(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Eight years ago, then-first time presidential hopeful Donald Trump kicked off his campaign rallies dancing to the 1970s’ disco anthem “YMCA.”

He still does, except now the campaign also plays in-depth videos explaining the caucus process, hosts panel discussions among caucus precinct captains and even gives out “limited edition” Trump-signed hats to campaign volunteers as supporters wait for him to take the stage.

It’s an effort by the Trump campaign to flip the script for his third presidential run by revamping its Iowa playbook, recognizing the importance of ensuring that the excitement supporters show at campaign rallies translates into their actually heading to their local precinct to caucus for the former president.

It’s a lesson Trump, then an Iowa caucus novice, learned from his loss to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, despite having momentum from earlier in the cycle.

Now, returning to Iowa for his third presidential bid, he’s armed with a more experienced and sophisticated operation that includes a ground game his team has been building for years.

With just days to go until the GOP caucuses, Trump, at a Friday night Iowa rally, repeatedly told his supporters to make sure to vote on Jan. 15.

“We’re not taking any chances,” he said. “The biggest risk is, you say you know what? He’s winning by so much, darling. Let’s stay home and watch television. Let’s watch this great victory. And if enough people do that, it’s not going to be pretty. But we’re not going to let that happen.”

Lighter schedule compared to 2016

Friday marked Trump’s first campaign appearance in Iowa this year, headlining a rally in Sioux Center in the afternoon and another rally in Mason City later that evening.

On Saturday, on the third-year anniversary of a pro-Trump mob attacking the US. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he was set to criss-cross Iowa for rallies in Newton and Clinton.

After that, Trump isn’t making another public campaign appearance in Iowa until much closer to the caucus date — making two stops each on Jan. 13 and Jan. 14. That’s except for a town hall with Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Des Moines as his counterprogramming to the CNN GOP debate on Jan. 10 with rivals Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The campaign is filling in the dates in between with Trump surrogates — a move kicked off with South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday. But Trump himself will hold fewer events than what was expected to be a barnstorming tour in the final stretch.

Trump’s relatively light schedule in the first two weeks of this year is especially notable compared to his 11-stop cross-state campaign leading up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, during which he jumped from Mississippi to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Iowa then to Nevada from Jan. 2 through Jan. 15, even adding a few stops in non-early voting states in between.

In fact, throughout 2023, Trump visited Iowa only 18 times and held just under 40 campaign events and other appearances, not nearly as many as his fellow contenders, some of whom have visited the state dozens of times and held hundreds of events.

DeSantis, who has been aggressively campaigning in hopes of gaining momentum from Iowa, completed his “Full Grassley” last month — a reference to Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley’s efforts to visit all 99 counties in the state every year. And entrepreneur-turned presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy earlier this week completed his “Double Grassley,” visiting all 99 Iowa counties at least twice.

One reason has been Trump’s legal battles — where he faces 91 felony counts across four criminal cases as well as a civil fraud trial in New York. He has plead not guilty and denied all wrongdoing.

All through last year, he has had to navigate his court schedule in between campaign rallies, including popping in and out of multiple courthouses for arraignments and witness testimony as well as taking a mugshot.

This coming Tuesday, just days out from the Iowa caucuses, Trump is planning to appear at the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., as it hears arguments on his efforts to dismiss the federal election subversion case citing presidential immunity — while his contenders campaign in Iowa.

Still, Trump’s support in the state appears not to have waned, embodied not only in the polls where he continues to boast wide gap between his contenders, according to 538’s Iowa polling average, but also in numerous yard signs that can be seen driving through little towns in Iowa and thousands of loyal supporters that gather at every Trump visit.

Hasn’t stopped campaigning in Iowa since 2015, allies say

In 2015, Iowa was one of the first states Trump visited after announcing his presidential bid that summer.

After making his debut before more than 1,000 Iowa voters packed inside Oskaloosa High School at his first-ever Iowa rally in July 2015, he visited the state about a dozen more times through the end of Iowa caucuses.

He continued to draw thousands of people — often tens of thousands — at most of his campaign rallies throughout the 2016 cycle, showcasing voters’ excitement over the prospect of a President Donald Trump.

