Standing between two Christmas trees topped with red “Make America Great Again” caps this week, Donald Trump told a crowd of several hundred supporters in Waterloo, Iowa, that his poll numbers were “scary because we are leading by so much”.
“We are leading by 30 to 40 points, I guess, but we have got to win, maybe we can win by more than that,” the former US president said. “Because, you know, if we win in a massive number but it is a little bit less than that, they will say, oh, he didn’t meet expectations . . . because they are fake news . . . they are the biggest fakers in the world.”
With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, Trump remains the undisputed frontrunner in a shrinking field of Republicans vying to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
But Trump is also increasingly trying to manage expectations as the official start of the primary process draws closer — and his challengers barnstorm crucial early voting states and sharpen their attacks in a last-ditch attempt to halt his seemingly unstoppable rise.
His support among Republican voters has only gone up as he faces mounting legal troubles, including 91 criminal charges across four different pending trials.
As supporters waited for Trump to take the stage in Waterloo on Tuesday, the Colorado supreme court ruled he was disqualified from seeking office because of his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, setting up another battle that is likely headed for the US Supreme Court.
Mary Lee Geist, 63, who attended the rally in Waterloo with her husband, John, said the Colorado ruling was another example of the Democratic establishment going after Trump. The former president, who continues to say the 2020 election was “rigged”, now alleges that President Joe Biden and the Democrats are weaponising the judiciary against him.
“They want to make it where he can’t run. They are afraid of him running is what it is, because he has got so much support,” said Mary Lee.
When asked whether Trump could beat Biden in the general election in 2024, she replied with a laugh: “He beat Joe Biden last time! No, he did, really.”
“And then he gets in trouble for challenging it,” John added, shaking his head.
The latest Iowa State University poll, conducted earlier this month, found Trump was the first choice for 54 per cent of likely Republican caucus goers. Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley were virtually tied in a distant second place, on 17 and 15 per cent, respectively.
Haley, Trump’s one-time ambassador to the UN, has risen steadily in opinion surveys in recent months — especially in New Hampshire, where primary voters will head to the polls a week after the Iowa caucuses — and has received the backing of several deep-pocketed donors, including conservative billionaire Charles Koch.
DeSantis has secured endorsements from high-profile Iowans such as Kim Reynolds, the state’s popular governor, and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader, despite infighting in his campaign and an exodus of senior officials from his affiliated super political action committee.
Haley and DeSantis have argued that Trump brings chaos and distractions to the ballot, and insisted that voters should choose them, instead.
But many political veterans are sceptical that either of them — not to mention biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who trail in the single digits in most polls — stand a chance of catching Trump once voting gets under way with the Iowa caucuses on January 15.
“The other candidates are running out of time, and it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of potential for Iowans to change their mind going into January,” said Dave Peterson, a political-science professor at Iowa State who oversees the university’s poll.
Trump supporters at the rally in Waterloo were bullish on his chances.
“Why would you want the B team when you still have the A team available?” asked Bobby Kaufmann, an Iowa state legislator who has endorsed Trump.
“He changed Washington. That’s why they hate him,” said one voter who had attached a homemade “proud deplorable” sign to his red jacket, in a reference to Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters in 2016.
The man, who declined to give his name, described the upcoming caucuses as “meaningless”, adding: “Nobody is going to beat him.”
Trump’s rivals insist that the polls are overstating his levels of support — and that voters in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not only open to alternatives but will actively reward candidates such as DeSantis and Haley, who are putting far more time and effort into campaigning on the ground.
Trump flew in and out of Iowa in a matter of hours on Tuesday, stopping in the state only to rally in Waterloo. By contrast, Haley held 10 town halls across four days this week. DeSantis, who touts that he has visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties since launching his campaign earlier this year, had a similarly gruelling six-day schedule. Both are drawing increasingly large crowds.
At 7.15 on Wednesday morning in Urbandale, Iowa, several hundred Republicans packed The Machine Shed, a popular local restaurant “honouring the American farmer”, to hear DeSantis speak alongside Texas Republican congressman Chip Roy.
Roy has endorsed DeSantis and is facing the ire of Trump, who has said he should be voted out of Congress. The Texan pushed back against Trump’s claims that he has sewn up the party’s presidential nomination.
“We do not coronate in this country . . . we do not anoint [a president],” he said.
Roy’s comments were echoed by Greg Ganske, a former Republican congressman from Iowa who is supporting DeSantis and was at the breakfast in Urbandale.
“I think Iowa is going to surprise people,” Ganske said. Trump would win the state’s caucus, he predicted. “But it won’t be by the margin that the polls are showing.”