Des Moines Register caucus poll shows ‘hands off’ approach to Trump isn’t working for rival candidates

by Iowa Capital Dispatch
August 21, 2023

The latest Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll of the Iowa caucus race, published Monday, was a blowout. Former President Donald Trump holds more than a 2-to-1 lead over his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Here’s the topline:

Trump, 42%

DeSantis, 19%

Tim Scott, 9%

Nikki Haley, 6%

Mike Pence, 6%

Chris Christie, 5%

Vivek Ramaswamy, 4%

Doug Burgum, 2%

Will Hurd, 1%

Ryan Binkley, Francis Suarez, 0% (But at least one respondent picked them)

Larry Elder, Asa Hutchinson, Perry Johnson, literally 0, as in not even one respondent picked them.

None of these, 2%

Not sure, 5%

The Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll was conducted Aug. 13-17, 2023 by Selzer & Co. It is based on telephone interviews with 406 registered voters in Iowa who say they will definitely or probably attend the 2024 Republican caucuses. Results based on the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. More about the poll here.

Here are some takeaways:

The hands-off-Trump strategy is not working.

Nearly all of 13 non-Trump candidates on this list have twisted themselves into Iowa State Fair pretzels on a stick by refusing to actually say that Trump’s indictments on 91 felony counts in four separate cases make him unfit to serve as president. (Do pretzels on a stick actually exist at the Iowa State Fair? If they don’t, they should.)


The non-Trump campaigns have been trying not to invoke a damaging barrage of criticism from Trump. They also want to avoid offending pro-Trump supporters. But they can’t do that and win votes away from the former president.

The Register reports that support for Trump grew stronger after the latest indictments in Georgia, which happened while surveying was in progress. And why not? Why should Iowa Republicans consider an alternative to Trump when nearly the entire field of opponents refuses to say he did anything wrong and almost universally condemns the Justice Department and the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, for pursuing prosecution?

Now, it’s clear the few open critics of Trump – Hutchinson, Hurd and Christie — aren’t faring well in this poll. Of these, only Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, has extensively campaigned in Iowa. He’s taken some shots at Trump, but he’s also taken some positions on issues – especially his veto of a ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender kids – that put him on the outs with conservatives.

Hurd, a former Texas congressman, only recently appeared on the Iowa trail. Few know who he is, except maybe they heard he was booed off the stage at the evangelical Family Leader conference for saying Trump’s indictments mean he shouldn’t be president. Perhaps not an encouraging sign for the rest of the field – but not everyone in that room was booing.

Christie, however, makes it to 5% while openly skipping the Iowa campaign. Republicans here know who he is because of his 2016 campaign, and he’s the most vocal Trump critic in the field based on his appearances on cable news. The fact that he’s also been a self-serving Trump ally in the past may make him a different kind of state fair pretzel (now with extra-craven toppings!) But his appearance in the poll without an Iowa campaign suggests there’s an appetite for someone willing to directly oppose Trump.

Evangelicals are doubling down for Trump.

It’s very difficult for anyone to win the Republican caucuses without picking up significant support from evangelicals. That’s how Ted Cruz won the caucuses over Trump in 2016, despite his anti-ethanol agenda that caused then-Gov. Terry Branstad to say he hoped Cruz would lose.

In the Register/et al poll, Trump leads with 47% among self-identified evangelicals, followed by 20% for DeSantis and 7% for Scott. That result comes even though the most prominent evangelical leader in the state, the Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats, has made it clear he won’t back Trump.

Iowa evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 general election, if not the caucuses, despite all they knew about his messy history with women and his less-than-upstanding business practices. That’s because it’s less important to them to support a genuine person of faith like, say, Mike Pence, than it is to back the winner.

Independents are the biggest threat to Trump

The poll shows Trump draws only 21% of independent caucusgoers’ support, nearly tied with DeSantis at 19%. Scott, Christie and Haley are also in double digits, while Pence and Ramaswamy draw 6%.

The Republican Party of Iowa and pro-Trump Republican lawmakers have tried to make it harder for anyone not already registered as a Republican to participate in the caucuses. They introduced legislation this year that would cut off party registration 70 days ahead of caucus day, making it less likely that independents or Democrats could re-register as Republicans and participate in the caucuses.

That’s an obvious move to protect Trump, who would be the least likely beneficiary of crossover votes.

The legislation that eventually passed did not change the voter registration rule but leaves it up to the party state central committees to decide.  However, the Republican Party of Iowa’s constitution specifically allows same-day registration for the caucuses. The constitution takes a state convention to change. So for now, at least, independents or new voters can register up to and including caucus night.

All of this suggests GOP candidates – especially non-Trump campaigns – need to be putting more of their time and resources in Iowa into reaching out to non-Republican and new voters. That means toning down the culture-war rhetoric about issues like transgender kids and book banning and being honest for a change about Trump’s legal jeopardy.

Otherwise, these Trump opponents could make better use of their time developing a deep-fried pretzel on a stick for the state fair.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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