The spirit of disruption presided over the 2016 Republican primary, as various factions battled it out in close contests. Last night’s Iowa caucuses suggest that 2024 might instead be more like a ratification primary, in which the semi-incumbent Donald Trump retains his appeal to a decisive portion of the Republican electorate.
A year ago, Trump’s political stock was dropping. Republicans were still smarting from the 2022 midterm debacle, where the underperformance of Trump-branded candidates turned a much-touted “red wave” into a mirage. In national primary polls, Trump registered in the mid-40s—still a frontrunner, but seemingly a vulnerable one. Ron DeSantis’s overwhelming reelection victory, along with his numerous policy successes, had caused the Florida governor’s star to rise among Republican voters. In many polls, he was within striking distance of Trump. Some polls even put him ahead.
Then, in April 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced his indictment of Trump. Federal indictments and a series of charges in Fulton County, Georgia, soon followed. These indictments changed the trajectory of the primary. As more Republican voters increasingly viewed politics as an existential struggle, they put aside their frustrations with Trump’s personal behavior. Compounding this trend, Joe Biden worked consistently to portray Trump as the leader of the Republican Party, attacking him by name. Trump’s primary poll numbers began an upward trajectory.
A few details illustrate the scope of Trump’s victory in Iowa. Beyond winning 51 percent of the vote, he also carried almost every county (Nikki Haley currently leads in Johnson County by a single vote). He more than doubled his percentage from 2016, when he got just over 24 percent of the vote. Entrance polls to the caucuses reveal that the Trump coalition now differs from that of 2016. In that cycle, he was the outsider candidate, and social conservatives were still skeptical of him. He won a plurality of voters who identified as “moderate” but handily lost the self-identified “very conservative” by 23 points to Ted Cruz. Last night, he overwhelmingly lost “moderate” voters, while romping to 61 percent among “very conservative” voters. He lost evangelical voters in 2016 but won them in 2024.
Haley and DeSantis followed almost inverse strategies. Haley adopted a low-ceiling/high-floor approach of attempting to consolidate Trump-skeptical Republicans. This gave her an immediate constituency, though it also put a hard limit on her support. The Des Moines Register poll released shortly before the caucuses put her unfavorability rating at 46 percent among likely Republican caucus voters—much higher than that of Trump or DeSantis.
DeSantis instead went for a high-ceiling/low-floor strategy. By casting himself as a post-Trump populist-conservative, he tried to anchor his Iowa political coalition in social conservatives and loyal Republican voters open to moving on from Trump. This is a much bigger pool than anti-Trump Republicans, and post-Trump voters would be a necessary component of the coalition of any insurgent candidate who hoped to dislodge Trump in the primary. He relied on a network of local support to resist Trump’s national political machine.
The Trump indictments complicated DeSantis’s strategy. Suddenly, a large portion of Republicans were much more resistant to moving on from Trump. The appeals of statewide officials might have mattered less than the imperatives of nationalized negative partisanship. DeSantis’s effort to target social conservatives, who became more locked into backing Trump, might have hurt his standing with more moderate voters, who remained resistant to him.
DeSantis also found himself in a political pincer. Not only did he have to contend with the withering attacks of Donald Trump; he also faced a barrage from Haley. At the core of Haley’s Iowa strategy was not winning but keeping DeSantis down. Her allied Super PAC dumped $24 million into anti-DeSantis efforts. In debates, she lobbed one attack after another against the governor, while mostly leaving Trump untouched.
Haley might have diminished DeSantis’s numbers; she didn’t succeed in knocking him out of second place. Her strategy of trying to appeal to socially progressive, anti-Trump Republicans and independents may be optimized for the New Hampshire primary, open to independents and even Democrats. However, her poor showing among Republican voters in Iowa—she won only 15 percent of voters who entered the caucuses as Republicans—suggests that she may face a much tougher road in later primaries, where Republicans are usually more socially conservative and where Democrats often cannot vote.
Trump’s Iowa triumph underlines broader changes in the Republican coalition. In 2016, GOP voters viewed him as a policy disrupter, and his rise gave a frantic charge to the primary. His rallies dominated news coverage and social-media feeds. The bruising primary campaign generated massive turnout.
Now, Trump is solidly placed in the Republican firmament. His policy message is more muted and less disruptive. Even allowing for Monday’s brutally cold weather conditions, turnout fell significantly compared with 2016 (from 187,000 to likely around 110,000). Despite his much larger percentage this time around, Trump won only about 11,000 more votes than he did in 2016. In Polk County (home of Des Moines), he got fewer votes than his first time around.
Moreover, if entrance polls are to be believed, the shape of the Iowa electorate was dramatically different this year. These caucuses were particularly dominated by elderly voters. In 2016, only 27 percent of caucus voters were over 65. Despite fears that the weather would keep senior citizens away from the polls, 41 percent of voters were over 65 on Monday night. A baby boomer himself, Trump seems to enjoy strong appeal to Republicans of that generation, winning voters over 65 by almost 40 points (58 percent to Haley’s 21 percent). Trump’s weakest showing was with voters under 30, a demographic that DeSantis won outright. In Iowa, at least, young Republicans do not consider Trump the candidate of the future.
Another potential red flag is buried in the exit polls. While the indictments were pivotal to rallying Republican voters to Trump in the primary, they may be a ticking time-bomb for the general election. A third of Iowa caucus attendees (including some who supported Trump) said that they would not consider Trump “fit” for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime. Many declarations made in the primary are forgotten by November, and the risk of Trump’s legal controversies doing some damage to his standing in the general election remains.
Trump’s semi-incumbent status makes reading the tea leaves of the Iowa caucuses particularly challenging. If an incumbent president barely scored a majority in a contested Iowa caucus, that would be a sure sign of trouble. By contrast, a fresh candidate getting 51 percent in an open Iowa primary would suggest a party consolidating behind a potential nominee and possibly bode well for the general election. Trump falls somewhere between these two extremes—he’s not a sitting president, but he enjoys overwhelming support from the Republican Party at the national level.
Trump’s ratification is not finalized. New Hampshire is a week away, and polls indicate that the battle in the Granite State could be closer than in Iowa. Haley’s path after New Hampshire may grow more daunting. Conversely, DeSantis faces long odds in New Hampshire and South Carolina but may find more favorable territory beyond that. Yet Trump’s advantage remains clear.
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