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It’s still Trump’s race to lose after Iowa

Results track close to final polls, despite DeSantis finish ahead of Haley

Former President Donald Trump speaks at his caucus night event, with sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. looking on, at the Iowa Events Center on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at his caucus night event, with sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. looking on, at the Iowa Events Center on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Thanks to Iowa Republicans, the first 2024 election is in the books, and we have the first opportunity of the year to chew over some results. 

The bottom line is that Donald Trump did what he needed to do. The former president came into Monday as the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination and emerged with a majority of the vote and a dominant, 30-point victory over the rest of the field. Amidst all the chatter about who is in a distant second place, Trump continues on the clearest path to victory after the rest of the states finish their primaries. 

Despite seven years of hand-wringing about polling, it was a pretty good night for surveys. The final FiveThirtyEight average before the Iowa caucus had Trump at 52.7 percent followed by former Gov. Nikki Haley (18.7 percent), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (15.8 percent), and Vivek Ramaswamy (6.4 percent). The final results look like Trump (51 percent), DeSantis (21 percent), Haley (19 percent), and Ramaswamy (8 percent). 

People seeking perfection from polling will quibble with the DeSantis polling versus his final result, but overall, Iowa should be considered a victory for the polling industry, especially in the context of a low-turnout caucus in extreme weather. 

Even though there’s a negligible difference in vote totals between DeSantis and Haley for second and third place, the precise order could have an impact on the race. If a distant second place (rather than third place) convinces DeSantis to stay in the race, it mutes the narrative about Haley’s momentum going into New Hampshire, and ties up potential voters. 

DeSantis peaked?

That being said, the argument that everyone supporting a non-Trump candidate would line up behind a different non-Trump candidate if their first pick quit the race was always a bit simplistic. When DeSantis drops out, Trump will undoubtedly get some of his supporters. And even though Ramaswamy was only getting a few percentage points, more of his supporters could gravitate toward Trump than anyone else based on their similar messages. 

A second place finish should not be seen as a sign of momentum for DeSantis, according to his own numbers. A May 30-June 1 poll conducted for Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, as the Florida governor was just getting into the race showed DeSantis down by 10 points, 39 percent to 29 percent, in a crowded field in Iowa. On Monday night, DeSantis received 21 percent and lost by 30 points. Whether it’s in Iowa or nationwide, it looks like DeSantis peaked the moment he got into the race.

It’s also time to put an end to the idea that retail politics are required to win Iowa. The two candidates who spent the most time on the ground in the Hawkeye State finished second (DeSantis) and fourth (Ramaswamy). DeSantis finished 30 points behind and Ramaswamy dropped out of the race after the votes were counted. It’s also time to end the notion that “Iowa breaks late.” That really wasn’t the case before Monday night and wasn’t the case this year. The result was expected.

It’s also possible that DeSantis’ vaunted ground game wasn’t as good as advertised. He outsourced his grassroots operation — and virtually every other important part of the campaign — to Never Back Down, which boasted months of organizing on the ground culminating with Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis knocking on the one millionth door in the state. 

Taking the campaign at face value, that means Iowa Republicans just weren’t that into Ron DeSantis. Caucus goers appeared to have plenty of information about DeSantis and he barely topped 20 percent.

Original preferred over Trump lite

How did that happen? It’s clear that many Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere are not ready to move on from Trump. And when DeSantis offered himself as a lite version of Trump for much of his campaign, Trump supporters still preferred the original. 

It’s hard to believe DeSantis will be able to stomach a third-place finish in New Hampshire on Jan. 23 in order to finish in third place in South Carolina on Feb. 24 and have momentum going into the 16 states tht vote on Super Tuesday on March 5. 

It was also striking to watch handwritten paper ballots be counted by hand and wondering how many people wished this was the way general election ballots were counted around the country. But there’s a big difference between counting 110,000 votes for one race and 150 million votes that contain multiple races (for Congress, state legislature, ballot measures etc). And many states have decided it’s unreasonable to ask all 150,000,000 voters to cast their ballot at the same time on the same day. 

Overall, it was a good night for Trump. He had a big win and Haley didn’t get more momentum with a quick DeSantis departure. The best news for Iowa is that, for the first time in more than 20 years, it might have finally chosen the likely GOP nominee.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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