2024 Republicans worry that subzero temperatures could scramble caucus turnout

Jan 12, 2024, 4:38 PM

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to the media during a campaign stop at the...

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to the media during a campaign stop at the Hampton Inn & Suites Sioux City South on January 8, 2024, in Sioux City, Iowa. Mandatory Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(CNN) — The 2024 Republican presidential contenders are growing increasingly concerned about the dangerously frigid weather that Iowans will be confronted with when they head to the polls on caucus day, acknowledging that temperatures could negatively impact anticipated turnout.

Iowa will have their coldest caucuses ever on Monday, as a dangerous Arctic blast dives into the central US this weekend and lasts through early next week. Monday is expected to be the coldest January day for Iowa in at least five years, with wind chills as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The GOP campaigns are now scrambling to ensure their ground game strategy, and the expectations for what success will look like in Iowa, can withstand the bitter weather, according to a series of conversations with the candidates and their top advisers.

Iowans will wake up to temperatures more than 15 degrees below zero on Monday morning. Nearly the entire state will fail to climb above zero degrees Monday afternoon, the exception being the far southeastern portion of the state that may reach a degree or two above zero. This would be the first time since February of 2021 that the high temperature in Des Moines fails to reach zero degrees.

Add winds to this bitter cold and wind chill will reach life-threatening levels at minus 20 to minus 40 degrees for the entire day.

These extreme conditions could be dangerous for Iowans waiting to caucus and could also present accessibility issues — with some campaigns fearing caucusgoers’ cars will fail to start or break down on their way to their locations.

Holly Moeller, a 65-year-old Republican voter from Rock Rapids, Iowa, told CNN as she waited on the edges of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ town hall in Rock Rapids on Thursday that she doesn’t know if she’ll caucus Monday evening because of the weather. Moeller said she’s wary of venturing into expected frigid temperature to vote because she lives with her 90-year-old mother and is worried about getting sick.

Moeller said she’s not sure of the exact forecast for Northwest Iowa on Monday, but expects it to be cold enough to invoke caution.

“It’s below zero,” she said of the Monday forecast. “I don’t know, I can’t tell the difference between -2 and -10, can you?”

The extreme cold and a snowstorm that swept through Iowa earlier this week has already forced candidates to scramble their schedules. On Monday, Haley’s campaign canceled an event in Sioux City due to the storm. The Trump campaign also scrapped an event with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his daughter, current Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, due to their issues with traveling to the state.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy attacked Haley for canceling her campaign stop due to the snow, but then canceled three of his own events on Tuesday as a result of the poor conditions.

What the campaigns are saying about Monday

The Trump campaign has escalated its warnings that Iowans cannot get complacent in the final days before the caucuses nor let the weather deter them from participating, regardless of the former president’s front-runner status.

A key part of the campaign’s ground game strategy in the state is to turn out as many caucusgoers as possible on January 15. Trump’s team is betting on a massive showing in Iowa — and hopefully a record victory — to propel the former president through the remaining early-voting states and potentially help him secure enough delegates by mid-March to be the presumptive GOP nominee, multiple Trump advisers told CNN.

However, his advisers in recent days have privately acknowledged that his lead in Iowa will likely be impacted by the subzero temperatures expected on caucus day. Now, they’re working to try and lower expectations — with Trump himself, but also with the media and general voters — about the former president’s anticipated lead on January 15.

“The weather issue may take away the intensity. But first of all, a win’s a win. And I know the expectations, but no one’s ever won Iowa by more than 12 points now. So that’s our goal,” a senior Trump campaign adviser told CNN. Recent polls show Trump leading his closest rivals, DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, by more than 30 points.

“As the president made clear this weekend, he totally gets it as it relates to, you know, making sure that you show up making sure that you turn out. That’s been our focus. That’s been our message and that’s what it’ll continue to be,” the adviser added.

During a campaign event in Sioux Center, Iowa, last week, Trump told the audience “the only way we are hurt” on January 15 “is if you stay home.”

That rhetoric has stemmed from concerns held by members of Trump’s inner circle that Trump’s hefty lead in the Iowa polls could deter some Trump supporters from showing up next Monday. Their fear, his advisers say, is Trump’s Iowa supporters will assume the former president has Iowa locked down and that his victory in the state is inevitable. Given the freezing weather conditions predicted for next week, that could further disincentivize them, the advisers said.

Trump’s team has been planning for months to help ensure Iowans are able to access caucus locations. Part of that strategy, Trump’s advisers tell CNN, has been hiring drivers equipped with four-wheel drive in targeted areas across the state to help transport caucusgoers.

“They’re in key areas where we want to be able to turn people out and, and where maybe the weather would make a difference,” the senior Trump adviser said.

Despite their concerns, Trump’s advisers insist they are still confident about the former president’s expected victory next Monday.

They also feel that any potential issues that arrive from the weather next week will more negatively impact his rivals — namely DeSantis and Haley — than it will Trump, a notion Trump used to energize his supporters over the weekend.

“I hear your night is going to be pretty cold next week. … So you just have to put on that warm coat on,” Trump told an audience in Newton, Iowa, last weekend. Trump said he asked an aide about the anticipated frigid weather, and the aide said that’s a good sign. “I said, ‘Why is that good?’ Because their people don’t have the enthusiasm to vote.”

