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How Trump Sidestepped the Tradition of Iowa Pandering

In an attempt to win over voters, presidential candidates frequently become involved in state politics; however, this race is different in that local problems will receive significantly less attention.

**Shifting Dynamics in Iowa Elections Pre-Caucus Months** 

Traditionally, in the months leading up to the caucus in Iowa, candidates engage in election campaigning by embracing local customs, touring prominent places, and supporting policies aimed at aiding the state’s agriculture-driven economy. 

However, this year, the Republican vying for the presidential position has refrained from giving substantial importance to local primaries on a large scale. This departure doesn’t seem as effective as past attempts. The primary reason behind this shift is the current Republican frontrunner, Donald J. Trump, who, despite facing challenges in the state, has maintained his dominance with a non-conventional approach. While he does mention Iowa’s farmers in his speeches and talks about the money he invested in the state, Trump has departed from the classic retail politics, which is the primary basis for the caucus, focusing more on national issues during his big rallies. 

In doing so, Trump suggests that showing excessive respect for local primaries might not be as necessary to secure victory in Iowa – at least for a former president with substantial support. 

Brent Seegrist, a state representative from Council Bluffs, stated, “Most of the discussion is about national issues rather than Iowa-centric, like border security and the economy and inflation, national issues.” He suggested that if Trump “wasn’t in the field, maybe some other issues would have come more to the forefront,” indicating a shift in focus away from local issues. 

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, expressed being “surprised” that the situation at the American-Mexican border, instead of a more localized issue, emerged as the “forefront” issue for many voters. 

While other candidates still demand making Iowa-specific pitches to make the caucus a traditionally distinct race, Trump, just before the caucus, has maintained a considerable lead of almost 30 points over his nearest competitor in the latest Des Moines Register poll, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. His pitches don’t always resonate well with local issues, and instead of using local issues as a strategy to win, he has worked more on creating a divide among candidates competing for the second spot rather than competing on winning local issues. 

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who had aimed for a strong performance in the caucus, has modified his proposals to engage in heated discussions with agricultural communities, such as removing the “death tax” on family farms. 

During a recent CNN debate, Mr. DeSantis and Mrs. Haley took subtle jabs at each other on ethanol and agricultural issues. On Thursday, Mrs. Haley targeted Mr. DeSantis for supporting a past law to eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard, a popular policy requiring the blending of ethanol into gasoline. 

Wealthy entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy criticized his opponents, including Trump, for not staunchly opposing carbon dioxide pipelines, which, through eminent domain, could seize the land of some Iowans via a prestigious domain. 

Yet, during these times, such exchanges seemed almost peculiar when Trump and his legal entanglements were garnering the most attention. Monte Shaw, executive director of the Renewable Fuels Association, said lower-polling candidates had effectively put an end to discussing Iowa’s issues with voters or participating in debates through “mandatory Iowa-focused discussions in Town Hall meetings.” However, he said Trump’s big rallies had allowed him to “stick to broader issues because he has the ability to attract big crowds.” He said, “This is not your typical caucus because you have a former president.”  

“However, as Mr. Trump has tried to increase support in the state, he has also made local pitches in recent times. In a video posted by Mr. Trump’s super PAC a day before the caucus, he said he would ‘support ethanol’ because ‘ethanol has supported me’ – though no specific information was given regarding the policy context. 

In the long run, Iowa won’t see any significant difference in the increased attention to national priorities. Ultimately, previous candidates have often made promises that they forget as the primary calendar progresses. For example, during his first term, former President Barack Obama faced criticism from agricultural organizations in Iowa for not fulfilling the promise made during the Iowa campaign, where he pledged to address the shortcomings benefiting ‘mega-farms.’ 

Iowans say that focusing on their state in recent years has benefited them on a large scale. They point to examples like the appointment of Iowa’s former Governor Tom Vilsack as the Secretary of Agriculture under the Obama and Biden administration, indicating that hosting presidential candidates brings benefits. 

Iowa has influenced policies by forcing candidates to study the Farm Bill, a legislative package overseeing agriculture and food programs nationwide. Former Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa mentioned that former President George W. Bush, who won the Iowa Caucus and became the last Republican candidate to become the party’s nominee, was ‘crucial’ in implementing the renewable fuel standard. 

Mr. Branstad said, ‘Under his leadership, the use of ethanol increased significantly, even though he was from the oil state of Texas.’ ‘It was something that Iowans appreciated.’ 

Mr. Trump often claims to have given farmers a relief amount of $28 billion to counter any effects of trade wars. However, specific issues are receiving less attention. 

Nevertheless, the first position in the state – exclusive to Republicans in this cycle – has become crucial for lesser-known candidates trying to shine in their campaigns. David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, suggested that years before entering the presidential race, candidates should consider how they would address issues affecting agricultural policy and rural Americans. 

‘If you are a senator from a state where there is no agriculture, where no corn is grown, you still have to think about ethanol subsidies right now, and, ‘Will this harm me in Iowa?” Mr. Peterson said. ‘Supporting it is a cost-free thing because your constituents don’t care about it, but if you’re running for president, opposing it could be costly.’ 

Keeping this in mind, the 2024 candidates have made promises at different levels. Mr. Desantis has pledged to relocate the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Iowa. Ms. Haley has promised to ‘compete with China to free American farmers and ranchers.’ And Mr. Ramaswamy has suggested connecting the U.S. dollar with agricultural commodities. 

This week, Mr. Desantis, Ms. Haley, and former Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a long-time candidate, attended the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit to express their support for all eight parts of the ‘Biofuel Vision’ plan, which includes promoting renewable fuels and opposing the electric vehicle mandate. 

However, Mr. Trump, who has built a formidable lead against his competitors and is popular among Iowa’s farmers, has not taken a public stance on more than half of them.” 

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