Plying Voters With Free Food, Ramaswamy Struggles to Win Them Over

While many people were heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday, the presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was making a new, if temporary, one in Iowa.

He has rented an apartment in Des Moines, the state’s capitol, and plans to participate in the city’s annual Turkey Trot, a Thanksgiving morning run. In the five days before the holiday, Mr. Ramaswamy, 38, hostedover two dozen events, many offering free breakfast, lunch or dinner, eager to answer voter questions.

At recent stops, Mr. Ramaswamy, a political newcomer and millionaire entrepreneur, has made a bold proclamation about his 2024 bid: “If I win Iowa, I’m your next president.”

But his odds on either front appear to be growing more remote. He’s campaigning and spending like there’s no tomorrow, buying meals and filling Pizza Ranches with crowds willing to hear him out — but not necessarily winning them over. Stagnation has set in after a fleeting summer spike in popularity, with national polls consistently showing him bogged in the middling single digits. Aggressive debate tactics appear to have hurt him, with his disapproval numbers ticking up after each performance, though he started with little name recognition.

In Iowa, he doesn’t fare much better. A recent Des Moines Register survey shows former President Donald J. Trump maintaining a dominant lead and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, battling Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida for second place.

And yet Mr. Ramaswamy, who has campaigned in the image of Mr. Trump, says he will hold over 200 events in Iowa between now and the caucuses on Jan. 15 after abandoning his Ohio headquarters and moving staff to Iowa and New Hampshire, as Politico reported this month. He suggests the polls don’t accurately reflect his support.

“If what we are seeing in our events translates into the broader caucus-going population, we’re going to have an outstanding result here in Iowa,” he told reporters on Tuesday after speaking to a packed crowd at a Cedar Rapids restaurant.

“People really dial in and start talking about this as the caucus date approaches, and so our bet is that’s going to be a bottom-up lift that we get. I truly think we’re going to end up delivering a surprise,” he added.

The intensity of his schedule — several states a week, with up to six events each day, not counting frequent media appearances — is coming at what he says is great personal expense. His campaign has picked up the tab for dozens of meals at recent events. At stops attended by a New York Times reporter, representatives for the host restaurants declined to give specifics on the cost. One restaurant in Toledo, Iowa, reached by phone, put the cost at $1,000.

Mr. Ramaswamy estimated to reporters Tuesday that he had spent around $20 million on his run so far. As of the end of September, his campaign had spent more than $22 million, and he had contributed more than $17 million, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Interviews with voters who heard him speak suggested that while many were intrigued by Mr. Ramaswamy’s proposals, and liked what they heard, they weren’t quite sold with two months to go before the caucuses. Many likened him to Mr. Trump — describing him as “sharper,” “more polite” or having “less baggage.”

“He’s another Trump, only a little bit younger,” said Diane Lyphout, a voter from Vinton, Iowa, who is also considering Mr. DeSantis. “He’s going to do really well. The only thing I thought he was maybe just a little bit young yet to have that seasoning and wisdom.”

But aspects of Mr. Ramaswamy’s strategy — including his steadfast bolstering of Mr. Trump, who is accused of committing dozens of felonies in four criminal indictments have baffled some voters and veterans of the Iowa caucuses.

His campaign has reserved about $1 million in television ads in Iowa for November — nearly double what his campaign and a super PAC backing him spent in October, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. But as of Tuesday evening, neither his campaign nor the super PAC had made buys for subsequent months. Mr. Trump, Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis, between their campaigns and super PACs backing them, have reserved millions more in Iowa TV ads through January.

The hectic travel schedule has often caused delays and, at times, canceled events — alienating potential supporters.

“If he can’t show up on time, he can’t be president,” said one man at a diner in Vinton, Iowa, who left before Mr. Ramaswamy, who was 30 minutes late, arrived. At that same event, a woman walked out midway through his stump speech, saying, “Hogwash,” to a campaign staff member on her way out.

He has retooled his stump speech to make central his discontent with the Republican National Committee, which he has claimed doesn’t want him in the race, and has recently been prompting crowds to ask him about his foreign policy vision, an area in which his inexperience has been highlighted by Ms. Haley and other rivals. He has used those questions to highlight his closeness to Mr. Trump, while his criticism of the “R.N.C. establishment” offers echoes of Mr. Trump’s own criticisms of the party apparatus.

That message resonated with Kristine Pfab, a 57-year-old from Bernard, Iowa, who said Republicans had become “just as swampy” as Democrats. But asked who she would caucus for, she said, “Probably DeSantis.” “But if I could roll Vivek and DeSantis into one person, that would be great,” she added.

Jimmy Centers, a Republican strategist in Iowa, said Mr. Ramaswamy’s decision to run as a “Trump lite” candidate, in addition to the backlash for invoking Ms. Haley’s daughter recently on the debate stage, were two factors that could hurt Mr. Ramaswamy. Voters, seeing little daylight between Mr. Trump and Mr. Ramaswamy, frequently ask why he would run against the man he proclaims was the “best president of the 21st century.”

“Iowans kick the tires on just about every candidate up until the very last second. Vivek enjoyed a really nice moment in late summer, early fall, and that’s not to say he can’t get it back,” Mr. Centers said. “But for right now, I think it’s really down to two races: How much will Trump win by, and will DeSantis or Haley come in second?”

Mr. Ramaswamy tells voters and reporters alike that his path to victory lies in “bringing people along” — meaning potential voters who have not traditionally supported Republicans or skip elections altogether, especially younger voices.

The audiences at many of his events, however, are often older and whiter. In Grinnell, Iowa, home to Grinnell College, five students at a town hall on Monday said they were Democrats who came for the spectacle of meeting a presidential candidate for the first time.

Seeing Mr. Ramaswamy, they all said, had solidified their support for President Biden.

“I feel like a lot of his policies are just kind of identical to a lot of Trump’s policies — he seems just kind of Trump-lite, even with how he speaks,” said Che Glenn, a 19-year-old student from New York. “I just want to know why he thinks anyone would ever consider voting for him over Trump.”

Even those whom Mr. Ramaswamy has won over have expressed doubts about his ability to succeed in the Hawkeye State.

“I feel that the Republican Party has gone off the rails, and he’s got the message that the party needs to return to,” said Chris Kardos, a 71-year-old from Center Point, Iowa, who plans to caucus for Mr. Ramaswamy. “Unfortunately, I face the reality that his chances of winning the nomination are not great.”

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