“Weather is not gonna keep our people away, it’s gonna keep their people away,” Trump said.

A senior Trump campaign adviser further emphasized to CNN that “the turnout battle is going to impact everybody. The weather will impact everybody. But where it will really matter will be between Nikki and and Ron because their margin against each other is very, very close.”

“This is a bigger problem for everybody else than it is for us. The reason is their pool is a lot smaller, and they’re the ones trying to make the bigger gains,” the adviser added.

“Put it this way: a 3- or 4-point drop because of weather and turnout doesn’t impact us as greatly as it impacts the two candidates who are within 3 points of each other,” another adviser said.

The Haley campaign, however, disputed the Trump campaign’s assertion that the weather may have a deeply chilling effect on her standing, arguing people in the Hawkeye State are used to the cold winters, her campaign aides told CNN.

That sentiment has been echoed by her supporters.

“Other people in the country are not used to this weather, but Iowans are. This happens every year to us so when the temperatures get cold, you just put on another layer and keep doing what you do. So I think they’ll come out for her,” said Kim McAdams, an Iowa voter who spoke to CNN at a Haley event on Tuesday.

Doug Stout, a longtime Republican voter in Iowa, acknowledged the weather could pose problems for some, but predicted that without snow — which as of now is not currently anticipated in the immediate hours before caucus locations open — turnout won’t be much of a problem.

“[Bad weather] does make it more difficult, particularly for senior citizens. It makes it very hard for them to get out and caucus if it’s a cold, stormy winter night, and then yes, below zero temperatures. … I think if we get a snow storm on top of those type of temperatures that will hold down turnout,” Stout told CNN. “Otherwise, I don’t think it’ll have much impact if you’re planning on going. You also got to compete with an NFL playoff game that same night, you never know what’s going to have an impact. But I think they’ll turnout. I think Iowans, as you’re well aware, Iowans know how important this is. They take it very seriously,” he said.

AFP Action, the Koch-backed super PAC supporting Haley, will continue door-knocking up until an hour before the caucuses on Monday night to remind Iowans where to participate  and why they should support Nikki Haley, an official from the super PAC told CNN. On Wednesday alone, the group had 150-200 staff and volunteers door-knocking throughout Iowa, with the goal of knocking 250,000 doors in the state by caucus night.

“The weather is going to have an impact on turnout, but there are a lot of things that impact turnout, such as how voters feel about the polling numbers in the closing days. There are a lot of things I think at play. What we’re focused on doing right now is identifying as many Haley supporters as we can,” said Drew Klein, AFP Action Senior Advisor in Iowa. “We want to help them understand the impact of their participation, not just for the caucus but for the rest of the contest as well.”

DeSantis, like Haley, has continued to project confidence that his supporters won’t be deterred by the extreme cold.

“We have a lot of committed caucus goers,” DeSantis said Monday on a press call with Iowa media. “These are the true believers. They’re going to show up.”

On Thursday, he acknowledged the cold forecast could be a record for caucus night.

“So, I’m asking you to go out there. I’m asking you to brave the elements,” he said at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa. “I’m asking you to support me. And if you can trudge through some really cold weather for a few hours, you’ll launch me to be able to serve you as president for the next eight years and turn this country around.”

But he also admitted that the expected subzero temperatures may be a challenge.

More broadly within Iowa, DeSantis and his team have argued his campaign has set up a ground game structure that will allow him to perform well in Iowa.

“Team DeSantis is perfectly designed for the forecasted conditions. Organization is going to be key and that has been a top priority since day one,” DeSantis’s deputy campaign manager, David Polyansky, said in a statement to CNN. “But subzero weather also matches our grind-it-out mentality – we look forward to forcing our opponents to try to match our campaign pace when it hurts to breathe outside.”

DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier told CNN This Morning on Thursday that “you can’t buy, pay for, or try to create a ground game now. That work was done six-plus months ago. Team DeSantis has the grassroots leaders across the state, a team coordinated to ensure that in icy, snowy, below freezing conditions, people get out and caucus for their guy.”

“You can see who’s here and who’s not here,” he said, saying the campaign has the infrastructure “drag people to the polls when it’s cold and perhaps in unsafe conditions.”

Never Back Down, one of the super PACs backing DeSantis’ bid, touted its ground game in the Hawkeye State.

“We’re well prepared for any challenge on caucus night, including severe weather,” Dave Vasquez, national press secretary for Never Back Down said in a statement to CNN. “Our community of precinct captains, volunteers, and supporters knows exactly who they can call for a ride and who they can turn to, no matter what the weather brings. Over the last nine months, we have developed an extensive grassroots infrastructure across the state to capture the momentum Gov. DeSantis is generating; meanwhile, the rest of the field is just scrambling to try to catch up.”

Ramaswamy, speaking to reporters in Sioux City on Monday, said he thinks the inclement weather could benefit him — arguing his supporters are highly enthusiastic and may be more likely than others to brave challenging conditions.

“I want to learn more about what the weather’s gonna be. I mean, look, what do we know, human beings come out a little bit less when they’re cold. I think this is gonna work to our advantage,” he said. “Many of my supporters are not tepid supporters.”

“I think the Ramaswamy tsunami is not going to be deterred by the cold weather,” he added.

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2024 Republicans worry that subzero temperatures could scramble caucus turnout