Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley Are Leading In Early State Visits So Far

All of the Republican presidential candidates who aren’t former President Donald Trump are looking for some version of their Jimmy Carter moment. Way back in 1976, Carter — then a little-known governor — invested heavily in his Iowa ground game, won the caucuses, and went on to clinch the Democratic nomination. 

Since then, his success has encouraged countless other candidates to visit the first few nominating states early and often. And because their time is finite, particularly for candidates who still have day jobs, looking at where they’re choosing to spend their time early in a primary contest can tell us about their strategy, and where they think they have the best chance of breaking out of the pack.

To figure out which of the candidates are spending the most time on the ground — and where they’re investing their resources and energy — FiveThirtyEight and ABC News are tracking campaign visits for every major presidential candidate in the GOP primary. So far, we’ve found that only a handful of candidates are spending a significant amount of time in Iowa or New Hampshire, which are the first two states to hold nominating contests. The candidates with the highest number of days spent campaigning in both states are entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has spent 19 days campaigning in Iowa and 15 days campaigning in New Hampshire, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has spent 14 days campaigning in Iowa and 13 days campaigning in New Hampshire. Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are currently the highest-polling candidates in the race, have spent fewer days in both states — although DeSantis announced his candidacy much more recently than Trump, Haley or Ramaswamy.

We focus specifically on counting days campaigning, rather than number of events, because it’s common for candidates to spend a day or two on a campaigning blitz, hitting a bunch of different places before jetting out of the state again. (Though we do also track the number and type of events that candidates are racking up, as well as the primary purpose of the visit, like a big speech or a rally.) And of course, we aren’t just tracking visits to Iowa and New Hampshire — we’re looking at any state where a candidate holds a campaign event. But those states are the most important to watch right now, because the way candidates are approaching them can tell us something about their priorities.

For example, if you’re a candidate who wants to appeal to the Republican Party’s white evangelical Protestant base, Iowa is the obvious state to target. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 19 percent of Iowa’s residents are white evangelicals, compared to just 8 percent of people who live in New Hampshire. Iowa is also home to influential evangelical leaders, like Bob Vander Plaats, who have helped steer candidates to victory in the past. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is a less socially conservative state and one where an anti-Trump message might take hold more easily.

So far, a couple of candidates appear to be prioritizing one state over the other. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, has spent 15 days campaigning in Iowa and only four in New Hampshire. That makes some sense for his brand — he’s a conservative former governor from a Southern state with a record on issues like abortion, which could appeal to conservative Christians in Iowa. Former vice president Mike Pence, similarly, is spending more time in Iowa than New Hampshire, as is Sen. Tim Scott, who is also courting the state’s evangelical voters with a new TV ad.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is apparently calling several of the other candidates. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spent three days campaigning in New Hampshire but has yet to log a day in Iowa, signaling that his focus is squarely on the state where he also focused his 2016 candidacy. Other contenders, like former Rep. Will Hurd, are spending the bulk of their campaign time in New Hampshire too.

There’s a big drop-off in terms of days spent in the next two states to vote. Six candidates have made appearances in South Carolina, including the two candidates from that state — Haley and Scott, who are first and second with six and five days, respectively. Far-flung Nevada has seen just two candidates (Trump and DeSantis) spend one day apiece there so far.

Overall, though, it’s really Haley and Ramaswamy who have racked up the campaign days in the two earliest states so far — although it’s also worth noting that they’ve been in the race for longer than many of the other candidates. Rivals who announced months later could still be ramping up their operations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and if you consider the fact that he’s been in the race for less than two months, DeSantis’s eight days campaigning look more respectable — especially compared to Trump, who has only spent a total of nine days campaigning in the two earliest states, despite having announced his candidacy first. In some ways, that’s not such a weird choice for Trump, since he doesn’t exactly need to introduce himself to Republican primary voters. But it’s still been fuel for DeSantis, who attacked Trump last week for failing to attend an influential Republican forum in Iowa.

It’s important to remember, though, that lots of early state visits are definitely not a guarantee of success. Around this point in the 2020 Democratic primary, President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders had made relatively few visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, and they ended up coming in first and second in the primary. And Carter’s success aside, there are plenty of bygone candidates who all but moved to Iowa or New Hampshire (one Democratic hopeful actually did move to Iowa in 2007) and still flamed out early in the contest.

Meanwhile, Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t the only states that matter, so we’ll also be watching what happens in other early contests like Nevada and South Carolina — and other potentially important states, like Florida — as we get closer to the primaries.

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