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Jan 16, 2024, 4:56pm EST
politics

What we learned from Iowa and what’s next in New Hampshire

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his caucus night watch party in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The Scene

CONCORD, N.H. – On Monday night, Ron DeSantis thanked Iowans for “punching our ticket” to New Hampshire. Nikki Haley told her supporters that they’d set up a “two person race” — her and the former president.

Donald Trump had to settle for the biggest victory in the history of the Iowa caucuses.

Trump’s 98-county landslide, right in line with the final polls, sent him into New Hampshire with fresh momentum and new endorsements. DeSantis’s second-place showing helped convince him to stay in the race, denying Haley the direct competition she was craving.

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All three candidates arrived today in a state whose electorate looks little like Iowa’s — far fewer evangelical Christians, far more adults with college degrees, and a semi-open primary where unaffiliated voters can show up and pick the winner. DeSantis has polled in the single digits here, and Haley is benefitting from a super PAC, Primary Pivot, that’s urged anti-Trump votes to cross over and support her.

But on Tuesday, New Hampshire politicos who don’t want Trump back were unsure of the way forward. At a forum sponsored by NH Journal, Republican strategist Jim Merrill said that Trump was arriving with a “successful message” and a far better organization that he had in 2016, when his win here set him on the path to nomination.

“Typically, we don’t look to Iowa,” said Merrill, who directed Mitt Romney’s two New Hampshire campaigns and Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful 2016 bid against Trump here. “But it’s hard to ignore what happened last night.”

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David’s view

Iowa answered a few big questions, like whether DeSantis’s ground game mattered and whether polls were accurately reflecting what Republican voters would do. Trump’s new coalition isn’t hypothetical anymore. We’ve seen what it looks like in a state where candidates had a year to out-organize, out-campaign, and out-spend him. We’ve seen their limits. It also raised new questions about how New Hampshire voters will react, especially given their tendency to rebut Iowa’s choice. (You’re not supposed to talk about this if you’re running.)

Here are three questions that will follow the candidates, as they trade the wintry weather of the Midwest to the wintry weather of New England.

Where’d the voters go? If you wanted lower turnout last night, you couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Trump’s polling lead looked unassailable, and was; killer frostbite loomed for anyone stuck waiting in line; and only four candidates had built significant ground games to pull out reluctant caucus-goers.

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The result: Fewer than 111,000 Iowans showed up for the caucuses, around 15% of registered Republicans. The total was down 40% from 2016 — when there was a hyper-competitive race on the Democratic side, too, pulling some moderates into that contest and away from the GOP. It was the lowest turnout in a competitive Republican race here in 24 years.

Even before the cold bit down, the lower enthusiasm was palpable. Haley and DeSantis were drawing smaller crowds than Trump’s prior major competitors, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, had in 2016. Haley stopped taking questions from crowds in the final stretch; DeSantis, who kept taking them, repeatedly heard from out-of-state college students who’d come to see the show. At his final rally in Ankeny, he finally shut one down, telling her that a leading question about gun violence was “propaganda” before asking for “a question from an Iowan.”

Who did turn out? Trump voters, obviously, especially Iowans who’d only become Republicans when Trump arrived. Compared to 2012, when 121,501 votes were cast statewide, turnout was better in the places where Trump was strongest as a general election candidate.

Look at the 10 counties of northeast Iowa, which backed Barack Obama in 2012 but Trump in the next two elections. Across that region, 5678 votes were cast in the 2012 caucuses. Iowans cast 6147 votes there last night. In Polk County, 21,863 people turned out in 2012, delivering victory for Mitt Romney in Des Moines and its suburbs. Last night, just 17,433 people showed up.

What happened to Democrats for Haley? Every reporter who braved the trail had met them. They’d voted Democratic in 2020, and some of them regretted it. They dreaded a Trump comeback and weren’t happy about a potential rematch between him and Joe Biden.

“Trump’s running to stay out of jail,” said Scott Garbe at a Haley stop in Cedar Rapids last week. He’d caucused for Amy Klobuchar in 2020 — “we weren’t viable,” he recalled — and believed that the pendulum should swing between the two major parties. When Democrats are in power, “they spend too much,” and the “electable” Haley had a much better chance of stopping that.

Sure enough, Haley got some help from anti-Trump voters, including Democrats and independents, who could show up at the caucuses and switch their registrations. But turnout was particularly weak in the big urban/suburban counties where Democrats have gained ground since 2016. While she narrowly carried Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, turnout fell there by 50% from 2016; in Des Moines’s Polk County, turnout fell by 44%.

Why? The theory I got back from Democrats was that many moderate ex-Republicans were gone for good after almost eight years with Trump as the party’s standard bearer. There’s no other reason why 20,000 new residents could move into Johnson County from 2012 to 2024, while fewer people showed up for GOP caucuses. In 2012, caucus turnout across the county hit 4,673. This year, it fell to 3,578. Haley ended up with 300 fewer votes than Mitt Romney had gotten when he won there, and nearly 1,000 fewer votes than Marco Rubio when he did the same.

What do Ramaswamy and Christie voters do now? The last time Haley, DeSantis, and Trump were in New Hampshire, there were two more candidates to worry about, with combined support in the mid-teens. Chris Christie’s exit from the race last week was inarguably good for Haley, as polls found most of his voters favoring her as a second choice. DeSantis had flatlined in polling last year, focusing completely on Iowa, and Haley’s advocates don’t think he can fix his problems now.

“He came up here and said, ‘I’m going to make New Hampshire like Florida,’” said Robert Schwartz, whose Primary Pivot organization has been contacting non-Republicans who might be persuaded to back Haley. “Come on. Did he message-test that at all?”

But a small share of Christie voters were looking at DeSantis, and Christie had spent his final months in the race in a mostly one-way feud with Haley.
Ramaswamy’s campaign had been attracting the libertarian-minded, anti-establishment “freedom” voters who backed Ron Paul in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Jason Osborne, the majority leader of the state House and an early DeSantis supporter, predicted that the bulk of Ramaswamy’s vote would go to the Florida governor.

“Are they gonna get on board with lockdown Don, or are they gonna go with freedom Ron?” he asked rhetorically.

Ramaswamy had made his own choice: He endorsed Trump on caucus night, and is expected to campaign for him as a surrogate.

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Notable

  • In the Messenger, Dan Merica and Amie Parnes see an upside for the president in Iowa: It could “snap the 2024 race into focus and force targeted voters to see the race as a binary choice between Trump and Biden.”
  • In Wired, David Gilbert surveys Trump voters who think even a 98-county landslide might have been rigged against him, though “none of those claiming wrongdoing on Monday night provided any proof to back up their claims.”
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