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Iowa Cornfields: Where Campaigns Go To Die

Joe Trippi shares his personal experiences with Iowa caucuses and predicts the potential demise of some GOP campaigns. But will it be DeSantis' that perishes? Joe's experience says that the only thing certain about Iowa is that the caucuses will deliver some surprises.
Published:August 3, 2023

By Joe Trippi

A bunch of campaigns are going to die in an Iowa cornfield. But you will be surprised.
Since 1979 I have frozen my ass off in Iowa just about every four years during Presidential campaign season. I started out as a $15-a-day organizer running the Kennedy campaign in rural Jones County, where I milked cows for votes. Iowa is a hands-on kind of place. 
Four years later, I was running the Hawkeye state for Vice President Fritz Mondale’s campaign. (See my pinned Tweet about him - it’s worth it - Mondale won Iowa, and I was on my way to being glued to the place for pretty much the rest of my career. My fate of repeated episodes of freezing was assured when I returned four years later as Congressman Dick Gephardt’s National Deputy Campaign Manager and helped come up with the ads that shook up the race. Gephardt surged with a dramatic come-from-last-place charge and won the caucuses. 

I was doomed.  

The worst outing in Iowa of my career was as Howard Dean’s campaign manager — we took a disappointing and disheartening third. Four years after that, as a strategist for John Edwards, we took second to Barack Obama as Hillary took third. Later, I continued for years to return to freeze my ass off as an analyst for one of the cable networks. Hell, one year, I froze my ass off in Iowa for CBS Evening News. 

So I kinda know the place. 

You can quibble with my choice of candidates, but I have been with a frontrunner who won and a frontrunner who fell apart. I was with a hard-charging campaign that came from way back and upset the entire field, and I was crushed by a hard-charging campaign that left us all eating its dust.  
What’s crazy is that during all that time, I had a birdseye view of the fights in the Republican caucuses every four years. I remember in 1980 being mesmerized by George H.W. Bush’s radio commercials. I mean, as a strategist, I thought they were brilliant and was sure he was going to win Iowa with his message. Most were surprised by his Iowa defeat of Reagan - not me. Over the years, I remember sneaking into Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s Iowa rallies that featured Chuck Norris just to see how Iowans were reacting. I watched and learned and was sure in 2012 that Senator Rick Santorum would defeat Mitt Romney in the Hawkeye state. People thought I was crazy. BTW I am not saying I’m not crazy, anyone who has gone back to Iowa as often as I have is probably certifiable, but Santorum ended up being declared the winner in Iowa a few weeks after the caucuses that year.
So with the first Republican debate a month away and the caucuses about six months away, here are some of my takes and what to look for:
First of all, Iowa is a place where a lot of campaigns go to die. Horribly in a cornfield or worse, in a long freezing walk down Locust Street, wondering how it all went so wrong. Ron DeSantis’ campaign is probably going to be one of them. Iowans demand either a frontrunner they love and understand has to be in other places or they want an insurgent who can work a small room, someone they can look in the eye and fall in love with. Ron DeSantis is neither of these things. His problem is himself. People don’t like him, and the more they see him, the less they like him. His donors can pour more good money after bad, but I say stick a fork in him; he’s done.

 DeSantis’ campaign reminds me of Ohio Senator John Glenn’s campaign in 1984 (and that’s not fair to John Glenn, who I regard as a great American hero). Glenn was going to be the only one who could chase down front-running Vice President Fritz Mondale and defeat him. It was Glenn and only Glenn who stood any chance of catching the Fritz. Sound familiar? Glenn was on the cover of Time Magazine as the movie “The Right Stuff” celebrating his career as an Astronaut was a blockbuster that year. And that was back with being on the cover of Time Magazine meant something. He was it! Until it all went to hell fast. Glenn was never even a factor that year. After a hot start, he went nowhere. Not in Iowa. Not anywhere. Ron DeSantis is my bet to suffer a similar fate. John Glenn deserved better. Ron DeSantis does not His is the worst campaign I have seen by anyone in either party in a long time. 
Watch out. Someone will surprise in Iowa, and it can mean something or sometimes change everything. 
In 1980, George H.W. Bush scored a surprising upset in the Hawkeye State over Ronald Reagan. Iowa did not make him the nominee, but it likely made him the strong favorite to join Reagan on the GOP ticket as Vice President in 1980. Iowa can also change everything as it did in the 1984 race among Democrats - a race that has some parallels to this year’s Republican contest.
In 1984 the Democratic Frontrunner was former Vice President Walter Mondale. This year in the Republican contest, the frontrunner is former President Donald Trump. Just as Mondale’s perceived strongest challenger, John Glenn, unraveled this year on the Republican side, Trump’s perceived strongest challenger, Ron DeSantis, appears to be unraveling too. There was a relatively large nine-candidate field in the 1984 Democratic contest that split up the vote making it difficult to catch Mondale. Senators John Glenn. Gary Hart, Alan Cranston, George McGovern and Fritz Hollings, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and two former Florida governors were all in the race and were all in single or low double digits in polls after John Glenn fell to earth. We are seeing the same exact shape of the Republican contest this year as DeSantis stumbles.  
So what happened in 1984 may tell us something about what to expect as the Republicans slug it out today After months and months of the frontrunner Mondale sitting around 49% of the vote in most polls and seven or eight candidates all sitting stagnant low in the polls and unable to break out of the pack, something happened. Iowa happened. Everyone knew who would win. Mondale had boringly been at the top of national and Iowa polls for months. All the press, the pundits, and those party regulars who questioned Walter Mondale’s strength against Reagan wanted to know was the name of the candidate who would emerge from the field to challenge him. As I froze my ass off on that very cold night of the Iowa Caucuses in 1984, Walter Mondale received 49% of the caucus vote. Gary Hart, who had been given up for dead and was out of money, didn’t even break 20 percent in the vote that night, but he eked out a surprising second-place finish ahead of California Senator Alan Cranston (by a measly one percent). Mondale had lapped the field, defeating Hart by 30 points!
It didn’t matter. 
The press had its race! Donors who did not want Mondale knew who to throw their money at. Rank and file Democrats who had been worried for months that Mondale could not defeat Ronald Reagan all knew who their only other choice was. Gary Hart would go on to defeat Mondale in New Hampshire a week or so later. All the other campaigns had died in an Iowa cornfield. Mondale and Hart would fight to the very last primary in California. Mondale would prevail, but barely. Thanks, Iowa.
I believe that Donald Trump will be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2024. But I do think Iowa could change everything again. It has a way of doing that. Hillary was going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party in 2008 until Iowa launched Barack Obama with his surprise caucuses win that year. We have a large Republican field, fighting each other for donors and for press attention. Trump, for all his legal and other troubles, has a hold on the MAGA base. No one from the field is likely to emerge and pull away from the rest of the Trump challengers. The press will want a race. The donors who don’t want Trump will want to stop wasting money and put it behind who emerges in Iowa. The voters who are not with Trump and looking for a Republican to back will know who their alternative will be. 

Had George McGovern taken second place in 1984, Fritz Mondale would have had the nomination in a walk. No one would have picked George McGovern over Mondale to face Reagan. Will one of the Republican candidates eke out a surprise in Iowa in 2024? Count on it. The question is going to be, will that surprise come from someone Republican voters come to see as having a better chance at defeating Joe Biden than Donald Trump? That won’t be Ron DeSantis, and it may not be any of them. 


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