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

Jan 8, 2024, 10:06 PM

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa (AP) — Well before Donald Trump takes the stage, a waiting audience of hundreds of supporters sits captivated as dramatic music begins to swell throughout the room. On projector screens, a rotating Planet Earth appears.

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

It’s the beginning of a nearly three-minute “Schoolhouse Rock!”-like video featuring an animated character named Marlon, who informs viewers of “everything you need to know about how to successfully caucus for President Trump.”

The goal is to generate a commanding win for the former president in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses on Jan. 15, setting the stage for a romp through 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 finish in Iowa that could propel one of them to a head-to-head challenge with Trump for the GOP nomination.

Most campaigns use face time at events to encourage Iowans to caucus for the candidate, and they rely on pledge cards with names, addresses and phone numbers to contact supporters again later. But the Trump campaign doesn’t wait until after the voters leave the venue –- they are filling in any gaps in knowledge of how the caucuses work on site.

The civics lesson, with its easy-to-follow instructions, is a reflection of just how quirky the caucus process is. Unlike primaries, which allow voters to cast their ballots throughout the day, Iowa caucusgoers are required to show up at a specific time — 7 p.m. Central time on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday — and at a site that may be different from their usual polling place. Caucusgoers also have to stay put for what can be a lengthy process of protocol and supporting speeches.

And it’s often cold, sometimes snowing. Below-zero temperatures are forecast across Iowa on caucus day.

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

But it’s not only the weather that may make it challenging for people to participate.

Marin Curtis, 25, from North Liberty stood in line for a Trump rally in Coralville, but she has never been to a caucus before and she doesn’t know much about it. Besides, she said, she has a toddler and might not be able to make it.

Ron Wheeldon, 64, an undecided truck driver from Newton, Iowa, was scoping out candidates at several campaign events, even though he’ll have to work the night shift on the day of the caucuses.

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 like won’t be getting their vote on caucus night — they’ll be out of state on vacation.

The get-out-the-vote efforts by Trump’s 2024 campaign are a nod to the lessons learned since 2016, when the political novice acknowledged not knowing the first thing about caucuses. Trump finished second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that year in Iowa’s leadoff voting, though he would go on to win the next three early states, the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency.

This year, the former president has been touting his lead in national and early state polls, but he has also warned his supporters not to get complacent and says he isn’t taking Iowa for granted. In Sioux Center last Friday, he kicked off the first of at least eight “commit to caucus” events and noted he plans to be back in Iowa on caucus day.

“Look, we gotta get out and vote because, you know, bad things happen when you sit back,” 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 from Trump in person instead of on TV. She recognizes how much of an impact voters can have on election results but wasn’t planning on participating in a caucus.

“I don’t know enough, I guess,” she said. “I don’t really 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 really am considering it,” she said of participating in the caucuses, though she still isn’t sure it’ll work with her schedule.

Regan Ronning, 52, who attended a Trump rally back in 2016, said the Trump campaign called him a few months ago to ask if he’d be a caucus captain. Now he’s door knocking and making phone calls to people in his area.

“Education’s a big part of it,” he said. Ronning thinks the videos and volunteers help, since some of the people he talks to are confused about what a caucus is. “I just try to tell them what the process is, that it’s nothing scary.”

Trump’s team has said they’ve held hundreds of trainings for their volunteers and precinct captains, the individuals representing the campaign within a given precinct on caucus night.

The campaign also has had captains prioritize a new assignment — to bring 10 people to the caucuses who have never participated in one before. The campaign has identified several hundred thousand Trump supporters across Iowa who fit the bill.

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

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors are trying to persuade voters in Iowa that the race isn’t over yet.

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


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

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