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Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucus was as dominant as expected, underscoring the exceedingly narrow path available to any of the Republican forces hoping to prevent his third consecutive nomination. And yet, for all Trump’s strength within the party, the results also hinted at some of the risks the GOP will face if it nominates him again.
Based on Trump’s overwhelming lead in the poll conducted of voters on their way into the voting, the cable networks called the contest for Trump before the actual caucus was even completed. It was a fittingly anticlimactic conclusion to a caucus contest whose result all year has never seemed in doubt. In part, that may have been because none of Trump’s rivals offered Iowa voters a fully articulated case against him until Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unleashed more pointed arguments against the front-runner in the final days.
Trump steamrolled over the opposition of the state’s Republican and evangelical Christian leadership to amass by far the largest margin of victory ever in a contested Iowa GOP caucus. He drew strong support across virtually every demographic group—though, in a preview of a continuing general election challenge if he wins the nomination, his vote notably lagged among caucus-goers with at least a four-year college degree.
The results as of late Monday evening showed DeSantis solidifying a small lead over former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for a distant second place behind Trump. Even though DeSantis held off Haley, his weak finish after investing so much time and money in the state—and attracting endorsements from local political leaders including Governor Kim Reynolds—likely extinguishes his chances of winning the nomination. That’s true whether he remains in the race, as he pledged on Monday, or drops out in the next few weeks.
Though Haley could not overtake DeSantis here, she has a second chance to establish momentum next week in New Hampshire, where she is running close to Trump in some surveys. But the magnitude of Trump’s Iowa victory shows how far Haley remains from creating a genuine threat to the front-runner. Her support largely remained confined to an archipelago of better-educated, more moderate voters in the state’s largest population centers.
After the Iowa results, “she’ll be the alternative to Donald Trump,” said Douglas Gross, a longtime GOP Iowa activist who supported Haley. Her credible showing “is not because of organization or message, because she didn’t have either. It’s because she’s perceived as the alternative to Trump and the other candidates tried to be Trump.”
Haley, though, clearly signaled her intent to escalate her challenge to Trump as the race moves on to New Hampshire. In an energetic post-caucus speech, she debuted a new line of argument against Trump, linking him to President Joe Biden as an aging symbol of a caustic and divisive past that American voters must transcend. “Our campaign is the last best hope of stopping the Trump-Biden nightmare,” she insisted, in a line of argument likely to dominate her message in the week until New Hampshire votes on January 23.
For Haley, the first challenge may be reversing the gathering sense in the party that Trump is on the verge of wrapping up the contest even as it just begins. The behavior of GOP elected officials in the final days before the caucus may have revealed as much about the state of the race as the result of the first voting itself. Trump in recent days has received a parade of endorsements, including from Utah Senator Mike Lee, who criticized him sharply in 2016, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whom Trump mercilessly belittled and mocked when he ran in the 2016 presidential race.
As telling: Reynolds, the most prominent supporter of DeSantis, and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, Haley’s most prominent backer, each declared in separate television interviews just hours before the vote that they would support Trump if he’s the nominee. Haley did the same in an interview on Fox: “I would take Donald Trump over Joe Biden any day of the week,” she told the Fox News Channel host Neil Cavuto on Monday, hours before she unveiled her much tougher message toward the former president Monday night.
Trump himself revealed his confidence in a restrained victory speech Monday night that included rare praise of DeSantis, Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy, who finished fourth and then dropped out of the race. Trump’s uncharacteristically sedate and conciliatory remarks suggested that he sees the opportunity to force out the others, and consolidate the party, before very long.
Trump’s commanding lead in the vote testified to the depth of his victory. Results from the “entrance poll” of caucus-goers on their way to cast their votes underscored the breadth of his win.
Across every demographic divide in the party, Trump improved over his performance in 2016, when he narrowly lost the state to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. This time, Trump won both men and women comfortably, according to the entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations. He won nearly half of voters in both urban and suburban areas, as well as a majority in rural areas, the poll found.
DeSantis won endorsements from much of the state’s evangelical-Christian leadership, but Trump crushed him among those voters by almost two to one, according to the entrance poll. In 2016, Iowa evangelicals had preferred Cruz to Trump by double digits. Trump on Monday also carried nearly half of voters who were not evangelicals, beating Haley among them by about 20 percentage points. In 2016, Trump managed only a three-percentage-point edge over Rubio among Iowa caucus-goers who were not evangelicals. (In both the 2012 and 2016 Republican presidential primaries, the candidate who won Iowa voters who are not evangelicals ultimately won the nomination.)
Before Trump, the most important dividing line in GOP presidential primaries had been between voters who were and were not evangelical Christians. But on Monday night, as in 2016, Trump reoriented that axis: Education was a far better predictor of support for him than whether a voter identified as an evangelical.
Trump carried two-thirds of the caucus-goers who do not have a four-year college degree, the entrance poll found on Monday night. That was more than twice as much as Trump won among those voters in 2016, when Cruz narrowly beat him among them.
Other findings in the entrance poll also testified to Trump’s success at reshaping the party in his image. The share of caucus-goers who identified as “very conservative” was much higher than in 2016. About two-thirds of those attending the caucuses said they do not believe that President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. Rural areas that Trump split with Cruz in 2016 broke decisively for him this time.
Yet amid all these signs of strength, the entrance poll offered some clear warning signs for Trump in a potential general election—as did some of the county-level results.
Despite some predictions to the contrary, Trump still faced substantial resistance from college-educated voters, just as he did in 2016. In the entrance poll Monday night, he drew only a little more than one-third of them. That was enough to push Trump safely past Haley, who split the remainder of those voters primarily with DeSantis (each of them won just under three in 10 of them). But compared with the 2016 Iowa result, Trump improved much less among college-educated voters than he did among those without degrees.
Trump’s relative weakness among college-educated voters in the 2016 GOP primary presaged the alienation from him in white-collar suburbs that grew during his presidency. Though Biden’s approval among those voters has declined since 2021, Trump’s modest showing even among the college-educated voters willing to turn out for a GOP caucus likely shows that resistance to him also remains substantial. When the results are tallied, Trump might win all 99 counties in Iowa, an incredible achievement if he manages it. But Trump drew well under his statewide percentage in Polk County, the state’s most populous; in fast-growing Dallas County; and in Story and Johnson, the counties centered on Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. (Johnson is the one county where Trump trails as of now.) Those are all the sorts of places that have moved away from the GOP in the Trump years.
Also noteworthy was voters’ response to an entrance-poll question about whether they would still consider Trump fit for the presidency if he was convicted of a crime. Nearly two-thirds said yes, which speaks to his strength within the Republican Party. But about three in 10 said no, which speaks to possible problems in a general election. That result was consistent with the findings in a wide array of polls that somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of GOP partisans believe that Trump’s actions after the 2020 election were a threat to democracy or illegal. How many of those Republican-leaning voters would ultimately support him will be crucial to his viability if he wins the nomination. On that front, it may be worth filing away that more than four in 10 college graduates who participated in the caucus said they would not view Trump as fit for the presidency if he’s convicted of a crime, the entrance poll found.
Those are problems Trump will need to confront on another day, if he wins the nomination. For now, he has delivered an imposing show of strength within a party that he has reshaped in his belligerent, conspiratorial image. The winter gloom in Iowa may not be any bleaker than the spirits tonight of the dwindling band of those in the GOP hoping to loosen Trump’s iron grip on the party.