6 min read

Courtroom campaigning

Iowa voters usually reward tactile campaigning. Donald Trump is testing that tradition.
Courtroom campaigning
The D.C. courthouse that will play host to Donald Trump today. (Photo by Gabe Fleisher)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, January 9, 2023. The 2024 elections are 301 days away. The Iowa caucuses are six days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Six days before the Iowa caucuses, a leading presidential candidate would usually be taking questions from voters in living rooms and high school gymnasia, shaking hands at churches and VFW halls, or wolfing down food at Pizza Ranch.

Not Donald Trump. Instead of barnstorming through the Hawkeye State today, the former president and GOP frontrunner will be at the Prettyman courthouse in Washington, D.C., the same one where he was arraigned on charges of attempting to overturn a presidential election just five months ago.

While his rivals — or at least those willing to brave the polar vortex — frantically compete for votes in Iowa, Trump will be attending the appellate court hearing on whether “presidential immunity” shields him from the election interference charges filed by Special Counsel Jack Smith. (A district court judge rejected this line of argument last month, ruling that the presidency “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.” The Supreme Court will likely have the final say on the question; if the justices side with Trump, his D.C. trial won’t take place.)

“Of course I was entitled, as President of the United States and Commander in Chief, to Immunity,” Trump wrote Sunday on Truth Social. “I wasn’t campaigning, the Election was long over. I was looking for voter fraud, and finding it, which is my obligation to do, and otherwise running running our Country.” (No systemic voter fraud was found.) In the same post, Trump also threatened to indict President Joe Biden if he regains power.

Trump’s appearance in a courtroom some 1,000 miles away from Des Moines or Cedar Rapids normally wouldn’t be considered active campaigning, but in the context of the current GOP primary — maybe it should be.

The ex-president’s four indictments have been some of the most potent weapons of his comeback campaign, helping him consolidate GOP support, from 45% in primary polls a year ago to north of 60% today.

As this New York Times chart shows, the single biggest polling jump Trump has experienced throughout this campaign was after his first indictment in New York City.

(Chart by the New York Times)

His best fundraising days in the past year have also followed his criminal charges:

(Chart by the New York Times)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once Trump’s most promising competitor, recently bemoaned this phenomenon: “If I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview last month, explaining that the charges “sucked out all the oxygen” of the primary. (It’s never good when a candidate is speaking as though his campaign has already lost.)

But, of course, this is at least partially because DeSantis refused to make an issue out of the indictments, instead rallying to Trump’s defense each time. If the Florida governor had used the indictments as a political battering ram to attack his opponent — the most natural move for a second-place candidate — and not as an opportunity to cozy up to the voters already supporting Trump, who knows if the last six months would have gone differently.

This is why, less than a week before the caucuses, you find Trump all too happy to skip the grip-and-grin of Iowa campaigning and voluntarily decamp to a D.C. courthouse. He knows that the more media attention on his indictments, the better for his campaign, especially since his rivals have largely placed the criminal charges off-limits for attack.

In so doing, they’ve allowed him — without any blowback — to increasingly frame his campaign around his legal grievances (“They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way”), rhetoric which has been hugely successful with a GOP electorate he has spent years priming for suspicion towards the justice system. For Trump’s caucus chances, a courtroom photo-op might just be worth 10 stops at the Dutch bakery in Pella or the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, two Iowa campaign landmarks DeSantis has visited and Trump has spurned.

Still, Trump’s remote-work approach to Iowa — a state known for its tactile campaigning — could prove to be a risky gamble come Monday night. Take a look at just how little effort the former president has expended in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, with these Axios maps using Des Moines Register data:

(Maps by Axios)

So far, there seems to be very little correlation between campaign stops and polling performance: Trump, with his paltry 24 events, is now polling at 51% in Iowa, while Vivek Ramaswamy is at 7%, 239 events later. (DeSantis ranks second place both in events and polling; he currently sits at 17% in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, closely followed by Nikki Haley’s 16%.)

But there have also been notably few polls conducted of the seemingly sleepy race: there has been precisely one Iowa survey conducted in the last three weeks, which is very unusual for caucus season.

Iowa voters famously hate frontrunners and — usually — punish candidates for taking their support for granted: Hillary Clinton (2008), John McCain (2008), Mitt Romney (2012), and even Donald Trump (2016) were all leading their respective nomination contests before suffering a loss in Iowa. (All but Clinton recovered and ultimately won their party nods.)

DeSantis, who is backed by key Iowa endorsers including Gov. Kim Reynolds, is betting that history will repeat itself; with Trump campaigning by phone and few polls measuring the race, he is hoping the stars will align for a surprise victory — or, perhaps more realistically, a surprisingly close second-place finish. The polls we do have do not suggest that outcome is likely, of course, but Trump is certainly evincing little effort to prevent it.

In fairness, Trump will be back to Iowa tomorrow, attending a Fox News town hall while Haley and DeSantis duke it out on the debate stage. But then, on Thursday, he will return to form, attending yet another court proceeding — the closing arguments of his civil fraud trial in New York City — as precious campaign time ticks away.

More news to know.

Mark Esper now says his former boss is a “threat to democracy.” (National Archives)

Earth shattered global heat record in ’23 and it’s flirting with warming limit, European agency says / Associated Press

Top Democrats join Republicans in critiquing Austin’s medical secrecy: ‘He has some explaining to do’ / Politico

Trump bid for immunity rejected in E. Jean Carroll case, making Supreme Court last option / Washington Examiner

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper Calls Trump ‘Threat to Democracy’ / The Messenger

Co-defendant in Trump's Georgia election case seeks to disqualify DA, alleging romantic relationship with prosecutor / ABC News

Protesters calling for Gaza ceasefire interrupt Biden speech in S.C. / Axios

Judge Judy endorses Nikki Haley for president / WCIV

The day ahead.

(Illustration by DALL-E)

President Biden has nothing on his public schedule.

Vice President Harris will travel to Atlanta, Georgia, where she will participate in a roundtable discussion on voting rights.

The Senate is scheduled to hold one vote, on the confirmation of John Kazen to be a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas.

The House will return for its first session of the year, although the chamber has no votes scheduled.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sheetz v. El Dorado County, a property rights case, and U.S. Trustee v. John Q. Hammons Fall LLC, a case on bankruptcy.

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