On Monday over 100,000 Republican voters braved sub-zero temperatures to participate in the events that kick off the US presidential election year: the Iowa caucuses.
Former president Donald Trump was declared the clear winner after just 31 minutes, sweeping all but one of Iowa’s 99 counties to seize victory by a record 30 percentage points, the largest winning margin of any competitive GOP Iowa caucus in modern history. With his closest intra-party rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley claiming a distant second and third place, and other long-shot candidates pulling the plug on their dwindling campaigns, all eyes are now on the upcoming New Hampshire primary as the next test of Trump’s historic appeal.
For more insight into what the results in Iowa portend for the presidential election year ahead, USSC experts provided their analysis.
In Trump’s Iowa win, the Democrats can see their own path forward
Dr Michael J. Green, CEO
Donald Trump’s win in Iowa confirms the depth of his political strength in the Republican Party. But that does not necessarily translate to strength in the general election. Those Iowans who were willing to brave bad winter weather to participate in the caucus on behalf of Trump were highly motivated and positioned well to the right of the US political spectrum. Two thirds of those who participated said in exit polls that they believe Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” by Joe Biden and the Democrats. This is not the view of independents and centrist Republicans who are absolutely essential to winning the presidency in November. Biden has let his standing with this group slip but Trump’s legal challenges will likely provide plenty of grist for the Biden campaign to convince these swing voters to think seriously about what a second Trump term would mean. Whether Biden manages to do that remains to be seen, but in Trump’s Iowa win the Democrats can see their own path forward.
Are moderate Republicans now finished as pundits claim? There is a narrowing but plausible scenario for Nikki Haley to win New Hampshire and build momentum to victory, but one wouldn’t bet the house on it. More possible is the scenario where Trump tries to reassure the middle by choosing a running mate like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who bowed out of the primaries with his relationship with the former president still salvageable. Putting him on the ticket would make Democrats nervous since Scott would likely pull away conservative African American votes. And after a term-limited second Trump administration, Scott could well be the front-runner for 2028... assuming he fared better than the battered Mike Pence.
The limited pathways forward
Jared Mondschein, Director of Research
Ron DeSantis does not have much of a pathway forward. DeSantis has presented himself as someone who is not only more stable than the former president, but also more conservative and more religious. Yet in a state that is significantly more conservative and religious than the average US state — and one in which DeSantis famously visited every single one of its 99 counties — the Florida Governor could not even get a quarter of the Republican votes.
Beyond DeSantis, some speak of the small chance of Haley winning both New Hampshire as well as her home state of South Carolina — two states she is still significantly behind Trump in. But as much as she may be able to gain some of the votes for other GOP candidates who have dropped out, the wild swings in support that characterised other GOP primaries — including the 2012 and 2016 races — are simply not present in this one. Trump’s favourability amongst Republican voters has never gone below 75 per cent while Haley’s has never eclipsed more than 52 per cent while her unfavourability is seemingly only increasing.
Iowa was unsurprising but remarkable
Victoria Cooper, Research Editor
Iowa was unsurprising but remarkable. Trump’s victory was surely historic both in personal terms (he lost the caucus in 2016 to Ted Cruz by 3 percentage points) and electoral terms (improving Bob Dole’s 1988 near 13-point margin of victory, to a record 30-point margin). But it's important to remember Trump is not a freak of nature. Iowa Republicans — especially the small share of those who turn out for caucuses, let alone caucuses in extreme weather — increasingly mirror the constituents with whom Trump performs well, rather than the entire Republican electorate.
Between 2016 and 2024, the number of Republicans who identify as “white evangelicals” increased by 32 percentage points and ideologically “very conservative” increased by 40 points. This explains how Trump’s performance has so dramatically improved in a state that gave Obama a 6-point victory in 2012. It's essential to remember Trump's popularity in Iowa does not represent his popularity among Republicans writ large. Trump will almost certainly win the nomination this year, and his victories might be stunning. But they're not the "god made" phenomena some might make them out to be.
Polls prove accurate but turnout still disappointing
Brendon O’Connor, Professor of US Politics and US Foreign Relations
Donald Trump has won the Iowa caucus despite very strong evidence against him in criminal cases relating to the 2020 election and the taking of classified documents to his personal residence. The opinion poll predictions of an overwhelming Trump victory proved to be very accurate. However, turnout was disappointing with only 56,000 Iowans voting for Trump. It is remarkable that such a small (and unrepresentative) slice of the American electorate has such a pivotal influence on the future of the United States as a liberal democracy.
There is no hidden anti-Trump vote emerging now voting has begun
David Smith, Associate Professor in American Politics and Foreign Policy
This result confirms that no one is likely to beat Trump for the Republican nomination. It tracks closely with polls that have for months shown Trump with large leads over his Republican rivals — there is no hidden anti-Trump vote emerging now that the voting has begun. DeSantis invested a huge amount in the Iowa contest and has only managed a distant second place about 30 points behind Trump. All that achieves is to quash Nikki Haley's claims to be Trump's leading rival heading into the New Hampshire and South Carolina races, where she has a better chance.
Trump can wage his comeback campaign earlier than anticipated
Bruce Wolpe, Non-Resident Senior Fellow
Donald Trump is on the cusp of claiming the Republican presidential nomination. He has prohibitive dominance over the Republican Party. While Nikki Haley will be competitive in New Hampshire next week, there are no other prospects in the primaries ahead for her to defeat Trump. Ron DeSantis similarly faces being shut out in future primaries, even in Florida. Trump is now in a position to wage his comeback campaign against President Joe Biden earlier than anticipated, and will use the remaining primaries across the country to lock in Republican support for November. Trump will continue his efforts to delay the pending criminal trials. His goal is to ensure there is no guilty verdict in the January 6 trial in Washington, and the classified documents trial in Florida, before the November election.
Narrative of the race could change when Haley is one-on-one with Trump
Lester Munson, Non-Resident Senior Fellow
To have a chance of unseating Trump as the GOP nominee, Nikki Haley needs to win in New Hampshire, show some strength in Nevada and then surprise the world with a win or near-win in South Carolina. Haley has been underestimated for nearly the entire race and it may be a mistake to do so again. She’ll need a good number of former DeSantis supporters and Republican women to achieve these victories. While her odds are not terrific, the narrative of the race could change when she is one-on-one with Trump. Then the world will discover if Chris Christie’s hot-mic moment, “she’s going to get smoked,” is accurate or not.