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What was on Iowa voters’ minds as Trump rolled to victory?

Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley have work to do with voters on the economy

Former President Donald Trump, with sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., at a watch party during the 2024 Iowa caucuses Monday in Des Moines. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump, with sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., at a watch party during the 2024 Iowa caucuses Monday in Des Moines. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump had a very positive night in the Iowa caucuses. He received 51 percent of the vote and won by a margin of 30 percent, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis coming in second with 21 percent and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley a close third at 19 percent.

Since 1980, in the seven caucuses without a Republican incumbent president, the largest winning percentage had been 41 percent, by George W. Bush in 2000. Before that, the largest margin of victory had been 13 percent by Bob Dole over Pat Robertson in 1988. Trump exceeded both of those by a significant margin.

Additionally, despite the severe cold weather negatively impacting turnout, Trump also received 56,260 votes, surpassing Ted Cruz’s vote total record of 51,666 in 2016. Despite the significant drop in turnout, Trump’s own vote total in 2016 was 45,427, meaning he improved his vote total by 10,833 caucus goers.

His candidacy did have this unique advantage: he is a former president — and he was able to turn that into a clear win.

The Iowa caucus entrance/exit polls, which are still preliminary, showed that many of the caucus voters made up their minds earlier than in prior caucuses. Only 20 percent said they had made up their minds either the day of the caucus or in the few days prior to the caucus. In 2016, that percentage was 35 percent; and in 2012, it was 46 percent.

These early decision voters were an important element in Trump’s victory. Of those who made up their minds before January (65 percent of the caucus goers), 66 percent of them supported Trump. In contrast, of those who decided in January (35 percent of the caucus goers), 32 percent voted for Haley, 29 percent supported DeSantis and 25 percent supported Trump.

In terms of top issues, 38 percent of caucus goers said the economy was their top issue, while immigration was a close second at 34 percent, foreign policy third at 12 percent and abortion at 11 percent. Trump won 52 percent of economic voters and 64 percent of immigration voters, while Haley won 45 percent of foreign policy voters and DeSantis won 46 percent of the abortion voters. On the issue of the economy, neither DeSantis nor Haley were able to reach 20 percent within this voter group.

Looking at how voters prioritized candidate qualities, 41 percent said “shares my values,” 32 percent said “fights for people like me,” only 14 percent said “can defeat Joe Biden,” and 11 percent cited “has the right temperament.” On sharing values, Trump led DeSantis 43 percent to 31 percent. But on fighting for people like me, Trump had a decisive advantage over the field, winning 82 percent of these voters. In contrast, Haley had a very large advantage on voters focused on temperament, winning 66 percent of those voters.

Finally, among those voters who focused on a candidate who could beat Joe Biden, Trump led Haley 40-33 despite growing evidence of her ability to defeat Biden by wider margins than Trump. In contrast, in the 2016 caucuses, “can win in November” was at 21 percent while “can defeat Barack Obama” was at 31 percent in 2012.

Among Trump voters, defeating Biden came in at just 11 percent. That may reflect voter overconfidence that Biden can be easily beaten, an unforced error. Most polls show a Biden vs. Trump match-up statistically even. A tight race, even if Republicans win the presidency, could cost the party crucial House and Senate seats.

So, while the Iowa entrance/exit poll numbers generally show a very positive outcome for Trump, there were a couple of questions on the poll that present some clear challenges. The first was the major divide that exists based on whether a caucus goer believed Biden legitimately won the election. Overall, 29 percent believed 2020 was a legitimate election; 66 percent believed it wasn’t.

Among the 51 percent who voted for Trump, 6 percent believed Biden won legitimately, while 89 percent did not. Among the 49 percent that did not vote for Trump, 53 percent believed Biden won, and 42 percent did not. This obvious split in the party is also seen in the question of whether they considered themselves a part of the MAGA movement or not. By a 70 percent to 25 percent margin, Trump voters called themselves MAGA while those who did not vote for Trump flipped the numbers saying they were not MAGA by a 21 percent to 76 percent margin.

But the biggest challenge for the Trump campaign surfaced when voters were asked whether Trump would be fit to be president if he were convicted of a crime. Trump supporters said “yes” 91 percent to 6 percent (fit-unfit), while those who did not vote for him said he would be unfit 37 percent to 57 percent, a dangerous dynamic that could impact not only the presidential race but down-ballot races as well.

So where does this leave things going into New Hampshire?

All three leading candidates come out of Iowa with something. Trump leaves with a big win, over 50 percent, which may give him some lift in New Hampshire and attract some of the Ramaswamy voters. For DeSantis, he did finish second although farther back than he clearly would have liked. He lives to fight another day.

For Haley, although she did not finish ahead of DeSantis, it was a very close third, and oddly having DeSantis still in the race could actually be a positive for her given that DeSantis’ voters would likely lean toward Trump should he depart the race now.

Going forward, both DeSantis and Haley have to improve their standing with economic voters, as their underperformance among them in Iowa significantly diminished their results.

But the dynamics at play in New Hampshire will be quite different than what we saw in Iowa. This, the first nominating contest of the season, will see a significant number of independents participate, a crucial opportunity for Haley, who polls show is stronger with these key voters. The independent vote poses a challenge for Trump, whose weakness with these voters cost him the election in 2020.

For both DeSantis and Haley, they need to introduce winning the general election into the mix, along with the issue of the impact on down-ballot races, as critical context. If things don’t change in New Hampshire, the path ahead for both gets much more difficult.

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