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Iowa and New Hampshire showcased Trump’s strengths – and exposed his weaknesses

The former president’s ability to force the party to support his beliefs, a win-or-else mentality, and a split opposition were the reasons behind his triumphs in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Trump’s Iowa Campaign and the Unexpected Outcome

In the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s campaign in Iowa, the results could not have been worse—except for one vote. Standing behind the podium at his victory party in Des Moines, Mr. Trump appeared visibly shaken as the news on the television screen was so uncertain that the voting was still ongoing. He had secured over 50% of the votes, winning in 98 out of the state’s 99 counties, leaving his rivals, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, trailing together. Mr. DeSantis managed to slightly edge out Ms. Haley, who, though effective in slowing his momentum, wasn’t sufficient to save her candidacy.

“Did you think this would happen?” Mr. Trump reportedly commented to an adviser during the night.

On that evening, the former president, along with his top aides, boarded a plane bound for New York, referred to as the Trump Force One for campaign purposes, strengthening their strategic alliance with nearly a dozen Iowa staff members. Not everyone was invited; Mr. Trump lost Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, by one vote. According to two individuals familiar with the matter, the next morning, he was informed via a brief email from his supervisor that his contract with the Trump campaign was not being renewed.

It was the same ruthlessness the Trump team had employed over the past 14 months—win or perish. This approach aligns with the needs of a candidate facing potential incarceration if he doesn’t emerge victorious in the rigorous trials and tribulations of the 2024 presidential race.

Day and Official Itinerary Plans

While the advisers at the French presidential office claim no expectations of any new defense-related agreements from this trip, India awaits the outcome of the $9.6 billion deal for the purchase of 26 Rafale aircraft and the joint production of three Scorpène-class submarines. Previously, the Modi administration had planned to host the prime ministers of Japan, Australia, and the United States, namely Biden, Anthony Albanese, and Fumio Kishida, forming the Quad summit this week. However, Mr. Biden’s absence derailed the arrangements, including those with New Delhi.

Historical Military Collaborator and Defense Dealings

After Russia, France stands as India’s second-largest arms supplier, maintaining one of the oldest strategic partnerships in Europe for several decades. India has been utilizing French fighter jets for nearly 40 years, with the recent controversy surrounding the historic yet contentious deal for the purchase of Dassault Aviation Rafale jets. The Indian Air Force still operates two squadrons of Mirage jets purchased by India in the 1980s. Since May of last year, Messrs. Macron and Modi have met five times. Paris sees this trip as an opportunity to strengthen its strategic alliance with New Delhi amid new diplomatic challenges.

Heli’s Financial Backing and Political Network Support

On November 28, one of the economically strongest institutions, founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, extended its support to the conservative Mrs. Heli for assistance. The political network initiated by the Koch brothers began investing millions of dollars to elevate Mrs. Heli, deploying its extensive regional organization to knock doors in Iowa and New Hampshire. This move aimed to establish a grassroots force that she couldn’t build independently.

However, several donors within the Koch network started questioning this decision.

Investor Chart Westcott sent a text to other Koch donors describing the support as “half-hearted,” claiming that “besides Trump’s shadow, there’s no path for Heli in the race.”

Circular Republican Firing Squad and Trump’s Opposition

The Circular Republican Firing Squad, targeting everyone except the frontrunner, emerged as the representative of the 2016 primary campaign’s reprise. In that race, Trump’s well-funded rivals spent millions to destroy each other, leaving him largely unscathed. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who withdrew from the presidential race early this month, noted, “No one put pressure on Trump with paid media for the second primary cycle.” Despite consistent criticism and negative ads, Christie lacked resources to contribute significantly to TV efforts.

An adequately funded organization attempting to assail Trump through paid media – a branch of the Club for Growth, an anti-establishment group – quickly realized its efforts were in vain. The group’s leader, David McIntosh, admitted defeat in September, stating that their attempt did not impact Trump. Some ads even had the reverse effect, strengthening Trump’s position.

Mrs. Heli’s spokeswoman, Olivia Perez-Cubas, revealed in an interview that Mrs. Heli had started her 14-person race with a 2% beginning and, within months, escalated to clearing the field, reaching 43% in New Hampshire, turning it into a two-person race. Perez-Cubas emphasized Mrs. Heli’s commitment to fighting for the 70% of Americans who do not want a Biden-Trump rematch.

Trump’s Advisers and the Divided Opposition

Trump’s advisers were surprised that apparently no lessons had been learned from 2016. Even two early-state Republican governors, committed to defeating Trump in 2024, found themselves working against each other for opposing goals. Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa supported Mr. DeSantis, while Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire backed Mrs. Heli.

