Will 'historic' Iowa ground game lead DeSantis to caucus success? Activists discuss

Plow trucks clear Grand Avenue as high winds and snow from winter storm Gerri four days before the Iowa caucuses on January 12, 2024, in Des Moines, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates postponed or cancelled many campaign events in Iowa days before the all-important caucuses, the first primary competition of the 2024 election year.
Plow trucks clear Grand Avenue as high winds and snow from winter storm Gerri four days before the Iowa caucuses on January 12, 2024, in Des Moines, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates postponed or cancelled many campaign events in Iowa days before the all-important caucuses, the first primary competition of the 2024 election year. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the Iowa caucuses set for Monday, leaders affiliated with influential Evangelical advocacy groups believe that the cold weather will not have that much of an impact on the turnout for the first race that will kick off the 2024 presidential nominating season.

Leaders of prominent Christian advocacy organizations are weighing in on the state of the race based on their observations of what is taking place on the ground there, as well as the polls. 

According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls sampling the opinions of likely caucus-goers, based on surveys taken between Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, former President Donald Trump has captured 53.6% support, followed by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at 17.2% and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 15.2%. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is in a distant fourth at 6.8% as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, has 3.5% support. 

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Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of the FAMiLY Leader, a faith-based advocacy group headquartered in Iowa, who has endorsed DeSantis, told The Christian Post that what he sees on the ground doesn’t reflect what is happening in the polls. 

“We’re seeing basically a groundswell right now for Ron DeSantis," Vander Plaats said.

“The way I look at it … is I think DeSantis will beat expectations and possibly even win the caucuses on Monday night,” he said. “I don’t think the former president or Ambassador Haley will meet expectations.”

Vander Plaats, a respected Evangelical figure in Iowa politics, reiterated what he asserted in a previous interview with CP that DeSantis and his campaign “have the best ground game by far.” The DeSantis campaign has hired “120 county chairs for 99 counties” and “1600 precinct captains," Vander Plaats said. 

“They’ve been knocking the doors and engaging their people,” he added.

Describing the campaign strategy as “doing the caucuses the old-fashioned way" and said it "has proven to be successful in the past.” 

Ralph Reed, a longtime Evangelical political activist and leader of the nationwide advocacy group Faith and Freedom Coalition, agreed that DeSantis has a strong presence in Iowa.

In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Reed maintained that “DeSantis has a much-vaunted ground game, where they’ve knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and got … a very reliable trove of data where they feel like they’ve identified their strongest supporters, and they’ve got people who have committed.”

Reed said modern technology enables a campaign to “take your existing supporters and write an algorithm that is somewhat predictive of who in the undecideds would be likely to lean your way." He added, “I’m sure they’re doing that too.” Reed characterized “what the DeSantis campaign has done in terms of door knocks, digital touches and phone banks” as “unprecedented.”

“I think they’re claiming over 600,000 door knocks … in a caucus where 200,000 people are going to turn out. And if you do the math, and you’re looking at 1.7 registered voters per household, which is the industry standard … that means they reached … well over a million voters in Iowa.” 

As he classified DeSantis’ ground game as “historic,” Reed suggested that it might not enable him to win the Iowa caucuses in light of Trump’s dominant polling lead. Citing George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign manager Lee Atwater’s belief that “a superior ground game and field organization was worth about 5 points,” Reed commented, “I don’t think having a superior ground game even in a caucus is worth 10, 15 or 20 points.” Still, he surmised that “This thing is far from over.”

“The nomination process tends to be a marathon, not a sprint,” he explained. Reed brought up the rest of the presidential nominating calendar, specifically stressing the importance of the Iowa caucuses as well as the New Hampshire presidential primary scheduled to take place on Jan. 23 and the “Super Tuesday” contests slated for March 5: “If you end up with a shocking outcome in one of these first … states, you’re going all the way at least to Super Tuesday and probably well beyond that.” 

Vander Plaats contrasted the DeSantis campaign’s ground game with those of his three main rivals.

“If you talk to a person in Iowa right now, if you ask them has anybody knocked on your door, they will tell you that the DeSantis team has probably knocked on their door … four times. And then you’ll ask them, ‘Have you had anybody knock on your door from the former president or Ambassador Haley or Vivek Ramaswamy?’ and they’ll say no. And that just tells me they don’t have an organization; they don’t have a ground game.” 

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, disagreed that the other candidates didn't have adequate ground games. He praised the Trump campaign in particular, mentioning that at a Trump rally he attended, “three times did they pound down about exactly what to do” by advising attendees to “show up” and “be in line by 7.” He compared this year’s “Trump operation” as “so much superior than what they did eight years ago.” 

When asked about the impact of the anticipated bitter cold weather on caucus turnout, Vander Plaats replied that he believes the weather will have an impact on the caucuses. He said, "Typically, the person that has the best organization is going to benefit from … a cold weather or lower turnout because their organization will still produce.”

At the same time, Vander Plaats acknowledged that Iowans are “pretty hearty” and “kind of used to winter weather,” suggesting “I still think we’ll have a great turnout.”

He offered a caveat that he did not “know if it will be higher than 2016 though,” when nearly 190,000 people turned out. 

Reed told reporters that Faith & Freedom Coalition’s models estimated a projected turnout of between 200,000 and 220,000 before reports of the extremely cold weather forecast came in. “I can’t really peg a number at this point because I think the weather is unpredictable,” he said.

Reed suggested that turnout might drop if there are "high winds" and snow, while stressing that “there’s nothing really particularly surprising about a cold snap” in Iowa. Regarding claims that bad weather will impact turnout, Reed remarked, “I’m just not buying it.”

“I think they’re going to come. I think they’re going to come in record numbers,” he added. 

Reed elaborated on how Iowans take the process "very seriously.”

“They play a cherished role in the selection of the president of the United States," he said. "It’s an historic role. It’s something that they take on a very deep and personal level.”

Reed also offered his opinions as to what constituted a good performance for the three major candidates in the race: Trump, DeSantis and Haley.

“For Trump, a win is a win,” he asserted. “The learning curve for Trump in understanding the difference between a rally and a performance at a rally and what you actually had to do to get fannies in metal chairs in firehouses, church basements and hotels and high school gymnasiums involves a massive organizational achievement.” 

“If Trump were to win not by any amount, but let’s say by 10% or more, I think that would be everything that they would ask for,” Reed predicted.

As for DeSantis, Reed opined that “the key is No. 1, to make sure he comes in second, and No. 2, to make that second as close as he can.”

Reed told reporters, "If I were the DeSantis campaign, I’d want to overperform the current numbers and through my field organization and my organizational prowess … hopefully come within at least 10, if not closer.”

Scheffler said that If Trump wins big in Iowa, he believes "that’s probably beginning of the end" for DeSantis. 

"With all the time he has spent here, the humongous amount of resources he put into Iowa, if he doesn’t actually win the caucuses or come very, very close, within 2 or 3%, I don’t see how he goes on to New Hampshire to make his case," Scheffler said. "They’ve done everything they can here.”

Reiterating that DeSantis “has to either win or come in very close second,” Scheffler added that if Haley “comes in second, which is possible but maybe not probable, then I think you’re seeing the end of the road for Ron DeSantis.”

Reed stressed the importance of Haley finishing “right in there” with DeSantis and Trump as opposed to significantly behind them even as she focuses her campaign on New Hampshire. 

Vander Plaats forecasted that “Iowa needs to give America a choice, and I think we will on Monday night,” adding, “and we allow America to decide.” He looks forward to seeing “what happens on Monday night” and “how the candidates choose to go forward after Monday night.”

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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