Did you hear? There was a mass gathering of Republican 2024 hopefuls in Iowa on Sunday — near Cedar Rapids, amid the midsummer seas of ripening cornstalks and the darker hues of rows of soybeans.
This was after a Republican Party fund-raising dinner in Des Moines nine days earlier, and just before the Iowa State Fair begins Thursday, where the state’s Republican governor plans one-on-one public “chats” with 12 presidential hopefuls.
Political types call such gatherings, somewhat unkindly, “cattle calls,” as if voters were assessing candidates like so much meat on the hoof.
But the fact is that even as Iowa voters and power brokers — along with the national Republican Party — go through the motions of sizing up a fulsome presidential field, the prize has never looked so far beyond the grasp of all but one person, Donald J. Trump, who dominates as if he were a White House incumbent.
And Iowa has never seemed so beside the point in its role as the first nominating contest that traditionally narrows the field ahead of a long primary season. Should Mr. Trump win the state next year, as he is strongly positioned to do, it may punctuate the race with a full stop, suggesting an abrupt conclusion.
“Iowa Picks Presidents” read a sign on the lectern Sunday at the Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center, on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids. Seven candidates not named Trump appeared, each repeating 10-minute versions of stump speeches they have given throughout the campaign.
But Iowa voters, like much of the rest of the Republican electorate, seem already to have picked Mr. Trump. His near inevitability, despite three criminal indictments, has made the months of pre-caucus rituals in Iowa — beloved by candidates and operatives, the political press and many Iowa voters who relish a quadrennial strut before the national footlights — an exercise that feels increasingly hollow.
Mr. Trump’s dominance of the polls far exceeds his largest leads of 2015 and 2016, when he marched incrementally to the nomination. A New York Times/Siena College Poll last week of likely Republican primary voters gave Mr. Trump a 37-point lead nationally over his closest rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. In Iowa, where the race is a bit narrower, the former president was still ahead by 22 points.
Lyn Madsen, a Republican voter from Janesville, Iowa, who came to hear the candidates on Sunday, said Mr. Trump was her choice for the nomination. She only showed up to hear some of his rivals because she was shopping for a No. 2 on the ticket.
“I don’t think they’re going to be able to dethrone him,’’ she said of the former president. “I’m more thinking, who is going to be able to be with him?”
The first nominating contests are still months away. It is unclear if Mr. Trump’s continuing courtroom appearances in multiple criminal cases next year, overlapping with primary contests, could diminish the confidence that, today, so many Republicans have in his candidacy.
But so far, his legal troubles have made little dent in his support. Even his picking a fight with Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a popular Republican, or snubbing gatherings of evangelical voters in the state have not disqualified him, as they would have any other candidate.
In the Times/Siena Poll, 52 percent of Iowa Republicans said they were only considering Mr. Trump. Nearly four in five Republicans (77 percent) said they “strongly” supported their first choice, suggesting there was little opportunity for others to eat into Mr. Trump’s lead.
Mr. DeSantis, who entered the race already a national figure, has stumbled and is now hoping to run an insurgent campaign — promising to visit all 99 Iowa counties, a back-breaking schedule, and a gimmick usually pursued by underfunded long-shots, like Rick Santorum, who used the tactic to pull off an upset win in the Iowa caucuses in 2012.
But hyper-retail campaigning such as Mr. DeSantis is pursuing in Iowa has never looked so out of date. With Mr. Trump sucking up most of the oxygen in the race, dominating news cycle after news cycle, the primary contest has become nationalized.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s seven rivals seemed to hope voters simply ignored that the former president was blotting out the sun. The sole reference to his candidacy was a passing mention by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. “I know that this is an uphill battle because there’s one candidate in the race who’s got like 50 percent of the vote,’’ Mr. Hutchinson said, on his 14th visit to Iowa, where he was below 1 percent in The Times/Siena Poll.
He went on to tell a self-deprecating story about introducing himself to a woman in an Iowa cafe, informing her he was running for president of the United States. “Sure,” she said, “and I’m running for vice president of the United States.’’