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Ramaswamy focuses on nontraditional GOP voters in final Iowa push

By Aaron Pellish, CNN

Ames, Iowa (CNN) — Amber Douglas wanted to ask Vivek Ramaswamy about his outreach to young voters like herself. Douglas, a 33-year-old lifelong Iowa resident, first caucused in 2008, when she was 17, for then-Sen. Barack Obama, and voted for Democrats in every subsequent election until 2022, when she voted for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. In this year’s caucuses, she plans to support Ramaswamy.

Yet as she asked her question on Friday to Ramaswamy, she made a biting observation about the dozens gathered here: There were more members of the media in attendance than young voters, a fact that caused her some concern.

Douglas personifies the young, independent-minded voters and first-time Republican caucusgoers Ramaswamy has been working to engage throughout the campaign. But Douglas said she felt disheartened by her lack of peers at the event.

“I really wish that, like, there were more of me,” she said after the town hall. “It’s sad to me that there was more press in seats than young voters.”

Despite the underwhelming showing in Ames, the Ramaswamy campaign heads into the final week of campaigning ahead of the Iowa caucuses by betting they can turn out more voters like Douglas on the night of. The campaign is investing in a full-tilt strategy to engage what it sees as its core constituency, largely made up of traditionally low-propensity voters, with targeted advertising, robust get-out-the-vote efforts along with nonstop grassroots campaigning, all in an effort to pull off what Ramaswamy predicts will be a “major surprise” on January 15.

The campaign recently pivoted its advertising strategy away from television advertising, a staple of campaigns, and is instead leaning into targeted digital advertising along with mailers and radio ads, a senior official with the Ramaswamy campaign told CNN. Those messages are supported by a team of thousands of volunteers and paid grassroots organizers using the campaign’s voter database to call, text or knock on the door of any Iowan who has previously shown interest in Ramaswamy over the past year, the official said.

That operation is backed by significant investment from Ramaswamy himself, who often touts on the campaign trail that he’s the largest financial contributor to his own campaign. Independently wealthy from his previous work as a tech entrepreneur and business owner, Ramaswamy told voters in Washington, Iowa, on Saturday that he’s invested “over $25 million, close to $30 million of our hard-earned money” into his campaign, adding, “we’re just getting warmed up, we will stop at nothing.” Last week, Ramaswamy sold $33 million worth of shares in Roivant Sciences, the pharmaceutical company he founded, according to SEC filings.

Ramaswamy and an allied super PAC have spent a total of about $7.9 million on ads, significantly less than the leading contenders, each of whom have seen tens of millions advertising aired supporting their bids, according to AdImpact data.

The campaign sees its core group of voters as falling roughly into three categories, the official told CNN: disaffected voters who have either never caucused for Republicans previously or have not caucused for many years; young people from across the ideological spectrum; and people who previously supported former President Donald Trump but are now interested in a candidate who can, as Ramaswamy often says, “take the America First movement to the next level.”

The official said the effort would amount to bringing a brand-new coalition to the Republican Party, but acknowledged executing this type of strategy is “one of the hardest things to do in American politics.”

“Vivek has done that,” the official added. “It’s now on the campaign to turn them out.”

Ramaswamy remains far behind the front-runner, Trump, in state polls. A CBS News/YouGov poll of likely Republican caucusgoers released last month showed Ramaswamy with 4% support, trailing Trump’s 58%, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 22% and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s 13%.

Ramaswamy often dismisses media polls by pointing to his campaign’s strategy of targeting infrequent voters who may be screened out of surveys of likely Republican caucusgoers.

Richard and Laurie Wegman, a married couple from Cascade, Iowa, both backed Trump in the 2016 and 2020 general elections. But now the two plan to caucus for the first time in support of Ramaswamy.

“I like the fact that (Ramaswamy’s) an outsider. He’s got the same ideas that I do. He’s got the energy, he’s got the youth to go with it, because it’s a draining job,” said Laurie Wegman, who has voted Democrat and Republican in the past.

“I like everything (Trump) did, I don’t like him. But I was willing to vote for him. With (Ramaswamy), this is way better than Trump,” said Richard Wegman, a self-described libertarian and a longtime registered Republican.

It’s unclear whether Ramaswamy’s final push in Iowa will earn him the result he needs to build momentum to last through the primary calendar. Over the summer, Ramaswamy often said a successful outcome in Iowa would be a top-three finish. But in Marengo, Iowa, on Saturday, Ramaswamy told supporters he expects to perform even better than that.

“I think we’re going to shock the polls, going to shatter the expectation,” Ramaswamy said. “I think we’re going to win the Iowa caucus because of the people in this room.”

But despite his best efforts, many voters who say they agree with Ramaswamy on issues and like his rhetorical style may still cast their votes for Trump, his ideological predecessor who can claim to be both a more experienced politician and a brasher personality.

After seeing Ramaswamy make his pitch in Dubuque, Iowa, on Friday, Peter Lockwood, a 24-year-old engineer from the city, said Ramaswamy is “a really solid candidate” who could develop into “a phenomenal candidate” sometime in the future. But he plans to support Trump in this year’s caucuses.

“Trump has been a very, very solid president. His policies have led to some of the best success in the United States over the past few years,” Lockwood said. “It would be very difficult for somebody new to come in.”

Tailored messaging

Ramaswamy relocated his campaign’s staff from their headquarters in Ohio to Iowa and New Hampshire in November, kickstarting a heightened frequency and velocity of campaigning with special attention paid to the Hawkeye State. In early December, shortly after DeSantis completed his long sought-after target of visiting all 99 Iowa counties – often called “the full Grassley” after Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley – Ramaswamy declared that he would endeavor to complete “the double Grassley,” an unprecedented effort to achieve the feat twice before the caucuses.

