9 min read

What’s at stake in the Iowa caucuses

The 2024 election will formally kick off tonight in Iowa. Here’s what’s at stake for Trump, DeSantis, Haley, and the rest.
What’s at stake in the Iowa caucuses
(Photo by the Agriculture Department)

Good morning! It’s Monday, January 15, 2024. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Election Day is 295 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s frontrunner primary campaign hit its first speed bump in the Iowa caucuses.

At the time, Iowa’s evangelical voters — who make up almost two-thirds of the state’s GOP electorate — did not take kindly to the boorish, twice-divorced billionaire who referred to “Two Corinthians” and struggled to name his favorite Bible verse. (In a sign of things to come, Trump would claim that his Iowa loss to Ted Cruz was fraudulent.)

Oh, how things can change in eight years.

By all accounts, Trump is set to romp in tonight’s Iowa caucuses, the first electoral contest of the 2024 presidential race. Ann Selzer, widely considered the best pollster in America, released her final Des Moines Register caucus poll on Saturday, and it showed Trump at 48%, far ahead of Nikki Haley’s 20% and Ron DeSantis’ 16%.

This time, Trump’s edge in the state is largely fueled by the same evangelical voters who spurned him in 2016, many of whom have become full-on converts to the MAGA cause. Per Selzer’s poll, 51% of Iowa evangelicals plan to back Trump in this year’s caucuses, compared to 22% who are supporting DeSantis and 12% who are for Haley. (Sidenote: If you want to understand how Trump won over American evangelicals, I highly recommend Tim Alberta’s new book on the subject, which I’m currently in the middle of.)

Fittingly for a nominating contest that has long been frozen in place, as I wrote back in July, tonight’s caucuses are poised to break at least one record: the coldest in history. With temperatures expected to feel like -26°F by the time the caucuses begin at 7 p.m. CT, the frigid weather will test even the most dedicated caucusgoers — not to mention the turnout operations built up by Trump and his rivals.

Here’s what’s at stake for each of the candidates tonight:

DONALD TRUMP

For Trump, tonight isn’t about winning. It’s about dominating.

No Republican has ever won more than 50% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, a benchmark Trump’s campaign is reportedly hoping to meet. Trump is also vying to beat the record for the largest Republican margin of victory in the caucuses, which was set by Bob Dole’s 13-point win in 1988. (The RealClearPolitics polling average shows him squeaking by the first goal and more than doubling the second.)

A paltry 40 delegates (out of nearly 2,500 available nationwide) will be awarded based on tonight’s caucuses, but Iowa is never truly about the delegate count: it’s about capturing momentum and winning the media narrative. If Trump meets one or both of the aforementioned targets, it will be treated as proof of what the former president has been attempting to show all year: that no one can get between him and the Republican nomination.

Especially in a state where he once struggled — and where he barely campaigned — a blowout Trump victory in Iowa will make it that much harder for his rivals to establish themselves. It will also show the professionalization of his campaign operation, which set out to massively improve his ground game in Iowa after neglecting such details in 2016. On the other hand, if Trump falters — meaning he wins by less than expected — it would puncture his air of inevitability and breathe life into whichever campaign wins second place.

Most observers expect that the cold weather will benefit Trump, who tends to boast much more enthusiastic supporters than his rivals. (Participating in a caucus take more effort than voting in a normal election, so enthusiasm counts for a lot even when not in the midst of a polar vortex.)

At a rally last night, the former president made clear that his supporters should show up at all costs. “You can’t sit home,” he said. “If you’re sick as a dog...even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it.”

RON DESANTIS

Perhaps no candidate has as much at stake in Iowa as the Florida governor. He’s visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties, a political feat known as the “Full Grassley,” after the state’s senior senator. He and allied groups have spent more than $35 million on advertising in the state. And he’s notched the endorsements of Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s popular governor, and Bob Vander Plaats, the influential Iowa evangelical leader.

And yet, after all that, the Des Moines Register poll showed him sliding into an ignominious third place.

Just last month, DeSantis was promising that he’d win the caucuses outright: “We’re going to win Iowa,” he said in an interview. “I think it’s going to help propel us to the nomination.” But in a Fox News town hall in Des Moines last week, he noticeably moved the goalposts. “We’re going to do well here” was his new prediction.

DeSantis has already scheduled his next campaign stop, intending to signal that he will march on after Iowa, no matter tonight’s results. (Notably, the visit will be to South Carolina, a sign that he plans to cede New Hampshire to Haley.) But if the Floridian doesn’t pull out a surprise in the caucuses, and instead sinks to third place, it’s hard to imagine much of a future for him in the Republican race.

After months of embarrassing setbacks, finishing behind both Trump and Haley in Iowa — a state he has invested so much in — could prove fatal for DeSantis’ underdog campaign. To preserve his credibility as a challenger, he needs a much stronger finish tonight than any poll has shown is likely.

NIKKI HALEY

Unlike DeSantis, Iowa has not been central to Haley’s campaign strategy. She has spent much less time in the state, instead focusing her resources on New Hampshire, where some polls show her within striking distance of Trump.

