DES MOINES — For a full year, Democrats owned the Iowa spotlight as presidential candidates logged thousands of visits, spent tens of millions on TV and digital ads, and boasted of rallies that drew, on some of their best days, 1,000 ardent supporters hoping to defeat President Trump.
Then on Thursday, Mr. Trump dropped in for two and a half hours and attracted more than 7,000 fans at a rally where he predicted that Iowa would deliver for him again in November — and warned what would happen if it did not.
“We’re going to win the great state of Iowa, and it’s going to be a historic landslide,” Mr. Trump declared. “And if we don’t win, your farms are going to hell.”
For the last three presidential elections, Iowa has been a barometer of the nation’s vacillating political sentiments. Twice it broke overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, who beat John McCain by nine points here in 2008. It swung back to give Mr. Trump a nine-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And as the 2020 campaign formally begins on Monday with the state’s caucuses, Republicans and Democrats are again looking to Iowa for answers.
Is Iowa — with its large rural, blue-collar and overwhelmingly white population — the kind of state where the Republican Party that Mr. Trump remade is going to dominate as long as he is on the ticket? Or does it offer a glimmer of hope for Democrats to regain voters they lost in 2016?
As Mike Halepis waited to enter the rally at a Des Moines college campus the other night, he predicted the same “landslide” as Mr. Trump. “Look around you. You see anybody else getting this kind of crowd?” Mr. Halepis, a restaurant employee, said. “The numbers, the economy, everything’s headed in the right direction for the president, and we want to make sure we are too.”
But the indicators have not all been positive for Mr. Trump. Democrats roared back to life in the 2018 midterm elections, picking off two of the state’s four congressional seats from Republicans. The anti-Trump sentiment was most evident around cities like Des Moines and along the Mississippi River, which is home to the nation’s largest cluster of counties that voted twice for Mr. Obama and then for Mr. Trump. Those pivot counties have suffered from Mr. Trump’s trade war with China.
Democrats said they were making significant inroads with Republicans and independents. “We are up for grabs,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Democratic Party of Polk County, which includes Des Moines. He pointed to four Statehouse seats that Democrats flipped in Iowa in 2018. In Polk County, 871 people newly registered as Democrats in January, which the party says included 273 former Republicans. “Independent moderate soccer moms have all decisively gone against Republicans,” Mr. Bagniewski said.
But Jon Seaton, a Republican strategist with long experience in Iowa, said the party’s loss of suburban women — a national phenomenon — was more than offset by white blue-collar voters who have broken a historic allegiance to Democrats to vote for Mr. Trump.
“I think the numbers that they are able to move are just not going to be nearly sufficient to overcome what is happening on the Republican side,” he said.
And Republicans can point to winning the governor’s race, along with picking up three seats in the State Senate in 2018.
Before swooping into Des Moines, Mr. Trump tweeted a New York Times/Siena College poll showing him winning head-to-head matchups with four leading Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa. But what the president called “a great poll” also showed him ahead of Pete Buttigieg, the former Indiana mayor, by just one point, and besting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. by two points. Those numbers show how his political standing has softened after three years in office. In addition, the networks of grass-roots activists the Democratic campaigns cultivated for a year in Iowa should spring back this fall in the presidential race and in a bid to unseat a Republican senator, Joni Ernst.
As Democrats consider which parts of the country and what kinds of voters are most persuadable, they are divided over whether Iowa’s swing voters are worth pursuing, compared to others who are more liberal-leaning, but didn’t show up in 2016.
Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist here who has held focus groups of Obama-Trump voters, said his party was passing up a huge opportunity if it ignored the 150,000 Iowans who cast ballots for Mr. Obama and then supported Mr. Trump.
Mr. Link’s research found that many who voted for Mr. Trump did not have strong attachments to him and started paying attention to the race only as Election Day approached. “They didn’t want to vote for Trump,” he said, but were resigned to him as a protest against Hillary Clinton and the Washington establishment.
To test Iowans’ feelings for the president, Mr. Link asked people who voted for the president what aspect of a beloved local institution, the Iowa State Fair, they associated with him. The most common answer was Bobo the Clown, who heckled fairgoers and baited them into hurling softballs at his dunk tank. (He was dropped from the fair after being accused of using racial slurs in 2009.)