But those who have observed his first presidential campaign describe it as a wheels-up, wheels-down operation, as he hopped from one state to another, introducing himself to the country as a presidential candidate, not just as a businessman or entertainer.

It was a beginner’s campaign, working with a smaller ground operation in Iowa, without the seasoned expertise and experience to navigate the state’s complicated Iowa caucus system nor the robust data-backing the current Trump campaign boasts.

But after being beaten by Cruz in January 2016 and his eventual victory that November, Trump’s allies in Iowa say he never stopped campaigning there, from appointing former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as U.S. ambassador to China to working closely with state leaders to help Republicans gain control of Iowa’s House congressional delegation in 2022.

And long before his 2024 rivals started campaigning in Iowa, the Trump campaign says, it has been laying the groundwork with Iowa voters, building a staff that understands the nuances of the caucus process and developing relationships with the state’s powerbrokers, as well as Trump familiarizing himself with issues that matter to Iowans.

“Ground game organization, collection of data, outreach and engagement to supporters and potential caucus goers to turnout for the caucus — well-organized events that are used as both a recruiting and organizational tool,” said Eric Branstad — who served as Trump’s Iowa state director during his 2016 campaign and has advised his 2020 campaign — explaining how he has seen the Trump campaign evolve over the years.

And for the past few months, his campaign events have been billed as “Commit to Caucus” events, designed to not only have Trump speak before supporters eager to see him but also for the campaign to promote its ground operation, recruit volunteers and to educate voters about the caucus process.

‘Commit to Caucus’

Now the campaign boasts of securing dozens of Iowa legislative endorsements, recruiting over 2,000 caucus precinct captains who will speak on Trump’s behalf on caucus night and getting more than 50,000 caucus commitment cards signed by Iowa voters. The campaign has also hosted more than 400 caucus training sessions this cycle.

“Caucus night will come out to turn out and getting people to the caucuses on a cold night in January,” said Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, who has been campaigning for Trump as his surrogate. “He has a lot of new people coming into the caucus process that will be going to the caucus for the first time as an Iowa voter and you’re working to make sure those people have all the information they need to go and vote so his campaign has a good ground game.”

And Trump’s “Commit to Caucus” stops in Iowa this cycle have been meticulously planned out as well — not only to maximize his exposure to the largest crowd possible but also capitalizing on a strong support he has garnered in eastern Iowa over the years, which had previously been a Democratic stronghold with an industrial, blue-collar demographic that had voted for former President Barack Obama before they flipped to Trump in 2016.

“Similar to Ohio and Florida, President Trump ushered in a fundamental shift to Iowa’s electorate in 2016 — these states are far more Republican today than before,” said the Trump campaign’s early states director Alex Latcham, who worked with the 2016 Trump campaign’s Iowa team.

“I would argue he’s done that really nationwide, but Iowa is a perfect microcosm of that shift,” Latcham continued. “The Republican Party is the party of working class voters and President Trump is their candidate. He’s their voice.”

Hitting big and small Eastern Iowa cities like Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Maquoketa, Davenport and Coralville, Trump has been strengthening his support base with voters that are particularly receptive to his messages on bread and butter economic issues, Latcham said.

‘Sometimes polls are wrong’

For Trump, the key this time is not just garnering more support ahead of the caucuses, but getting those supporters to actually turn up on Jan. 15.

“The name of the game here for caucuses is voter turnout,” senior Iowa adviser Alex Meyer told a roomful of voters, including caucus captains, at Team Trump’ headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, last month.

Trump himself has spent more time on the campaign trail emphasizing the importance of caucusing — telling people to not sit out on caucus night.

“On television today, they said the primaries are over,” Trump said at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids last month. “I said, don’t listen to that. Don’t listen. Nothing’s over. I’ve seen things that are over and bad things can happen.”

“You’ve got to get out and vote, even if you think we’re gonna win,” Trump said at another campaign event in Coralville, Iowa, later that month. “Who knows? You know, sometimes polls are wrong. They gotta really be wrong – that would be record-setting. But you gotta get out and vote, vote, vote, and then we worry about November. Do one thing first.”

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