DES MOINES, Iowa — On a bone-cold night, 524 Boone County residents filed onto the basketball court of Des Moines Community College to cast their ballots for Monday’s 2024 GOP Iowa presidential caucuses. With two feet of snow on the ground outside and supporters inside making stump speeches beneath the home team’s hoop, it was “Hoosiers” meets “West Wing” meets “Northern Exposure.”
It didn’t take long that night, or throughout my trip to Iowa this week, to see that the majority of Republican caucusgoers were Donald Trump supporters and had been for a long time.
Sitting beside the Boone basketball court, I asked Jan Mills what she liked about Trump. I was struck when she immediately said, “He’s us,” describing the Palm Beach mogul. When I asked her what she meant, she responded, “He loves us.”
Next to Mills sat her friend Joni Rentschler, who nodded in agreement. “He’s very constitutional in supporting our country based on its foundations, and he’s willing to stand up against people that want to destroy us,” she said.
Sitting next to Rentschler was her father, Larry Helphrey. “He does what he says he’s going to do more than any president I can remember,” he said. “I took a chance on him in 2016, and I’m glad I did.”
Mills, Rentschler and Helphrey all voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and were excited to do it again Monday night.
They were also excited to see Georgia’s U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had traveled to Boone to speak on behalf of the former president. When she said, “We know President Trump, we trust President Trump,” many in the audience nodded “yes.”
There’s no way to describe how much any other candidate would pay to create that kind of loyalty. It’s stronger than their party affiliation, their family ties and their income levels. It’s also a big part of why the multiple felony charges against him have only made Trump stronger among his base.
“They’re not after me, they’re after you,” he said at his final commit-to-caucus rally in Indianola. His supporters there believe it. They’re in it together.
“Those are trumped up charges,” truck driver Debbie Schoonover said of the cases against Trump, including in Fulton County. “You don’t go 75 years as an honest businessman with no charges and then have 91 indictments thrown at you. That’s corruption right there.”
A woman next to her chimed in, as they waited for Trump to speak in Indianola, “You’re not fooling us.”
Along with the known devotion of his followers. Trump’s Iowa victory was also made possible by a second important factor — a highly disciplined, behind-the-scenes campaign organization of longtime campaign aides and first-time volunteers who took advantage of the fact that Trump began campaigning for president in Iowa in 2015 and has never really stopped.
“We have data for hundreds of thousands of Iowans who have voted for President Trump before, who have shown up to his rallies, and who have caucused for him before,” Trump adviser Jason Miller told me the day before the caucus. “We have captain after captain after captain. We are several leaders deep in every polling location.”
Sure enough, on caucus night, multiple Trump captains manned each site for the campaign wearing white “Trump Caucus Captain” hats identical to the one Trump wore at the Indianola rally. “Always branding,” Miller said.
Of course, the GOP support for Trump wasn’t universal in Boone, nor is it universal across Iowa or the country.
Despite the rumors of his demise, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a robust campaign and plenty of passionate supporters at an event in West Des Moines where I saw him speak. The room was packed so tight people began to peel off their coats and sweaters to avoid sweating. Most there were former Trump supporters who had had enough.
Chuck Hays voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but he said the former president did a “lousy job during COVID,” with businesses across the country closing.
A DeSantis White House would look like Trump’s, Hays said, except DeSantis would keep his promises. “He’s going to do things to help the middle class. He’s going to drain the swamp. He’s going to build the wall, and he’s probably even going to make Mexico pay for it.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had her own base of support in Iowa, too, which included independents and moderate Democrats all hoping to keep Trump out of the White House in 2024.
“No more old guys!” said George Ecksteen, an 82-year-old veteran who spoke for Haley before the Boone caucusgoers cast their ballots. “Who could you be proud of? Be bold, be brave, vote for Nikki Haley.”
Just after the speeches in Boone were done, but before the people there got their instructions for how to vote, news alerts began to pop up on people’s phones: “BREAKING: Donald Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, NBC News projects.”
After all of the speeches, the fundraisers, the road trips, the state fairs and everything else that the candidates had put into running for president in Iowa, the race was called for Trump at 7:40 p.m., before anyone in Boone and many other locations even had a chance to vote.
It felt unfair, and in many ways it was. The election was over literally before it began. But with the former president in the race and his army of supporters eager to vote for him one more time, it’s felt like the GOP race for president has been over for a long time.