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5 takeaways from the Iowa Republican caucuses

Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer during his caucus night event in Des Moines, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer during his caucus night event in Des Moines, Iowa.

After a year of campaigning and more than $120 million in ad spending in Iowa, the caucuses have come and gone.

And the result was ... what everyone pretty much expected.

Former President Donald Trump won in a landslide.

So, what's it all mean? Here are five takeaways:

1. Republicans have been saying they're still with Trump. Believe them.

Trump won by such a large margin that The Associated Press was able to call the race at 8:31 p.m. ET, just half an hour after voting began. It was able to do so because it conducts a massive voter survey and then it compares that to key precincts in the state, which showed Trump with an insurmountable lead.

So much of this race has been a race for second place, and that held up. Trump finished with more than 50% of the vote, had the most enthusiastic voters in polling, and they showed up — despite predictions that they might not because of record cold weather and high expectations that he would win.

2. Trump's criminal indictments have only helped him — at least with the GOP base.

The GOP base is pretty much all in on Trump's election lies and conspiracies. According to media entrance polls of Iowa GOP caucusgoers sponsored by CNN, NBC News, CBS News and others:

  • Just 3 in 10 said they believed Joe Biden was legitimately elected.
  • Two-thirds said even if Trump was convicted, he would still be fit to be president. (That mirrors what the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found earlier this year.)

The signs have been clear. Trump's campaign noticed it, it raised tons of money from these indictments, and Trump's lead has only expanded in the GOP nominating process this year. His lead in Iowa, according to an average of the polls, went up a net of 9 points since May.

With a general-election audience, it's a different story. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from October found that majorities of independents and Democrats believe he has done something illegal, and views of Trump haven't budged much — Republicans love him, but majorities of everyone else have an unfavorable opinion of him.

3. DeSantis will interpret his second-place finish as a reason to keep going, but a path to the nomination for him looks closed off.

So much of this primary campaign has been about the race for second place, but politics is not grenades and horseshoes. And even if coming close mattered, this wasn't a close finish.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was barely ahead of Nikki Haley, and more importantly, he lost to Trump by 30 points. That's the largest margin in Iowa caucus history. (Previously, the widest was 12.8 points.)

DeSantis is vowing to stay in, but it's hard to make the case for a path forward for him. Consider that he and the super PACs supporting him spent millions of dollars on campaign ads, he visited all 99 counties, got the endorsement of the state's popular governor and its most influential religious leader — and it still didn't matter.

In fact, his support only went down from the beginning of the campaign. He topped out just shy of 30% in June — and he never improved.

DeSantis modeled himself after Trump and tried to sell himself as Trump without the baggage, but Iowa Republicans just weren't buying it, didn't want to move on and went with the original. Now he's going to likely have to balance this campaign with his future in politics.

Trump is the head of the party, and if DeSantis wants a future in it, he is probably going to have to curry favor with Trump. And there's an argument that staying in and denying Haley a one-on-one race with Trump might be a way to do that, at least for a while.

4. The stakes for Haley in New Hampshire just went up.

Haley finished within a couple of thousand votes of DeSantis. And she denied Trump a clean sweep of all of Iowa's 99 counties. She won one county, Johnson County in the eastern part of the state — by ONE vote.

But the stakes now for Haley in New Hampshire in a week have just gone up.

"Tonight, I will be back in the great state of New Hampshire," Haley said during her speech Monday night. She said the question before Americans "is very clear — do you want more of the same or do you want a new generation of conservative leadership?"

Voters are shown checking in at a caucus site at Franklin Junior High on Jan. 15, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Getty Images
Voters are shown checking in at a caucus site at Franklin Junior High on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.

She argued that "America deserves better" because majorities dislike both President Biden and Trump — and don't like that they're both 80 or approaching it.

It's not a bad argument. Now she needs to show that in a more moderate state, where independents can vote, she can give Trump a real run for his money.

But there are some red flags for Haley going forward.

Her win in Johnson County is indicative of the problem she faces. The county, home to the University of Iowa, has the highest percentage of college degrees in the state. And look at the groups Haley won in the state overall:

  • Moderates
  • Those who said if Trump was convicted, he would not be fit to serve as president
  • Those with foreign policy as their top issue
  • Those who said they didn't consider themselves part of the MAGA movement
  • Those who thought Biden legitimately won in 2020
  • Those who said the candidate quality that mattered most to them was having the right temperament
  • Those with advanced degrees

Those are hardly the majority of Republican Party rank-and-file voters.

Plus, Trump won independents and those who said being able to beat Biden was the candidate quality that mattered most.

So, the electability argument Haley has been trying to make didn't resonate in Iowa, and her team spent a lot of money trying to drive that message home.

If she can't prove it to New Hampshire voters by winning or finishing a reasonably close second, it's going to be tough for her to convince donors and supporters that she should continue.

5. Caucuses just don't feature high participation.

Turnout was low in these caucuses compared to the record-setting 2016 turnout. Only about 110,000 Republicans caucused with 99% of results in, as of 1:30 a.m. ET.

That represents less than 15% of the total number of registered Republicans in the state — perhaps not surprising in the record cold. But Trump got almost 900,000 votes in Iowa in 2020.

Put another way, almost $124 million was spent on campaign ads in Iowa by the Republican candidates, more than any other state by far.

That translates to $1,124 per person who showed up to vote.

It's pretty amazing for so few voters to play such a prominent role in the presidential nominating process.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.