As Trump's rivals push to persuade Iowans, DeSantis warns that he would fire up Democrats

Nikki Haley argued that polls prove she'll do better against President Biden.

December 10, 2023, 4:01 PM

With just over a month until primary voting begins, Republican candidates campaigning in Iowa this weekend zeroed in on what they hope is one of their most effective arguments against the front-runner in the race, former President Donald Trump: his electability.

Both former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Iowans that they worry Trump cannot win in a general election against President Joe Biden while voters, looking to make their final choices, drilled down on policy specifics from those still in the race.

Speaking to crowds across the state, Haley said that "chaos follows" Trump and pointed to polls like a new survey from The Wall Street Journal that showed her faring better than him in a hypothetical matchup against Biden.

"We can't have a country in disarray, in a world on fire, and survive this chaos," Haley told the crowd at a "faith and family" forum at Dordt University in Sioux Center.

"Republicans have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. That is nothing to be proud of. We should want to win the majority of Americans," Haley added. "But the only way we're going to do that is if we have a new generational leader that leaves the negativity and the baggage behind and looks forward to the problems ahead."

Speaking to reporters at the same event, Desantis recounted elections he'd witnessed firsthand in his state and argued Trump was a driving force for bringing out Democratic voters -- a pattern that could repeat with him on the ballot next year.

"Democrats know they have a turnout problem with Biden as their nominee because he's not invigorating anybody. He's not inspiring anybody. What they need is, they need that negative partisanship that they can say, 'Trump, Trump, Trump' and get people to come out. That's been their formula," DeSantis said.

In rural western Iowa, where DeSantis has spent considerable time, many voters said they agreed and found the arguments about Trump's electability convincing.

"It will just be a clown show. Lawsuits and impeachments -- just like it was the first time -- instead of getting anything done," Tristen Golden, a farmer from Sioux Center, told ABC News after listening to candidates at the "faith and family" forum, hosted by Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Thunderdome, Dec. 2, 2023, in Newton, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Thunderdome, Dec. 2, 2023, in Newton, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

With a shrug and a sigh, Golden, like many voters who spoke with ABC News, still said he thought Trump would be the eventual Republican Party nominee and he worried that would hurt the party's chances in 2024.

"I worry we might as well hand it to Joe Biden," he said.

Trump has spent much less time trying to win over individual Iowans ahead of the state's caucuses on Jan. 15, which begin the Republican primary. But polling has showed all year that he may not need to: Despite Haley, DeSantis and other opponents arguing he's not the best choice, he remains hugely popular with the base.

According to 538's latest polling averages, Trump is leading in Iowa by about 25 points, with Haley and DeSantis jockeying for a distant second.

While many voters sounded resigned to the idea of a Trump nomination, others said this weekend that they did think there was time for someone else to breakthrough in the final weeks before voting begins.

Paul Baker from Sioux City said he was ready to caucus for DeSantis and thinks support for the governor has been growing across the state as the field winnows.

"His leadership in Florida was very successful and he delivered on his conservative principles. We identify with his positions. My wife's a teacher and she is very supportive of his COVID response and education," Baker said.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been stagnating in the polls despite spending 59 days in the state and holding more than 150 events, brushed off his numbers on Saturday.

"Libertarians, independents, young people, people on college campuses -- those are people we're bringing into the process that don't get polled," he told ABC News.

Ramaswamy was notably popular with the students on Dordt's campus compared with other candidates at the forum. At one point a line of male student athletes formed to take pictures with him, and he even hit the floor to participate in a public pushup challenge, giving reporters and other event attendees a very visual reminder that at 38 he is by far the youngest candidate in the race.

Speaking at an event across the state in Cherokee on Saturday night, Ramaswamy was asked about Trump's controversial immigration ban on travelers from several predominately Muslim nations, which was revoked by the Biden administration.

In answering the question from reporters, Ramaswamy said he would look to enact something "potentially more expansive" along the same lines and linked it to "protecting the homeland."

PHOTO: Former UN ambassador and 2024 Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks to Iowa residents during a visit in Spirit Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 9, 2023, ahead of the Iowa caucus.
Former UN ambassador and 2024 Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks to Iowa residents during a visit in Spirit Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 9, 2023, ahead of the Iowa caucus.
Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Haley told voters on Saturday evening that she would push for dramatic changes to voting rights laws across the country, specifically eliminating mail-in voting. Mail ballots have become much more widespread since the COVID-19 pandemic even as Trump and others make baseless claims that they lead to widespread fraud and abuse.

"There should never be a state that doesn't give us election results on Election Day. The next thing is we have to stop the mail out ballots," Haley said at a town hall event in Clear Lake.

Eliminating mail-in voting could have huge implications for purple and even red states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah, where voters have gotten used to the practice.

DeSantis faced questions from reporters this weekend on another hot topic among voters: health care.

After recently saying that he would look for a plan to "transcend Obamacare," he clarified that as president he would not actually work to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare. The law has become increasingly popular and provides health insurance for millions of Americans.

But DeSantis dodged questions about whether he would fight to try to scrap all of it , telling reporters only that he would be "working on unveiling a good program" and "Obamacare failed." In an interview with PBS this weekend, he said would keep some provisions of the law, like protecting people with preexisting conditions from being denied coverage -- one of the legislation's key reforms.

"But we have got to have a reform that is going to lower costs," he also told PBS.

He went on to accuse insurance and pharmaceutical companies of working with the government in "an iron triangle where the patient and the doctor are at the back of the bus, and it's not about patient-centered care anymore."

ABC News' Abby Cruz, Lalee Ibssa, Arthur Jones II, Nicholas Kerr, Will McDuffie and Kendall Ross contributed to this report.