How an animated character named Marlon could help Trump win the Iowa caucuses

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa –

Long before Donald Trump takes the stage, a waiting audience of hundreds of supporters is captivated as the dramatic music begins to spread throughout the room. A rotating planet Earth appears on the projector screens.

“Making America Great Again begins in one place on Earth, and one place only,” a deep-voiced narrator begins as the image zooms into the center of the U.S. “Right here in Iowa.”

It is the beginning of an almost three-minute video similar to “Schoolhouse Rock!” which features an animated character named Marlon, who tells viewers “everything they need to know about how to successfully run a caucus for President Trump.”

The goal is to deliver a commanding victory for the former president in Iowa’s first caucuses on Jan. 15, setting the stage for a big victory in the Republican primary and a strong start to the general election campaign. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are battling for a notable result in Iowa that could propel one of them into a head-to-head challenge with Trump for the Republican nomination.

Most campaigns use in-person time at events to encourage Iowans to rally around the candidate, and rely on pledge cards with names, addresses and phone numbers to contact supporters again later. But the Trump campaign isn’t waiting until voters leave the venue: They’re filling any gaps in knowledge about how caucuses work on the ground.

The civics lesson, with its easy-to-follow instructions, is a reflection of how peculiar the caucus process is. Unlike primaries, which allow voters to cast their ballots all day, Iowa caucusgoers must show up at a specific time (7 p.m. CT on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. ) and in a location that may be different from your place of residence. usual voting place. Caucus attendees also have to sit still during what can be a lengthy process of protocol and supportive speeches.

And it is often cold, sometimes it snows. Below-freezing temperatures are forecast across Iowa on caucus day.

“We would love bad weather,” Trump said Saturday in Newton, arguing that it would deter supporters of other candidates but not his own. “My people will walk on glass.”

But it’s not just the weather that can make it difficult for people to participate.

Marin Curtis, 25, of North Liberty waited in line for a Trump rally in Coralville, but she had never been to a caucus before and doesn’t know much about it. Besides, she said, she has a small child and she may not be able to survive.

Ron Wheeldon, 64, an undecided truck driver from Newton, Iowa, was considering candidates at several campaign events, even though he will have to work the graveyard shift on caucus day.

And in Sioux Center last month, Steve and Shari Rehder of Hawarden were attending a forum of some major candidates, including DeSantis and Haley. They said they were interested in an alternative to Trump. But whoever they want won’t get their vote on caucus night: They’ll be on vacation out of state.

Trump’s 2024 campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts are a nod to lessons learned since 2016, when the political newcomer acknowledged knowing nothing about the caucuses. Trump finished second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that year in Iowa’s first ballot, though he would go on to win the next three top states, the GOP nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

This year, the former president has been touting his lead in national and state polls, but he has also warned his supporters not to become complacent and says he is not taking Iowa for granted. Last Friday, in Sioux Center, he inaugurated the first at least eight “caucus engagement” events and noted that he plans to return to Iowa on caucus day.

“Look, we have to get out and vote because, you know, bad things happen when you sit down,” Trump said, encouraging the crowd to “really show the strength” of support. “We’re voting now, but it’s going to make a big difference in November.”

Wrapped in a blanket waiting in line for Trump’s rally, Josie Zeutenhorst, a 20-year-old from Sioux Center who attends Dordt University, said she wanted to hear Trump in person instead of on television. She recognizes the impact voters can have on election results, but she didn’t plan to caucus.

“I guess I don’t know enough,” he said. “I really don’t know how it works.”

In a follow-up interview after the rally, Zeutenhorst said she found the caucus instructional video “very helpful” and felt more comfortable having learned the process.

“I’m really considering it,” she said of participating in the caucuses, although she’s still not sure it fits her schedule.

Regan Ronning, 52, who attended a Trump rally in 2016, said the Trump campaign called him a few months ago to ask if he would be caucus captain. He now knocks on doors and makes phone calls to people in her area.

“Education is a big part of this,” he said. Ronning believes the videos and volunteers help, since some of the people he talks to don’t know what a caucus is. “I’m just trying to tell them what the process is, that it’s not scary at all.”

Trump’s team has said it has conducted hundreds of trainings for its volunteers and precinct captains, the people who represent the campaign within a given precinct on caucus night.

The campaign has also made the captains prioritize a new task: bringing 10 people to the electoral assemblies who had never participated in one before. The campaign has identified several hundred thousand Trump supporters across Iowa who qualify.

It’s an approach they hope to replicate in the general election, as they seek to undermine Biden’s coalition and win over voters who have generally supported Democrats.

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors are trying to persuade Iowa voters that the race is not over yet.

“This is the most impactful vote you can cast. The number of people who attend these caucuses is 150 to 200,000 people,” DeSantis told a crowd in Sioux Center last week. “So if you come and bring neighbors or family, all that, you’re making a big splash.”

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Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.

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