The campaign says he completed the goal in early January, with over a week to spare before caucus day. Ramaswamy has said he expects to have completed more than 300 campaign events in Iowa.

In recent weeks, Ramaswamy has begun tailoring his message to better resonate with Iowa crowds. He’ll often ask the audience if they’d like to hear him talk about his religious beliefs, providing an opportunity for him to demystify his Hindu faith for the predominantly evangelical Christian audiences around the state.

Ray and Jana Mitchem, a retired couple from Marshalltown, Iowa, have seen Ramaswamy speak six times over the past year. Devout Methodists who both wear crucifix necklaces, the couple questioned Ramaswamy’s faith at first. But now they say they’ll caucus for Ramaswamy, in part because they feel his values align with theirs, despite the difference in religions.

“He lives the moral values, and his moral values are our moral values,” Ray Mitchem said.

“We trust him all the way on everything,” Jana Mitchem said.

Ramaswamy has also begun forcefully advocating against the use of eminent domain to build carbon capture pipelines through Iowa farms. Multiple energy companies have proposed building pipelines through Iowa and other Midwest states to extract carbon emissions, and some of those companies have requested using eminent domain to acquire the necessary land. Opponents of the pipelines have raised safety concerns and have claimed using eminent domain would violate property rights.

This stance has forged ties with grassroots conservative and Iowa agriculture workers through Ramaswamy’s strong stance against government invasiveness. He’s held several campaign events in Iowa within the past month focused on the issue and will speak at a rally alongside anti-pipeline organizers at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Wednesday.

Ramaswamy’s focus on the issue drew the attention of Iowa Falls voter Robert Nazario, who has helped organize anti-pipeline support around the state. After a Ramaswamy campaign event in Charles City, Iowa, last month that focused largely on the issue and featured speakers from anti-pipeline group, Nazario praised him for taking the issue so seriously, and gave him credit for reaching out to advocates of the cause as early as March of last year.

“He’s not being an opportunist, thinking this is gonna propel him,” Nazario said. He plans to caucus for Trump, but indicated he could switch to supporting Ramaswamy if he decides Trump isn’t as strong on the carbon capture pipeline issue.

Ramaswamy’s support for the anti-pipeline cause led him to cross paths with former US Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has also been organizing against the pipelines. In December, King began introducing Ramaswamy at campaign events and traveling with him around the state, praising his commitment to the anti-pipeline cause.

King’s support culminated with a formal endorsement earlier this month, reigniting the former congressman’s controversial 2019 comments in a New York Times interview in which he downplayed the connotations behind the terms “White supremacist” and “White nationalist.” Following his endorsement of Ramaswamy, King strongly denied having ever made racist remarks in an interview with CNN.

Ramaswamy, who has forcefully defended King in response to questions about the former congressman’s past rhetoric, has himself touted controversial positions on race and immigration and promoted conspiracy theories about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Those positions have sparked outrage throughout his campaign, but some Iowa voters say they like hearing him say things that other presidential candidates wouldn’t.

BJ Tiemessen, a would-be first-time caucusgoer from Ionia, Iowa, likes when Ramaswamy delves into controversial ideas but said he’s aware those beliefs might alienate some voters.

“I don’t see anything wrong with what he’s saying,” Tiemessen said. “A lot of normal people, I don’t think they’ve gotten on board.”

Tiemessen attended Ramaswamy’s town hall in New Hampton, Iowa, a day after the fourth Republican debate in Alabama, carrying a homemade replica of a sign Ramaswamy brandished during the debate that read “Nikki = Corrupt” to drive home one of his frequent criticisms of Haley. But despite his approval of Ramaswamy’s debate performance and his policies, he said he’s still undecided between Ramaswamy and Trump.

After vigorously defending Trump from the early days of his campaign, Ramaswamy has begun portraying the former president as vulnerable to defeat and “wounded” by years of attacks from political opponents while characterizing the criminal investigations into Trump as branches of “the system” attempting to block him from the White House. While he remains an ardent supporter of Trump and his policies, the new distinction is Ramaswamy’s most direct contrast with the former president to date.

“At this stage, as we’re heading into 2024, we cannot walk into a trap where this system eliminates Donald Trump from contention,” Ramaswamy told reporters in Dubuque, Iowa, on Friday. “I believe you got the future of America First standing right here. It’s my job to take this to the next level, and we cannot walk into what I do believe is a trap that the system is trying to lay.”

Jadyn Thole, a La Motte, Iowa native, said that argument resonated with him. He supported Trump in the past two elections, and while he still likes Trump, he’s leaning toward supporting Ramaswamy partly because he fears the former president would be prevented from implementing his agenda.

“We all like Trump, everybody likes Trump,” Thole said of him and his friends in Iowa. “What (Ramaswamy) said with Trump getting railroaded, that’s my biggest concern. Can he actually do something in office without fending off all the left bullsh*t all the time? That’s what I think everybody’s afraid of, or what I’m afraid of at least.”

Matthew Kirsch, a 19-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would have voted for Trump previously if he had been old enough eligible in previous elections, but he disapproved of Trump’s handling of the Covid pandemic. He thinks Ramaswamy has more to offer than the former president and is excited to caucus for him in his first-ever caucus.

“He’s like Donald Trump 5.0,” Kirsch said. “Vivek is my guy now because Donald seems like he’s turning into an establishment pawn.”

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