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Updated Jan 16, 2024, 3:07am EST
politics

Donald Trump romps in Iowa, Ron DeSantis narrowly leads Nikki Haley for second

REUTERS/Sergio Flores
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The News

DES MOINES, IA — Donald Trump decisively won the Iowa caucus on Monday, leaving his top two rivals scrapping for a distant second place, where Ron DeSantis appeared to narrowly lead Nikki Haley.

“I really think this is time now for everybody, our country, to come together,” an ebullient Trump said. “We want to come together, whether it’s Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative, it would be so nice if we could come together and straighten out the world and straighten out the problems and straighten out all of the death and destruction that we’re witnessing, that’s practically never been like this — it’s just so important.”

The topline results played out largely as expected. CNN called the race at 7:30 PM local time, with voting still underway across the state. Trump, in his speech to a caucus site in Clive, railed against “an invasion when people are pouring in and coming in from prisons all over the world, from mental institutions and insane asylums all over the world” — repeating a now-familiar, oft-fact-checked line from his rallies — while touting his support for ethanol subsidies, a traditional Iowa issue. He called the 2020 election, which he faces state and federal charges for trying to overturn, “an unfortunate event.”

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The result was, in many ways, the dream scenario Trump hoped for when he announced his campaign in November 2022: A dominant performance with Republican voters, plus a divided field of candidates bitterly fighting over what remained, with no single champion emerging. Attention quickly turned to the close race between DeSantis and Haley for second, where DeSantis held onto a narrow lead — 21% to Haley’s 19% — with over 95% of all votes counted.

Network entrance polls — interviews with voters as they headed into caucus sites — found that Trump locked up his victory months ago. Just one in five caucus-goers said that they’d made up their minds in the race’s final days, breaking narrowly for DeSantis, who’d parked himself in the state and hammered Haley for saying that New Hampshire would “correct” the result in Iowa. The rest of the electorate had decided earlier than last month, with 64% of them settling on Trump. The makeup of the caucus-goers reflected its winner: 65% said Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election and Trump cleaned up with this group, winning 69% of them. Haley won 54% of those who believed Biden won.

The former president visited the state just 18 times, skipping candidate cattle calls organized by Sen. Joni Ernst and eventual DeSantis endorser Bob Vander Plaats. He blew off the only debate held in the state — just as he skipped the only Iowa debate held in 2016 ahead of a loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He spent much of the home stretch at courtroom appearances in Washington and New York, by choice, working to rally Republicans to his defense.

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Trump also scrapped most of the rallies he’d planned for the final weekend, while Haley and DeSantis kept most of their schedules and campaigned in the arctic cold. DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy held freewheeling town hall meetings, up through the final day of campaigning. Trump held one local town hall, with supporters, on a livestream, 48 hours before the vote. The result was what defenders of the caucus process had fretted about: Trump shattered traditional campaigning in Iowa.

Aides have long noted that for Trump, campaigning looks a little different: He’s a former president who has run for president three times now, and whose record is already well-known across the country. But his campaign is also operating differently than it did in past elections, they say, with a “take nothing for granted” mentality combined with a low-drama, relatively high-functioning ground game across early voting states.

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The View From Donald Trump

“I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a great time together,” Trump said to a revved up crowd at the Iowa Events Center after his win. “I think they both actually did very well.”

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The former president was, naturally, in a positive mood: After hearing he’d been projected to win, he told Fox News that he was “greatly honored by such an early call” and felt “great” about the evening.

Trump’s allies moved quickly to make the case the party needed to get behind the frontrunner and pivot to the general election, where Biden’s campaign finished the last quarter with $117 million cash on hand.

Rep. Matt Gaetz said during Trump’s speech that his conciliatory tone was an invitation for his opponents to “drop out and be in the warm embrace of MAGA, rather than out in the sub-zero temperatures of single-digit delegates alone.”

“Denial is the first stage of grief,” Gaetz added after learning of DeSantis’ plans to remain in the race.

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The View From Ron DeSantis

“I can tell you that because of you, in spite of all that they threw at us, everyone against us, we got our ticket punched out of Iowa,” DeSantis said in his speech.

DeSantis reveled in overcoming recent polling and speculation that had him falling into third place. Still, it was a major climbdown from early expectations: He’d repeatedly declared he’d win the caucus last year, including as recently as last month. Privately, some of DeSantis’ allies fretted in the run-up that he might have no path forward if he couldn’t at least beat Haley. With a narrow second place win, he’s likely to stay alive for at least a little while longer — though the results are far from his original goal and the race is moving onto difficult territory in New Hampshire, where a single-digit race between Trump and Haley in some polls has been the main story.

The DeSantis camp was the first to cry foul over the early media calls for Trump, and the candidate mentioned it in his victory speech. In an immediate statement, DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo called it “election interference,” evidence that “the media is in the tank for Trump.” At the campaign’s party in Des Moines, campaign manager James Uthmeier said he was still speaking to caucus-goers when they started getting news alerts, informing them that Trump had won.

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The View From Nikki Haley

Haley looked past her third place showing right away, telling a crowd in Des Moines that she still represented the best chance of avoiding a “nightmare” rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“When you look at how we’re doing in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, and beyond, I can safely say that tonight, Iowa made this a two-person race,” Haley said.

Haley’s third place finish may not dim her momentum as she heads into New Hampshire, where DeSantis has tumbled to the single digits. But it dashed her hope of bumping DeSantis out of the race entirely. Her campaign kept expectations for Iowa vague, although as caucus time drew near many in her orbit became confident that she could notch a surprise second-place win over DeSantis.

She fell short as Trump beat her in the populous counties where she’d campaigned the hardest — home to thousands of moderate voters and aisle-crossing Democrats, many of whom backed Marco Rubio’s campaign eight years ago. Haley was set to win about half as many votes, overall, as the Florida senator, who she endorsed that cycle, and who endorsed Trump on Sunday.

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The View From Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy suspended his campaign, endorsing Trump and admitting that he saw “no path for me to be the next president.” His convoluted closing pitch — that Trump voters could “save” the former president by voting for one of his rivals — had been mocked by Trump himself. Unwilling to criticize Trump, Ramaswamy had blamed his “consultants” for the surprise attack. As he conceded, he urged Republicans to nominate the race’s other “America First candidate.”

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