Once again, Trump’s opponents found victory by dividing themselves.

‘Defining DeSantis Quickly’: Unexpected developments unfolded by the end of December. Mr. DeSantis faced unforeseen challenges. The Trump team had deemed him no longer a serious threat after the joint force of Trump and Heli negatively impacted his campaign. He maintained some strength in Iowa but gained support in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Trump’s cruel attempt to mock Mr. DeSantis, initiated months before entering the race, proved politically lethal. The Trump campaign’s gutter-level efforts to tarnish him – questioning his modesty, ridiculing his high-heeled boots – supplemented a complementary campaign that ran national ads about his interest in changing social security, targeting conservative voters.

MGAE Inc.’s pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio commented, “We had already decided that we would define DeSantis in the campaign much before he joined the race – to weaken his electoral arguments and reduce his numbers with conservative voters in internal metrics.” The Trump super PAC, Never Back Down, took on the increasing burden. However, Mr. DeSantis quickly rebounded in Iowa, using direct-mail attacks on socially conservative voters. Yet, as soon as Never Back Down withdrew from internal conflicts, resignations, and infighting, DeSantis’s operation got entangled in financial difficulties during the summer campaign.

As it became evident that the DeSantis operation was struggling amid financial constraints, its major super PAC, Never Back Down, faced internal turmoil. During the summer months of the campaign, financial constraints plagued the effort, leading to a departure from internal debates, resignations, and infighting. Yet, as Never Back Down extricated itself from internal disputes, the allies of Mr. DeSantis formed a new group, Fight Right, to run ads against Heli.

In the realm of politics, the landscape can swiftly shift from weakness to opportunity. When Trump criticized Mr. DeSantis in September on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” calling his signing of the six-week abortion ban “a terrible mistake,” internal metrics showed a decline in support among the most conservative voters. The Trump team was astonished that DeSantis’s operation did not promptly address and promote it in the paid media. With a focused attack on socially conservative voters in Iowa through direct mail, Mr. DeSantis regained momentum. Yet, as Never Back Down receded from internal conflicts and infighting, Mr. DeSantis’s operation faced financial struggles during the summer campaign.

This presented a moment of vulnerability for Trump and an overlooked opportunity for Mr. DeSantis.

When the former president labeled Mr. DeSantis’s signing of the six-week abortion ban as a “terrible mistake” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September, the reaction from the most conservative voters was swift. Internal metrics demonstrated a dip in support. Surprisingly, DeSantis’s team failed to promptly address and counteract this through paid media. This allowed him to regain ground through targeted direct-mail attacks on socially conservative voters in Iowa. Meanwhile, with Never Back Down dealing with internal disputes, DeSantis’s operation faced financial challenges during the summer campaign.

The dynamics shifted from vulnerability for Trump to an opportunity overlooked by Mr. DeSantis.

In September, Trump’s criticism of Mr. DeSantis for signing the six-week abortion ban was swiftly reflected in declining support among the most conservative voters, as revealed by internal metrics. Surprisingly, DeSantis’s campaign did not respond promptly through paid media to counteract the negative impact. This vulnerability allowed him to regain support by focusing on direct-mail attacks aimed at socially conservative voters in Iowa. Simultaneously, as Never Back Down navigated internal conflicts, DeSantis’s campaign struggled financially during the summer months.

Trump’s Unwavering Base and DeSantis’s Resurgence

Despite these challenges, the DeSantis campaign capitalized on Trump’s tactical missteps. Trump’s explicit attack on DeSantis’s pro-life stance did not gain traction, and the governor’s campaign weathered the storm. Iowa’s socially conservative voters responded positively to DeSantis’s direct-mail efforts, boosting his standing. The Never Back Down group faced its own internal struggles, losing the initiative.

The DeSantis campaign successfully navigated these turbulent waters, turning Trump’s criticism into an opportunity for resurgence. As internal metrics showed the impact of Trump’s remarks, DeSantis’s team swiftly adapted its strategy, refocusing on conservative voters in Iowa through targeted direct-mail campaigns. Despite financial challenges, DeSantis’s resilience became evident as Never Back Down dealt with internal conflicts.

In politics, vulnerabilities can transform into opportunities, and the DeSantis campaign adeptly seized the moment.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump mocks transgender athletes during remarks at the America First Policy Institute America First Agenda Summit in Washington, U.S., July 26, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

The Downfall of the DeSantis Operation and Heli’s New Allies

However, the triumph was short-lived for the DeSantis operation. The internal turmoil within Never Back Down and financial constraints during the summer campaign weakened DeSantis’s position. Despite his resilience in Iowa, the broader challenges proved insurmountable. As Never Back Down withdrew from internal conflicts,

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