It was early in 1976 that a little-known southern governor discovered a way to generate name recognition and distinguish himself amidst a gaggle of nationally known presidential candidates. He was intrigued by the possibility of actively competing in the obscure Iowa caucuses, which until then had been all but ignored. Jimmy Carter introduced himself to the country by crisscrossing the Hawkeye State, got his win and his headlines, and was elected president ten months later.
Unfortunately for drama kings and queens across the land, there won’t be that kind of rags-to-riches story in Iowa this year. No one will sneak up on the overwhelming front-runner, Donald Trump, who is on course to win a majority of Republican votes according to every poll taken in the Hawkeye State for months. Winning more votes than all the other candidates combined in a multi-candidate primary field is rare and suggests that, even though Democrats control the White House, this was never truly an open primary.
Indeed, this process has proven to be less an open contest and more the equivalent of an incumbent running for four more years, just like in 2020. Only this time, if Trump makes history by closing the deal on his third consecutive GOP nomination – only Whig Henry Clay in the 19th century and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 20th became their party’s nominee three times – he will be facing an actual incumbent who has proven to be a crashing disappointment on almost every level.
With doubts about his continuing viability among Republicans all but removed, and with Trump holding a huge lead – as large as 22 points – among independents, running ahead in national polls for the first time ever and even further ahead in the eight key battleground states, Iowa will likely serve as little more than a proving ground for 2028. By that time, Trump will have left the stage – unless, of course, he fails to win this time and tries for the big prize one more time at 81 years old – not likely, but that is what Joe Biden is attempting to do this year.
Iowa – The VP Beauty Contest?
There is also a tendency to view the lingering candidacies of Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy as a play for the second spot on the presidential ticket. But if Trump has already selected his vice president, as he claimed recently on Fox News, there are no scraps left on the table to fight over for the trio of also-rans. And there is still nothing to suggest Trump will pick one of his competitors as a running mate. After all, in 2016, he had a smorgasbord of top-flight rivals from which to choose – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker et al. – but he picked a veteran politician outside the field of candidates, Mike Pence, who proved valuable in helping draw Christian conservatives into Trump’s winning coalition. One way or another, Trump has cleverly stoked widespread media attention and speculation about who he might select in a decision he may not reveal for some time, perhaps not until the Republican convention in July.
So who has the most on the line today, and what transitory factors might tilt the final tally, though not the outcome, in favor of one candidate or another? Clearly, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, after famously pulling the “full Grassley,” named for the aging Iowa senator, by visiting all 99 counties in the Hawkeye State, has put all his chips on Iowa. He must finish second in order to justify the continuation of his candidacy and raise enough money to compete. After all, this has been an entirely one-sided race – so much so that Trump decided not to show up for the four GOP debates without losing any support, instead rising in the polls. Ramaswamy, trying to outdo DeSantis, has reportedly visited all 99 Iowa counties twice, but the overwhelming impression left by the upstart next-gen firebrand is that of a Trump acolyte with enormous political skill whose time has not yet come.
Then there is Nikki Haley, a remnant of the dominant strain of neoconservatism that defined the GOP through the Bush years and up to the arrival of Trump. And while she has skillfully pivoted to the new Trump-inspired populist orientation of the party and served as an effective full-throated pro-America voice as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, she is still viewed with suspicion in MAGA circles. The numbers don’t lie – while Haley is popular among a critical demographic group, women, and among independents, her support among the rank and file in her own party is substantially less than for Trump or DeSantis. Her strongest argument to date has been that she is the most electable candidate in the field, but Trump’s lead over Biden has rendered that argument moot, at least unless or until Trump is convicted of one or more of the 91 charges he faces in court. No one knows what might happen at that point.
Important But Not Predictive
It has been since 2000 that the winner of the Iowa GOP caucuses – an arcane, multi-tiered system of voting that few understand – has gone on to win the presidency. Since George W. Bush captured first place in Iowa 24 years ago, the caucus winners there have been Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz – all of whom faded badly once the conventional primaries began. This drives home the point of how atypical Iowa is in the political universe. It is far more white, less black, and less Hispanic than the average state – or, for that matter, any of the swing states sure to decide the general election. The same holds true for New Hampshire, the first primary contest set for eight days from now on January 23 – and famously spurned by Joe Biden in favor of South Carolina as the Democrats’ first-in-the-nation primary.
Weather is always an issue in these caucuses, but this year it could be a supersized factor. With an expected high temperature of -3 degrees in Des Moines, or as low as -22 degrees with the wind chill factor, even those famously hearty Iowans are likely to turn out in smaller numbers. At least theoretically, this should give Trump an even bigger advantage. His loyal-beyond-loyal voters will famously “walk through broken glass” to cast a vote for their man. A moderate like Haley or a Trumpism-without-Trump candidate like DeSantis are unlikely to generate the same level of passion required to brave insanely cold weather. And perhaps the weather is the appropriate metaphor for this primary non-race in general and Iowa in particular today – Trump celebrating in the glowing warmth of an overwhelming victory, while the also-rans are left out in the cold.