to the country in the last 15 years, through his work with an importing company.

For now, he is leaning toward Mr. DeSantis, but says he knows one thing with certainty: “There is no way I could vote for Trump again, as a Christian. He’s created a culture of educated, narcissistic sociopaths.”

He calls himself a “middle-of-the-road” Republican who supports many of Mr. Trump’s policies and disagrees with many of President Biden’s. But he would strongly consider voting to re-elect Mr. Biden anyway.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for Trump again — he is everything I despise in a leader. The moderates are going to decide the election, but unfortunately there is no moderate power base that is there to rein in either side.”

Mr. Van Hooreweghe, who recently retired and lives in Waterloo, is deeply disturbed by social media’s influence on politics, and how divisive the world has become. “I really believe that the vast majority of people are good, but we no longer have people in government who are focused on their constituents. They are just servicing themselves.”

Jaynie Kramer, a 21-year-old nursing student and restaurant server in Cedar Rapids, is eager for a new face in politics. Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old long-shot candidate and wealthy entrepreneur, fits the bill.

“He is younger, he is more accessible, you can find him on YouTube, he’s not banned on everything,” she said.

In so many ways, Mr. Ramaswamy feels to her like the next torchbearer for the America First approach. “I like where he stands on our involvement in the world — he’s more of an isolationist, that’s what I like.”

Ms. Kramer describes herself as “very worried” about the southern border, which she blames for an influx of drugs, including fentanyl. But she believes the solutions she hears from Mr. DeSantis “might be too strong” and supports the idea of “looking more for a path to citizenship” for some younger immigrants, particularly those who arrived as children.

As a member of Gen Z, the youngest voting demographic, she sees clearly “all of the consequences of these wars we have been involved with.”

“If it doesn’t already involve Americans, I don’t see the point,” she added. “They need to solve their own issues.”

She has found economic optimism increasingly difficult as she and her fiancé have struggled to find housing they can afford. Though they have been able to keep up with their bills so far, they have yet to build up any kind of savings.

“We thought we’d be as rich as my fiancé’s parents, but it’s not going to be possible,” she said. “Being able to go on a yearly vacation, owning a house, not having debt and having a retirement — I don’t think that can happen for us.”

Debbie Keast, 58, who runs a car dealership in Oakland, is a registered Republican who voted for Mr. Trump in the past two presidential elections.

The first time, in 2016, she was ready for a change in the White House and liked that he was not your typical politician. But by the second time, in 2020, she said, she was already tired of the former president’s antics and only voted for him because she always votes Republican.

After rioters assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, she recalled, “I was finished.”

On that day, she had been at her dealership, a small business that has been in her family for decades, when she turned on the television to watch the chaos unfold.

“Everyone I worked with was flabbergasted,” she said. That included her and her fellow Trump supporters. “I thought it was horrifying.”

She is now the only member of her large extended family who is not a “Trumpster,” she says. Will she support him if he wins the nomination? Will she support him even if he is convicted? Probably, she said, after a long pause and a sigh.

“I do agree with most of Trump’s policies, it’s the drama around him that I am over,” she said. Plus, she can’t imagine voting for a Democrat.

For now, her first choice, by far, is Ms. Haley. Ms. Keast said she admired Ms. Haley for her experience, her expertise on foreign policy and her less judgmental tone on abortion. As an accountant who grew up in a small rural town in South Carolina, Ms. Keast added, Ms. Haley seems to understand the specific struggles of small businesses in rural areas like her own.

Ms. Haley is competing “in Trump country, unfortunately,” Ms. Keast said. “I’m just hoping when we caucus, it will show a different story.”

As he has for the last 20 years, Danny Robertson, 72, will oversee his local caucus, more focused on ensuring that it runs smoothly than on his helping his candidate win. But his political loyalty lies with Mr. DeSantis, whom he became taken with after meeting him a couple of times in person.

Though Mr. Robertson is enthusiastic about Mr. Ramaswamy’s desire to slash a government work force “bloated with people we don’t need,” he said, he cannot support a candidate who “does not have a chance.”

“Our expenditures are crazy out of control,” he said, adding that he believes Mr. DeSantis would aggressively cut back on “career bureaucrats” and not shy away from picking fights with entrenched Washington. “When we keep spending, that just makes it worse. That affects each one of us, how much we pay for anything.”

And though Mr. Robertson, a retired factory worker, will not support Mr. Trump during the caucus in Page County, if he becomes the Republican candidate, he said, it will be “just fine.”

“I like some of the things he did — the conservative judges made a big difference — but if he could have just kept his mouth shut.”

And yet, Mr. Robertson dismissed all the criminal charges the president faces as “purely political.” He downplayed the violent attack on the Capitol, too: “Calling that thing on Jan. 6 a riot is a joke,” he said. “It was like it was staged.”

He could not recall a time when the world felt so very unstable, he said, and he feels certain that a Democrat in the White House would cause further harm. “Every time we’ve had a Republican in office, we’ve done better as a country — my pay went up and my investments went up,” he said. “I want less government. I want us to be doing better than China.”

Michael Jacobson, 56 and a production development technician, moved from Southern California to Hazleton, a small town in northeast Iowa, in the early 2000s after his son, then in second grade, began asking about gangs.

“I wanted something better for my kids and it was the best decision of my life,” he said. “Out here, we have space to move around and be free and safe.”

The move only further convinced him that less government means better government. Mr. Jacobson believes Mr. Trump has the best chance of creating the kind of Washington that eliminates what he sees as unnecessary regulations. “We need to let private business do its job,” he said, pointing to the sale of beef as an example. “Right now, if I go to the market, I have to pay $5 a pound for meat, but if I sold the cow, I’d only get $2 a pound. We’re more than doubling the price with regulations and taxes. The freedoms you are restricting by having government control is just wild.”

Mr. Jacobson believes such “government interference” only grew worse during the pandemic and was exacerbated by Democratic control of the White House. Now, he is deeply skeptical that anyone in the White House can improve his life or the future trajectory for his children. He views much of what happens in Washington with a cynical eye.

“Politics in the last six to 12 years has totally changed,” he said. “All the stuff we’ve seen and experienced, we’ve gone through so many problems. But is anything actually going to make a difference? Like, what’s it all for?”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.

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