Why Trump romped to victory in Iowa

The vengeful establishment has driven Republicans even further into his corner.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics USA

If you listen to the American national media, Donald Trump is beyond the pale, and no respectable person would even think about voting for him. But, based on last night’s Iowa caucus results, it seems that many Republican voters don’t care what the media think of them.

After months of media debate and polls about who will represent the Republicans in November’s presidential election, the voters finally got the chance to vote. And Iowa Republicans gave Donald Trump a decisive first victory for the party’s nomination. Trump won about 50 per cent of the vote, far above Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, who won about 20 per cent each. The results were in line with expectations, as Trump was well ahead in the pre-caucus polls.

This outcome tells us that a solid portion of the Republican Party remains wedded to Trump. Neither Trump’s false allegations that the 2020 election was rigged nor the 91 criminal charges against him has dissuaded Republicans from backing the former president. Many of them agree with his disputed claims. Remarkably, some two-thirds of Republicans at the Iowa caucuses agree with Trump’s claim that President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 was illegitimate. A similar proportion think that Trump is fit to be president even if he is convicted of a crime.

It was definitely a big night for Trump. The turnout was lower than usual, which was understandable given how cold it was across the state, with temperatures at minus 5 Fahrenheit (minus 21 Celsius). Trump won broadly across most demographic groups (with the exception of younger Republicans, who preferred DeSantis).

In contrast with other candidates, especially DeSantis, Trump hardly spent any time in Iowa. But given his name recognition, it didn’t matter. His campaign did, however, devote more resources, and had a better ‘ground game’ of getting supporters to turn up, than it did in 2016, when Trump lost the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz.

A big takeaway from last night was that immigration is the No1 issue among Republicans in Iowa, selected by 40 per cent of voters as the top priority. Normally, exit polls find that the economy is the key issue (that was second in Iowa, at 35 per cent). Of those for whom immigration mattered most, most of them voted for Trump. Despite Trump’s largely ineffective attempts at limiting illegal immigration during his time in office (his wall was never built, for one thing), Republicans still seem to believe that he is going to fix the border if re-elected.

About three-quarters of Republicans believe that a candidate’s ability to defeat Biden in November is important, and a majority of those voters also went for Trump. For months, Trump’s opponents have argued that he is unelectable, in particular because he was the main reason why Republicans under-performed in the 2018 Midterms, the 2020 Presidential Election and the 2022 Midterms. But recent polls have shown Trump slightly edging out Biden in November (it’s effectively a toss-up). The electability argument has become less compelling for many Republicans, who believe Trump can beat Biden.

Almost seven-in-10 Iowa Republicans say they made their mind up about who to vote for more than a month ago, which suggests they were already sold on Trump and didn’t have an open mind towards other candidates. This unshaken belief in Trump, after all of the criminal charges and other controversies surrounding him (which would have likely crushed ‘normal’ candidates), does not bode well for his GOP opponents’ chances.

DeSantis and Haley picked up delegates from Iowa, and they will remain in the race. But they both have a big hill to climb to overcome Trump. Of the two of them, Haley’s immediate prospects are more favourable. Although far behind Trump in Iowa, she arguably performed above expectations. Looking ahead to next week’s New Hampshire primary, she is close to Trump in the polls, and she has a good chance in the late-February primary in South Carolina, which is her home state.

Haley mainly represents the pre-Trump Republicans, and so she has a clear ‘lane’ to consolidate support among party members who are anti-Trump. DeSantis, however, is competing for the more populist wing of the party, which right now Trump appears to own.

The immediate future doesn’t look promising for DeSantis. In Iowa, he faced an onslaught of attacks. A record $46.5million was spent on negative ads against him, suggesting that he was considered the biggest threat to his opponents. He gained a respectable share of the vote, at least enough to keep his campaign going. But given all of the time and resources the DeSantis campaign poured into Iowa, his results must be considered disappointing. It seems that some unexpected, external event will need to occur for DeSantis to prevail.

On paper, DeSantis has many notable successes as governor of Florida to run on, including economic growth, inward migration to the state, his vindication for opposing Covid lockdowns, his high-profile campaign against wokeness and his record of winning over independents. But those strengths in Florida have so far not translated into substantial support at the national level.

While we can’t write DeSantis’ presidential obituary yet, his Iowa showing will stir debate over why his campaign hasn’t taken off. My view is that he has failed to take on Trump hard enough, especially in the early weeks of his campaign. DeSantis was seeking to win over Trump voters, so he needed to give them good reasons to make the switch. He clearly hasn’t won that argument.

For example, he slammed Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to Trump and later Biden, for the Covid lockdowns, thinking that an attack on ‘Faucism’ would somehow tarnish Trump by proxy. The truth is that it was Trump, not Fauci, who locked us down in the US. By dodging this confrontation, DeSantis lost a great opportunity to build on his anti-lockdown credentials and differentiate himself from Trump.

At the same time, there is much truth in DeSantis’ complaint that the Trump indictments ‘sucked out a lot of oxygen’ from the Republican primaries. Indeed, the indictments boosted Trump’s campaign enormously, as GOP donors, media and voters rallied to his defence. Trump’s advantage over DeSantis increased substantially in March 2023, following his first indictment in New York, over hush money for porn star Stormy Daniels. Each new set of charges over the course of last year only kept the spotlight on Trump, at the expense of DeSantis and other challengers. It made Trump into a martyr figure among Republicans, and cranked up his support in the polls.

But even if you are a Republican who thinks Trump has been unfairly treated by the Department of Justice and other prosecutors, that on its own is not a positive reason to select him as your party’s nominee. Trump comes with enormous baggage. After all, he stands a good chance of being a convicted criminal before November. And his first term in office demonstrated his erratic nature, inability to govern and disrespect for democracy. Going with Trump just to push back against Biden and the Democrats’ indictments, just to ‘own the libs’, would be a sign of immaturity among the populist strand within the party.

There are more primaries to come in the months ahead. The race is far from over. But after Iowa, it looks like most Republicans are willing to take their chances with Trump again.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA


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