The first electoral contest of the 2024 American presidential election is over, and former president Donald Trump was the big winner, taking just over half the vote with his closest challenger, Ron DeSantis, a whopping 30 points behind.

Does this mean Trump’s nomination is inevitable? Not at all.

The last three winners of the GOP caucus in Iowa were Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012) and Ted Cruz (2016). None went on to win the nomination. The last candidate to win Iowa and the nomination was George W. Bush, 24 years ago.

Iowa is a small state. Of the 720,000 Republicans in the state, only about 110,000 or 15 per cent participated in the caucus this week. Iowa is much more rural than the rest of the United States, and more white, more evangelical, and more conservative. In other words, as Iowa goes, so goes Iowa.

The next electoral contest is New Hampshire’s primary, a more traditional voting process that involves less socialising and peer pressure. Trump’s primary challenger, Nikki Haley, has been polling well there and will benefit from the recent withdrawal from the race of Chris Christie, an open critic of Trump. A likely third-place finish for DeSantis in the granite state could finish his campaign.

If Haley can build on her momentum and squeeze out a win in New Hampshire, the GOP primary race will reset as a battle between her and the former president, with Haley as the clear underdog. Narratives will change as the head-to-head contest emerges and the news media embraces the conflict. Haley’s pro-international engagement stance contrasts significantly with Trump’s “America first” position, which will drive the conflict on the policy level.

A big question will be how much of DeSantis’ support will shift to Haley. DeSantis has generally tried to appeal to Trump’s base, but without the same emphasis on isolationism and trade barriers. His campaign has focused on domestic social and economic issues, highlighted by battles with corporations over “woke” agendas.

To beat Trump, Haley will need to grab as many DeSantis supporters as possible. Perhaps she can exploit Trump’s weak spots — including not firing Anthony Fauci, the Covid czar, and failing to actually build a wall along the southern border which he said was his highest priority.

She will also need to double down on her appeals to Republican women, a campaign that so far has been more subtle than overt. When former candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called her Dick Cheney in three inch heels (an isolationist insult against “globalist” Haley), she responded:

“I’d first like to say, they’re five-inch heels. And I don’t wear ’em unless you can run in ’em. The second thing that I will say is, I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”

It was one of the moments that elevated her campaign to the top of the Trump challengers, and the appeal to women voters was obvious. To successfully challenge Trump directly though, she’ll need to push harder on those themes to win the votes of GOP women. One issue where she may have an advantage is abortion, where Haley has sent moderate messages that appeal to that demographic. Trump is aware of this vulnerability, however, and has moderated his own rhetoric. Haley may need to challenge him more explicitly on the issue and push him to alienate his evangelical base voters.

After New Hampshire, the next GOP contest is in Nevada, where Trump has a big lead in polling. There has not been much campaigning in the state, however, and Haley could leverage a win in New Hampshire to produce surprisingly strong numbers in Nevada. The “caucus and primary” process in the state is confusing and could lead to wins for both Haley and Trump — in the same state.

That gets us to Haley’s big challenge — South Carolina. Every Republican nominee who has won South Carolina (except Newt Gingrich in 2012) has gone on to win the presidential nomination. Right now the RealClearPolitics polling average has Trump ahead at 51 per cent to Haley’s 22 per cent, with 11 per cent for DeSantis. If Haley can pull a miracle in her home state, where she was a popular two-term governor, by uniting the Trump opposition, appealing directly to women voters and cut into his base by a few percentage points, she could win. It’s a long shot, but it is a shot.

It ain’t over folks!