How Donald Trump made personal grievance the heart of Maga campaign to win Iowa

The words that best summed up the situation came from Donald Trump himself.

“Vivek started his campaign as a great supporter,” he wrote on social media. “Unfortunately, now all he does is disguise his support in the form of deceitful campaign tricks.”

Just 48 hours before the Iowa caucuses take place, Mr Trump’s attack on fellow hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, for months considered an ally but now viewed as a potential threat who could take votes from him, went to the heart of what has filled much of the former president’s campaign – spite, anger, personal grievance and an utter sense of victimhood.

The words he posted on Truth Social on Saturday evening, even as a new poll showed him to have a huge lead over the field – “Very sly, but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the ‘other side’ – don’t get duped by this” – underscored the extent to which Mr Trump has made his battle for Iowa merely a part of his overall legal and political strategy as he seeks a second term in the White House.

In a live-streamed conversation from Des Moines with state attorney general Brenna Bird, the 77-year-old former president did make a nod towards the singularities of the state: his alleged help of its farmers, his backing of subsidies for ethanol, his nod to Iowans’ “hardiness” he hopes will persuade them to turn out to vote for him in the frigid weather.

But many of his comments on Saturday, as he he was forced to cancel live campaign events because of blizzard-like conditions, were old and well-rehearsed jabs at Joe Biden and the Department of Justice’s investigation into his alleged role in the Capitol riots and more.

Donald Trump and Iowa attorney general Brenna Bird participate in a ‘telerally’ at the Hotel Fort Des Moines on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa as sub-zero temperatures and blizzard-like weather forced presidential campaigns to adjust, postpone or cancel events just days before the Iowa caucuses (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Biden is grossly incompetent. The only thing they know how to do is cheat on elections – and they’re good at cheating in elections,” said Mr Trump, echoing unfounded comments he has made repeatedly in stump speeches over the past two years in states across the land. “They’re also very good at going after your political opponent.”

For more than 50 years, Iowa, a Midwest state with a population of just 3.2 million people, has held outsized political importance because it is the first to vote in the primary process, the caucuses on Monday being part of the process to pick a Republican presidential candidate. If a candidate does well here, they hope to carry the momentum onto the next to vote state, New Hampshire.

As such, candidates typically spend months of their time campaigning here, hoping to make an impact in scores of small-scale meetings in community centres and coffee shops. For Republicans, evangelical Christians are a crucial target, and in 2012 that community delivered a win for Rick Santorum, as it did for Ted Cruz in 2016.

It seems that Mr Trump is set to bag the lion share of evangelicals this year, despite him having made only a fraction of the number of visits of his rivals such as Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Mr Ramaswamy.

One reason for that is that Trump’s Iowa campaign is far more professionally organised than it was in 2016. Another is that he has gripped the base of the Republican Party and will not let go.

Evangelicals here say they are far more interested in what Mr Trump has done for them, especially the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v Wade, than judging his personal life or various alleged scandals.

“Donald Trump has fundamentally changed the Republican Party,” says John Conway, director of strategy at the Republican Accountability Project, a group that raises money for non-Trump candidates.

“Trump is an existential threat to our democracy. We saw the events of January 6 were fomented by his lies about the 2020 election. He is not pro-democracy, he cares about one person and that’s himself. He is willing to tear down and destroy every American institution.”

Whatever Mr Trump is doing, it appears to be working. A new poll published by celebrated pollster Ann Selzer on Saturday night put him on 48 points, down 3 points from last month, but far ahead of Ms Haley on 20 points and Mr DeSantis on 16. For Haley supporters, delighted now to be ahead of Mr DeSantis, the poll could portend well if it comes true as she is already in second place in New Hampshire.

What the poll most did, however, was underscore the seemingly vast gap between Mr Trump and the other challengers. In recent national surveys, Mr Trump has been shown to be ahead of Mr Biden in several battleground states and beating him head to head if there is a repeat of their November 2020 showdown.

This year some believe the weather in Iowa could play a factor in keeping people away from the caucuses, given it is expected to be minus 30°C and be particularly impactful in rural areas where many Trump supporters live. It could also bring out the loyalists.

“I’m with Trump all the way,” said a man called Frank, filling his car with fuel in Des Moines, as a chilling wind ran across the forecourt. “He will be the president. I don’t need to vote in the caucus. I’ll vote in the general.”

Others said they had not made up their minds. Todd Thams, 47, a software salesman, said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

He was not certain he would do so again as he tended to attract “chaos”. “It’s either going to be Trump or Vivek,” he said.

In his appearance with the state attorney general, Mr Trump was urged to remind voters not to become complacent just because of the apparently bridgeable lead. He did so, even if he could not stop himself from bragging.

“We’re leading by a lot in all the polls and you have to get out because we have to send a message most importantly for November because we have to beat this guy,” he said of Mr Biden. “You just have to get out.”