(Bloomberg) -- Iowa has long been a proving ground for US presidential candidates. As Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis square off for the 2024 Republican nomination, the state’s vote has rarely been more crucial.

For Trump, the former president seeking another term after losing in 2020, Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucus represents the best chance to vanquish his rivals and march toward a rematch with President Joe Biden. For DeSantis, the Florida governor whose rebellion against pandemic restrictions made him a conservative folk hero, winning the state would cement his status as an alternative to Trumpism.

Iowa “is way more important than it has been in any other cycle,” said Terry Sullivan, a GOP strategist who ran Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Trump has built everything on being this invincible candidate. If he does not win there, that is punctured and this becomes a real race.”

At a time when social media and cable news shape the national view of candidates, Iowa stands out as a place where old-fashioned campaigning can be the difference between winning and losing. The Midwestern state’s first-in-the-nation status means residents have come to expect that candidates will pay them lots of attention.  

In-person visits and on-the-ground organizing matter because of the state’s “quirky and high maintenance voters,” Sullivan says.

DeSantis grasped the importance of winning Iowa early and has rarely been outside its borders for long since starting his campaign. He vowed to visit all 99 of the state’s counties, and he has made it to 58 so far, throwing baseballs with his kids, visiting rural county fairs and posing for selfies with voters.

With DeSantis logging so much face time with voters, Trump has ramped up his visits to the state in recent weeks. He made three stops in the past week, including an impromptu drop-in to a pizza parlor where he passed out pizza boxes and signed the white tank top one woman was wearing. 

Recent polling out of Iowa shows Trump leading DeSantis by an average of roughly 30 percentage points.

Ground Game

Neither candidate is staking the race purely on shaking hands and kissing babies. DeSantis’s Never Back Down super PAC has five offices in Iowa and 21 paid staffers who have knocked on the door of every likely GOP caucus-goer at least once. They plan to visit each of Iowa’s roughly 217,000 Republican voters five times, according to Kristin Davison, the super PAC’s chief operating officer.

“We are doing the things you need to do to win a caucus state,” Davison said. “They are going to try to build something that we’ve been building for six months.”

Losing the battle for individual voters could be costly. Trump lost the 2016 Iowa caucus to Texas Senator Ted Cruz by roughly 6,200 votes, a defeat a senior campaign official attributed to a lack of organization in the state. Now, the Trump campaign says it has more than a dozen staffers on the ground, with more than double the number of pledged voters compared with DeSantis.

The Trump campaign is betting that the former president’s sway over a large swath of the Republican electorate will help overcome DeSantis’s house-by-house outreach. Senior campaign officials say people know who Trump is, and he is attracting crowds of more than 1,000 people at his stops in the state. 

“The first time DeSantis was in Iowa was a few months ago. Don’t lecture us,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. He said Trump is the favorite and the rest of the field, which includes former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, is competing to be runner-up.

However, recent missteps by Trump have created opportunities for DeSantis. Trump has feuded with Iowa’s popular GOP governor, Kim Reynolds, who is leaning toward endorsing DeSantis. And in a TV interview, Trump called Florida’s six-week ban on abortion, signed into law by DeSantis in April, a “terrible thing.” Iowa has a similar law — signed by Reynolds — that has been well-received by the state’s evangelical voters, a key Republican bloc.

Read more: Iowa Governor Moves Toward Endorsing DeSantis in Blow to Trump

“Donald Trump has shot himself in the foot in Iowa and opened the door, and Ron DeSantis is about to kick it down,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for the DeSantis campaign. “We feel like the work that the governor is doing, coupled with the evolving political atmosphere, is going to pay dividends and that’s what’s going to allow us to drive toward victory.”

Reynolds’ and Trump’s teams no longer speak to one another, according to two people briefed on their interactions, and she has made several public appearances alongside DeSantis. A poll by the firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates commissioned by Trump’s super PAC MAGA Inc. and reviewed by Bloomberg indicated DeSantis would only gain a few percentage points from a Reynolds endorsement.

History of Surprises

Both Trump and DeSantis say they are in a position to win. DeSantis told a local Iowa TV reporter that his team was “way ahead of where other previous Iowa caucus winners have been at this point in the process.” Trump, at the start of a post-Labor Day tour of the state in Maquoketa, told supporters, “we’re going to win the Iowa caucuses in a historic landslide.”

At the Trump event, Gerald Retzlaff, chairman of the Jones County Republican Party, said he supported all the candidates, but said he thought that Trump had the most experience and didn’t need to campaign as heavily. 

“When you get 5,000 people at an event, you don’t need to have as many events. People are driving a long ways to come and see them,” Retzlaff said. “Ron DeSantis is a great guy, but he’s not drawing like Donald Trump, so he needs to have more events to get exposure like Donald Trump.”

Longtime political operatives caution, however, that Iowa can shock people — and that the state doesn’t always anoint the nominee.

“Rick Santorum kind of came from the back of the field in 2012 and Ted Cruz did it in 2016, defeating Donald Trump here eight years ago, and Mike Huckabee did it in 2008,” said Ralph Reed, president of the evangelical group Faith and Freedom. “There’s a history here of surprises and I would say it is going to be highly competitive and hard fought and nothing should be taken for granted.”

(Updates with latest polls in eighth paragraph.)

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