Voters will respond to someone who is “gritty and authentic,” Mr. Link said, regardless of party identification, which is why he believes Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed democratic socialist who joined the Democratic Party only so he could compete as a presidential candidate, has been leading in recent polls of likely caucusgoers.
As proof that Democrats can still appeal in Trump Country, the party’s strategists point to Representative Abby Finkenauer, who in 2018 flipped a congressional district in northeast Iowa by emphasizing her blue-collar, union-family roots and declaring she was “my grandfather’s Democrat.”
There are some signs that the Republican Party’s brand is in trouble in Iowa. Last year, the state’s longest-serving Republican legislator left the party and became a Democrat. Andy McKean, a representative from an area in northeast Iowa that broke for Mr. Trump in 2016 after voting for Mr. Obama in 2012, explained his switch, saying, “If this is the new normal, I want no part of it.”
But examples like these remain the exception because most Republicans understand that the voters who make up their bedrock support in elections have an affinity for Mr. Trump that is far greater than their attachment to the Republican Party.
For Iowa Republicans running for almost any office, “There’s only a downside to opposing Trump. And he’s more willing to take the bat to the dissenters,” said A.J. Spiker, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who was aligned with the faction that supported Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman, and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. In 2016, Mr. Spiker opposed Mr. Trump and called for him to step down after the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape. Today, he is out of professional politics and sells real estate.
The current party chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, acknowledged that many of the president’s biggest fans are, at best, ambivalent about the Republican Party. “Remember these folks that voted for Trump didn’t necessarily become Republican,” he said, describing how his long career in politics is often a liability when he talks to voters. “When they hear that I was in the Legislature, when they hear that I’m the head of the party,” he added, “I still have to prove myself.”
In an interview this week, Mr. Kauffmann was especially wary of getting crosswise with the conservative base of his party. Asked whether he would support Steve King, the congressman from northwestern Iowa who was reprimanded by national party leaders and stripped of committee assignments after speaking favorably of white nationalism, Mr. Kauffmann said he would back the Republican candidate regardless of who it is. “If a state party ignores the winner of a fair primary election, then that state party ceases to function,” he said.
Key to Mr. Trump’s success is again turning out those pro-Trump voters — many of whom did not vote in 2018 and who live in rural areas where they are more difficult and expensive to reach — in equal or greater numbers than in 2016.
“This is probably the most important thing of all for us, and that is the Trump voters that voted in 2016 but sat it out in 2018 because the president wasn’t at the top,’’ said Mr. Kaufmann. “To me, that is the political gold mine.’’
But growing the president’s base could come at a steep cost, alienating persuadable voters who have never liked the president’s style but voted for him anyway.
Mark Waitek, an Obama-Trump voter in rural Osage, said he approves of Mr. Trump’s aggressive stance toward China — “I like the way he stood up to that” — but he does not plan to vote to re-elect him.
“I don’t like how he talks, he doesn’t talk intelligently, he’s simple-minded,” said Mr. Waitek, a retired physician assistant.
Rural and blue-collar industrial counties in Iowa have been hurt by the administration’s trade war with China. Prices for crops fell, farm debt soared and manufacturing jobs, after growth early in the Trump administration, reversed direction last year. Citing decreased demand for its tractors and construction machinery because of trade uncertainty, John Deere announced layoffs last year of 173 employees in Davenport.
Mr. Trump’s announcement of a deal last month with China to buy more farm exports, and his signing last week of a new North American trade agreement, may lessen the political price of his economic policies, which Democrats have been trying to use as a wedge to separate some of his supporters.
In rural Howard County in northern Iowa, Neal Shafer, the Republican chairman, said that he initially worried the trade war would erode Mr. Trump’s support. Now, farmers are more upbeat, he said. “Three months ago at harvest, there was a lot more angst and disunity among Trump supporters on the farm,” Mr. Shafer said. “Now they’re saying he has delivered.”
In Des Moines, Mr. Trump agreed, in his signature fashion, promising his Iowa audience they would soon be making “so much money,” despite the fact rural regions where he is strongest have yet to recover from the Great Recession.
“Just relax, take it easy, you’re going to enjoy your life,” he said.