Donald Trump’s presence is drawing unprecedented attention to the Republican presidential contest. But after careful consideration, many new Iowa voters turned to his rivals instead.
The political newcomer logged a second-place finish in Iowa’s kick-off caucuses, performing far better than anyone could have imagined just seven months ago when he jumped into the race.
On Tuesday, during an event in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump said his decision to skip the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses may have contributed to his second-place finish.
He skipped the debate because of a spat with Fox News and instead held a fundraiser for veterans that raised $6 million.
But the billionaire businessman says he’d do it the same if he had to do it again.
Trump says he "would never, ever give that up to go between first and second in Iowa."
Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown endorsed Trump during the event on Tuesday.
The Manhattan developer managed to pull in more than 45,000 votes, far more than 2012 caucus winner Rick Santorum, who many view as being more compatible with the state’s conservative electorate.
But Trump’s own decision to escalate expectation, coupled by an outmaneuvered ground game, set his supporters up for disappointment.
"We’re going to have a tremendous victory," Trump told voters at his final rally in Cedar Rapids before voting began.
"A lot of the news commentators…. they say, `Wouldn’t you better off if you just said we want to do well in Iowa?"’ he said. "And I said, ‘Not really. I mean, I want to be truthful. I’m a truthful person. I want to win Iowa, I don’t want to do well. I want to win."’
The misconception — shared by Trump and much of the media — was that a boost in voter turnout would disproportionately benefit Trump and his rival Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side.
The race did attract large numbers of newcomers, with nearly 187,000 voters turning out at caucus sites, where cars were backed up for blocks at some sites and standing-room only at others.
But in the end, according to an entrance poll of those arriving at caucus sites conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks, many of those newcomers voted for Cruz and Florida’s Marco Rubio. And of the 45 percent of caucus-goers who said they decided who to support in just the final week, 29 percent supported Rubio, 27 percent supported Cruz and just 14 percent supported Trump.
Among them was Davenport’s Dwight Reese, 55, who’d been torn between Trump and Cruz when he attended a Trump rally earlier this week. In the end, he broke for Cruz.
"I got kind of caught up in the Trump phenomenon," said Reese before leaving for his caucus site. He said the fact Trump hasn’t always held conservative positions had given him pause. Cruz, he said, "stands for everything I believe in. I believe I can trust him."
It was that precisely the messaging that dominated anti-Trump ads questioning the billionaire’s conservative credentials in the days before voting began.
Also cited by voters was Trump’s decision to skip the final GOP debate before caucus day because of a spat with debate host Fox News.
"To skip it was not a good idea," she Monica Baier, 47, who caucused for Trump and said she was disappointed by the loss.
There were also signs that Trump’s secretive and non-traditional operation had been outmaneuvered.
While Cruz modeled his campaign after past Iowa winners, visiting all of the state’s 99 counties and courting influential evangelical and conservative leaders, Trump visited less frequently. Instead of working to woo undecided voters one-on-one in coffee shops and diners, Trump stuck to the large rally format that has been the hallmark of his campaign. When reporters were invited to document his first visit to a local Pizza Ranch restaurant, the location was closed to the public. Trump delivered a quick pep talk to dozens of campaign volunteers attending a caucus training session and left without trying a slice.
In the week leading to the caucuses, there was also a distinct feeling on the ground that his support was cooling. There were empty seats at rallies in Waterloo and Sioux City; audiences were dominated by out-of-state and on-the-fence voters rather than hard-core fans.
Voters interviewed at events across the state also frequently reported having received no outreach from the campaign, suggesting the ground game Trump’s team had tried to hype was not as effective as his rivals’. Indeed, among the 36 percent of Iowa caucus-goers who said they were contacted by someone asking them to come out to support their candidate, Cruz had a 31 percent to 23 percent advantage over Trump, the entrance poll showed.
Nonetheless, Trump and his supporters are downplaying the impact as they turn their attention to New Hampshire, which voted on Feb. 8.
Trump delivered a gracious concession speech at his debate headquarters in West Des Moines Monday night, but was already lashing out at the media and voters by Tuesday afternoon, tweeting that, "The media has not covered my long-shot great finish in Iowa fairly. Brought in record voters and got second highest vote total in history!"
Trump supporter Karen Riccelli, 60, of Des Moines, said she was disappointed by the loss, but didn’t think it would have lasting impact.
"I think his supporters are going to stay with him. This is the first one in the country," she said. "We’ve got a long ways to go."
Trump will be appearing in New Hampshire Tuesday night at a rally in Milford. He will joined by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. According to NBC News, Brown will endorse Trump at the event.
(Copyright (c) 2016 Sunbeam Television. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)