Barring an immense polling error, former President Trump will win Monday night’s Iowa caucuses.
But the results will offer clues about whether Trump still has an iron grip on his party.
Will Trump win by an overwhelming margin, as polling has suggested he will? Or will he win more narrowly than expected, failing to meet the high bar he has set for himself?
Who will come in second? Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are battling for the silver medal. Whoever comes in second will have bragging rights — and attract more attention from journalists and donors — ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary.
DeSantis and Haley have each argued that they are the true GOP alternative to the former president. A strong showing here could buttress one of their cases. Conversely, a poor showing could force one or the other to end their bid. DeSantis, who has invested heavily in Iowa, visiting all 99 of the state’s counties, is particularly at risk if he loses badly.
In a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday, Trump had the support of 48% of likely caucus-goers, while Haley had 20%, DeSantis 16% and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy 8%.
At one point, GOP leaders predicted turnout for Monday’s caucuses could exceed the record-breaking 187,000 people who participated in the 2016 Republican caucuses.
But the bitterly cold weather and nearly 2 feet of snow that has blanketed the state could suppress turnout. Even in metropolitan areas such as Des Moines, some roads remained icy on Monday; conditions are much worse in more rural parts of the state. The high on Monday is minus-2, and the temperature is expected to feel like minus-32 Monday night once the windchill is factored in.
Republicans argued that Iowans are hearty and know how to deal with the unprecedented caucus weather.
“This is truly one of the worst that we’ve ever had,” said six-term former Gov. Terry Branstad, who also served as Trump’s ambassador to China. “But we have the equipment, and they’ll clear the roads. It’s going to be very cold, but Iowans know how to handle that.”
Unlike a primary, in which voters cast ballots throughout the day or even in advance, caucuses take place in person and at a set time. Iowans will gather at 7 p.m. at 1,657 precincts around the state, listen to speeches from the candidates’ supporters and then cast their votes for their choice.
(Democrats are not holding a presidential caucus Monday night after so badly flubbing the process in 2020 that no official winner was ever formally determined.)
The top three GOP candidates have been setting expectations and on Monday were all trying to lower them.
Trump’s strong showing in the polls and crowing about his popularity in the state could come back to bite him if he doesn’t break 50% in the caucuses.
On Sunday, the former president urged his voters to not be complacent and said he was worried that “it’s nasty out there.”
“You can’t sit home,” he said in Indianola, adding jokingly, “If you’re sick as a dog … even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it.”
Iowa is the foundation of DeSantis’ campaign, and his supporters have boasted of a strong on-the-ground organization to prod voters to the caucuses.
He was defiant in the lead-up to the caucuses.
“They can throw a blizzard at us, and we are going to fight,” he told supporters in West Des Moines on Saturday. “They can throw windchill at us and we are going to fight. They can throw media narratives at us, and we are going to fight. They can throw fake polls at us, and we are going to fight.”
Haley’s campaign is stronger in New Hampshire, but her Iowa numbers have risen in recent polls. She lagged behind in building a ground game here, but she received the backing of a group linked to the Koch brothers that claims to have a strong on-the-ground organization.
“[M]y expectation for myself is to come out strong in Iowa, to come out strong in New Hampshire, and to come out strong in South Carolina,” Haley told Fox News after rallying supporters in Ankeny last week. “… We’re not going to know what strong looks like until we see what the results are.”