However, a prominent social conservative leader in Iowa, where evangelical voters significantly influence Republican politics, believes Trump is not invincible.
Bob Vander Plaats, President and CEO of The Family Leader, a politically active and influential social conservative group, told Fox News Digital, "You’re seeing the field naturally coalesce. It’s getting smaller and smaller." He was referring to the narrowing of the 2024 GOP presidential field. Vander Plaats, who is expected to endorse one of Trump's rivals soon, noted that Trump's support in recent Iowa polls is below 50%. He predicted that by the time of the Jan. 15 caucuses, Trump's backing might be as low as 35%.
"There’s definitely a shot that the former president can be beat here," Vander Plaats contended. He made these comments on the eve of the Family Leader presidential Thanksgiving forum. The forum will feature Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramawamy. Haley and DeSantis are currently vying for a distant second place behind Trump.
Trump was invited to the forum but will not be attending. He also missed the Family Leader's summit in July, which attracted nearly all presidential contenders. Vander Plaats, who has had a strained relationship with Trump and advocates for new conservative leadership, said the former president's "absence communicates a lot to our base."
"It’s a forum he’d want to take advantage of and remind our base of all the good things he did while he was president," Vander Plaats said. He reiterated that his likely endorsement "will be sometime after the forum and before Christmas." He emphasized that his support would extend beyond a one-day announcement, stating, "I’ll do whatever I can to make the endorsement stick and see what happens."
In a significant boost for DeSantis, who has staked his campaign on winning in Iowa, he received the endorsement of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is popular among Hawkeye State Republicans. This endorsement helped DeSantis change a negative narrative. Vander Plaats, who has repeatedly praised DeSantis this year, said the Reynolds endorsement of the Florida governor "will weigh in on my discernment. But that won’t make my endorsement."
Vander Plaats has previously backed candidates who won the Iowa caucuses but failed to secure the GOP presidential nomination. These include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016.
Ahead of the forum, Trump's political allies have downplayed the significance of a Vander Plaats endorsement. A recent memo from veteran Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who conducts surveys for the Trump-aligned super PAC Make America Great Again Inc., argued that a Vander Plaats endorsement would have "no significant impact" on the caucuses.
Fabrizio claimed that "while the DeSantis camp will try and spin that a Vander Plaats endorsement will revive their sputtering and shrinking campaign, cold hard data tells a much different story." In response to the criticism, Vander Plaats told Fox News, "my endorsement means one vote. Beyond that, we’ll see what happens."
However, he added, "I think their obsession with my endorsement probably would indicate that they’re more fearful of it than they should be." Trump's allies have also questioned $95,000 in payments earlier this year from the DeSantis campaign, a super PAC, and a nonprofit group aligned with the Florida governor, to the Family Leader.
The funds paid for three pages of ads for the campaign and the aligned groups in a booklet distributed by the Family Leader at their July presidential forum, which attracted some 2,000 social conservative Iowans.
The key question moving forward is whether the Reynolds endorsement of DeSantis and the impending endorsement by Vander Plaats can dent Trump's commanding lead over the rest of the field.
Nicole Schlinger, a seasoned Iowa-based strategist with close ties to evangelicals, argued that endorsements only go so far. "I think what matters more to Iowa caucus-goers than anything is meeting with the candidates and getting their questions answered about their policy positions," she told Fox News. "Endorsements, whether it’s the Governor or Bob Vander Plaats, can shine a light on the campaign, and then it’s up to the candidate to seal the deal."