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As 2024 election cycle approaches, Trump overshadows the Republican field

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In about a month, the presidential nominating season kicks off, with voters deciding who they want as their next president. On January 15, Iowa holds its caucus. And then the following week, New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary on the 23rd. Though with President Biden running as an incumbent, the action in both states is largely on the Republican side. Here to discuss where things stand in the weeks leading up to these political showdowns, we have Josh Rogers from New Hampshire Public Radio. Hey, Josh.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SUMMERS: And Clay Masters is also with us from Iowa Public Radio. Hi, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SUMMERS: All right, Clay, let's start off with you. I mean, Iowa and New Hampshire have been at the front of the pack when it comes to presidential nominating contests for a long time. But this year, things are different. The Democratic Party decided to shake things up. So tell us, how is that affecting the political tradition known as the Iowa caucus?

MASTERS: Yeah, the DNC kicked Iowa out of the early window. You might remember the delayed results on caucus night 2020 was a disaster that wound up amplifying the critics that have about this state - that, you know, the caucuses are arcane and confusing. But Democrats here are still holding a caucus on January 15, but participants are mailing in their picks for president, and that will be announced Super Tuesday, March 5. So they'll still follow a state law that says Iowa must have the first-in-the-nation caucus. I mean, and it wouldn't have been much of a contest anyway with an incumbent running in President Biden. But on the Republican side - I've been saying it all year - it continues to be Trump's to lose. I'll be paying close attention to turnout on caucus night. And if it's low, I'm kind of wondering what implications that could have on Republicans here making the case to stay first going forward as well.

SUMMERS: Over to you in New Hampshire, Josh, how did New Hampshire defend its decision to hold onto its first-in-the-nation primary status?

ROGERS: Basically, by citing tradition and also the New Hampshire law. New Hampshire also has a law - a state law mandating that it be the first primary. This year, the DNC and President Biden chose South Carolina to lead off the nominating calendar on February 3. South Carolina is the first state Biden won four years ago, and the Democratic electorate there is largely Black, which party leaders say better reflects the country than New Hampshire does, which is 90% white. So Biden won't be on the New Hampshire ballot, though there is a write-in effort afoot. The Republican primary is way more active - no calendar controversy there and lots of interest from voters, including independents, who, in New Hampshire, can pick the primary ballot of their choosing.

SUMMERS: All right. Clay, let's turn back to you. In Iowa, what's the mood like for Republicans?

MASTERS: Well, it's the Trump show, and Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are kind of like the opening acts, right? Some Iowa caucusgoers are showing up to see them. But the star power is behind the guy who was already president and still has control of the Republican Party. Trump is way ahead of DeSantis and Haley in every poll. I mean, if there's a checklist in how to win the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis has kind of checked every box. He has the endorsement of Governor Kim Reynolds. He's been to all of Iowa's 99 counties. But I haven't seen his crowds - or Nikki Haley's, for that matter - really grow in the way that politicians who have won past caucuses have. So while people are still showing up for the opening acts, Trump is still packing them in. I was at a bar a couple of weeks ago where people waited hours to see him. And his campaign - I mean, it is working harder to get people to show up on caucus night. Remember, that's at a set time - 7 p.m. on January 15. They're hoping to turn that star power into something of momentum.

SUMMERS: All right, Josh, what about you? What do things look like for Republicans in New Hampshire?

ROGERS: In some ways, it's similar to Iowa. Donald Trump is up, but Nikki Haley has been gaining ground in New Hampshire for some time, really. Last night, she was endorsed by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. And to the extent that endorsements can be consequential in New Hampshire - you know, Sununu's really it on the GOP side. He's never lost an election. He's - hasn't always been popular with hardcore party activists, but he's very, very popular with middle-of-the-road voters, and those are the sorts of voters any candidate looking to challenge Trump will need here - people like Mike Kilty, an independent who backed Trump four years ago but who now mostly wants to make sure Trump doesn't get back to the White House. He told me last night that to him, that means voting for Nikki Haley.

MIKE KILTY: In New Hampshire, if you want to be part of it, you really have to look at the Republicans. And I like Nikki Haley. I liked her going in. But Chris Sununu's endorsement kind of solidified my vote for her.

ROGERS: And, you know, Nikki Haley's got to hope a lot of voters here share that point of view. You know, we're going to see.

SUMMERS: All right. Let's talk now about the issues. Josh, what issues are potential Republican voters telling you as you're talking to them that matter to them?

ROGERS: Well, the economy - really, affordability of pretty much everything is something people here often talk about. They also talk about the border and migrants. Education - the content and quality of public schools - comes up frequently. So too do international issues - the wars between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas. I guess I'd say broadly, lots of Republican voters will tell you they see the world these days as out of control. But there are certainly differences between voters who back Trump or who support, say, Vivek Ramaswamy. They often see the world very differently on foreign policy than the sorts you might find turning up at a Nikki Haley event or checking out former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

SUMMERS: And Clay Masters, jump in here. How does that compare to what you are hearing from voters there in Iowa?

MASTERS: Yeah, I mean, I echo pretty much everything Josh just did. I'm also hearing more about foreign policy issues, like Israel and Ukraine, more so than I have in ever - in any other caucus cycle. And remember, evangelical Christians take up an outsized portion of the Republican electorate here, so issues around abortion and gender are front and center, too. I mean, gone are the days where you can go to Iowa and talk about Iowa issues. Politics has just become so national. And when it isn't about an issue, it's about the character of Donald Trump - either anger from his supporters that he's still facing all these criminal indictments or those looking for an alternative, saying they just want to move on from Trump's divisiveness.

We have a clip here of Barbara Johnson, a retired educator from Waukee who I talked to at a Haley event this weekend. She was with her husband, and she does a pretty good job of summarizing what a lot of voters at these non-Trump events have been saying to me.

BARBARA JOHNSON: We want the leaders of the other nations to know that we're not nothing to be messed with, and we need to do something about the border because it's getting - it's been way out of hand. So we just want people to move forward in peace, love and respect each other for their differences.

MASTERS: Yeah, and I get a lot of voters who say they like Trump, or maybe they like what he did for the country, but they just want to move on. Trump might not be putting in as much of an effort in Iowa as some of his other competitors, but he is still coming to the state, like tonight, where he's holding one of these Commit to Caucus events in eastern Iowa.

ROGERS: And Trump is also coming to New Hampshire for a rally Saturday.

SUMMERS: All right, last thing, y'all - we've all been covering politics for a long time, so I want to ask both of you, is there anything that you have seen this campaign season that looks different from other presidential cycles you've covered in the past?

ROGERS: Well, you know, we have a front-runner acting like an incumbent and everyone else really desperately trying to gain traction, working the traditional New Hampshire angles and hoping those still might apply when there's evidence they may not.

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, we've always heard these myth-like stories about how Iowa and New Hampshire voters take this process seriously and, you know, put the candidates through their paces. But we've seen a lot of evidence throughout 2023 that that's not really happening. And just to add to that, a reminder - this dominant candidate, Donald Trump, is facing many criminal charges - so still very unprecedented.

SUMMERS: That's Clay Masters with Iowa Public Radio and Josh Rogers with New Hampshire Public Radio. Thanks to both of you.

MASTERS: Thank you.

ROGERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE AND ROBIN THICKE SONG, "SHOOTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000 and serves as NHPRâââ
Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR

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