But a surge of momentum across the country — and the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity, the powerful Koch-founded group that has gifted her an army of Iowa door-knockers — has Iowans giving her a second look. Haley has now moved into second place in the Iowa polling average; if she secures that spot in tonight’s results, it will be a major proof point towards her argument that she, not DeSantis, has emerged as the most serious Trump alternative.

A strong Iowa finish would also prove that Haley’s message plays among the more conservative voters who make up the GOP base. Iowa is much more representative of the Republican electorate than New Hampshire, which is more moderate and less evangelical than GOP voters nationwide. If Haley does well in Iowa, it would show that she can appeal to Republicans outside her natural constituency; if she doesn’t, a strong performance in New Hampshire will be easier to dismiss as a fluke, credited only to the Granite State’s unique style of Republican.

It’s also worth noting that, as in New Hampshire, there is little stopping Democrats or Independents from crossing party lines to caucus for Haley tonight, which some plan to do. (Remember, Democrats won’t have presidential caucuses of their own tonight, after the party scrambled their primary calendar.) Technically, one must be a registered Republican to participate in the GOP caucuses — but voters can change their registration at the door. Aid from Democrats could help Haley tonight, but it could also backfire if enough of her support doesn’t come from true Republicans.

Haley also has a major enthusiasm problem on her hands. Per the Des Moines Register poll, only 39% of her supporters are extremely or very enthusiastic — compared to 88% of Trump voters and 62% of DeSantis voters. Especially in freezing weather, a lack of motivation among her backers could get in the way of outpacing DeSantis.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY & ASA HUTCHINSON

The biotech entrepreneur and the former Arkansas governor are the final candidates rounding out the Iowa ballot. They are both polling in the low single digits, so anything above that would be considered a victory for the long-shot contenders.

Otherwise, though, they are mostly opposites — Hutchinson, 73, has been in public office longer Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old first-time candidate, has even been alive. Ramaswamy has also largely treated his campaign like an audition to be Trump’s running mate, while Hutchinson’s raison d’etre for staying in the race has been to ensure there is a post-Chris Christie candidate willing to harshly criticize Trump.

Notably, after months of praising each other, Trump turned on Ramaswamy this weekend (“Vivek is not MAGA,” he wrote on Truth Social), presumably worried that Ramaswamy’s support, however small, might prevent him from reaching the 50% benchmark he is shooting for.


How the Iowa caucuses work.

Caucuses are a time-honored political tradition, but after years of glitches in Iowa, they’ve fallen out of favor. Only eight states will hold caucuses as their Republican nominating contests this year.

Participating in a caucus is a bit more involved than voting in a typical primary — but not that much. Republicans run their caucuses differently than Democrats, so wipe away what you might remember from 2020 about Iowans moving to different corners of a room to cast their vote.

The caucuses will start tonight at 7 p.m. ET, in more than 1,600 different locations across the state — from churches to libraries to living rooms.

Each caucus will begin with representatives of the candidates speaking on their behalf. Once the speeches are over, caucusgoers will be handed ballots to fill out; their votes will be secret, unlike the Democrats who have to publicly move into groups based on who they support. (There is also only one round of voting, unlike the Democrats, who go through a longer process of aligning and realigning with a candidate if their first choice doesn’t notch 15%.) The votes will then be tabulated and announced, and everyone can go home.

40 delegates to the Republican convention are at stake in Iowa; they will be awarded proportionally according to tonight’s results.

Speaking of the Democrats: After their disastrous 2020 caucuses, the state lost its first-in-the-nation privilege on the Democratic side this year. Iowa Democrats will still meet for caucuses tonight, but they will have no bearing on the presidential nomination; they will merely discuss party business and vote on platform resolutions.

Instead, Iowa Democrats will pick their presidential preference entirely by mail this primary season. Mail-in presidential primary ballots began to be mailed to Democratic voters on Friday; they will be accepted through March 5.


More news to know.

1) As Israel marked 100 days since the October 7th attack by Hamas, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to continue waging the country’s war in Gaza on Sunday. “Nobody will stop us — not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anybody else,” he said, referencing the United Nations court currently hearing accusations that Israel is committing genocide.

Per Axios, President Biden and other U.S. officials are growing “increasingly frustrated” with Netanyahu as they urge Israel to fight a more targeted war and to allow more humanitarian aid in Gaza. Meanwhile, families of the Israelis taken hostage by Hamas are growing angry as negotiations have sputtered to free their relatives after 100 days in captivity; Hamas released a propaganda video with three of the hostages on Sunday.

2) Congressional leaders from both parties have agreed on a continuing resolution to extend government funding for some agencies through March 1, and the rest through March 8. The stopgap spending plan will need to pass the House and Senate by Friday, when several agencies are set to run out of money.

3) Trump spent the weekend before Iowa racking up endorsements from GOP officials, including Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and Mike Lee (UT) and Gov. Doug Burgum (ND), a former presidential candidate. Trump’s campaign has reportedly told Republican politicians that he will remember who was with him before Iowa and who wasn’t.

More headlines:


The day ahead.

President Biden will travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he will volunteer at Philabundance, a hunger relief organization, in honor of MLK Day, the only federal holiday designated as an official day of service.

Vice President Harris will travel to Columbia, South Carolina, where she will participate in an NAACP event honoring MLK Day and deliver remarks at a campaign event.

The House, Senate, and Supreme Court will not meet due to the federal holiday.


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