Eight years after he upended the established order by nearly winning Iowa and launching himself toward the White House, Trump cruised to a landslide victory in the first presidential nominating contest of 2024.
Iowa is only one state, and its caucuses are idiosyncratic, but it’s hard to overstate the definitive nature of his performance. In a four-person race, Trump earned more than 50% of the total vote. Despite skipping the debates and only campaigning sporadically, he beat his closest pursuer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by 30 percentage points. Trump also carried 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties, with former South Carolina Nikki Haley winning one.
It was a showing so dominant that the former president treated it as the first step in an inexorable march toward his third straight Republican Party nomination.
“We’re going to come together, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative,” Trump told his joyous supporters at the Iowa Events Center. “We’re going to come together. It’s going to happen soon.”
In his victory remarks, the former president initially seemed out of character. As recently as Sunday, at a rally in Indianola, Trump had a very different message.
“These caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps, and other quite nice people,” he told an audience in Indianola Sunday. “The Washington swamp has done everything in its power to take away your voice. But tomorrow is your time to turn on them and to say and speak your mind and to vote.”
On Monday night, flush from winning, Trump hummed a different tune. With more votes than DeSantis and Haley combined, he had the right to crow. Instead, he mostly spared the competition from ridicule other than to quip, “I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a good time together. We are all having a good time together.”
DeSantis and Haley, whom Trump had caustically attacked for months, “actually did very well,” he said. Trump also praised fourth-place finisher Vivek Ramaswamy for doing a “hell of a job” to come from virtually zero recognition to a position where he qualified for all the debates and earned two of Iowa’s 40 delegates. The 38-year-old entrepreneur will have to be content with that: In his concession speech, Ramaswamy quit the race and endorsed the frontrunner.
All his intra-party rivals, Trump added, were “very good people.” Before pivoting to his standard critique of Joe Biden (“I don’t want to be overly rough on the president, but he’s the worst president in the history our country – he’s destroying the country”), Trump sounded a message of unity.
“I really think this is the time now for everybody in our country to come together. We want to come together, whether it’s Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative,” he told supporters, striking a tone that even critics like former Obama strategist David Axelrod called “un-Trump like.”
If Trump was acting more like a guy who’d sewn up the nomination instead of a candidate who’d won only the first contest, DeSantis and Haley aren’t yet ready to concede. Far from it.
When he first declared his candidacy, DeSantis promised to offer conservatives Trump’s policies without Trump’s drama. DeSantis all but predicted that he would derail Trump’s attempted political comeback by winning Iowa. DeSantis invested heavily in the state in both money and prestige, even pulling “a Grassley” (so named after Iowa’s senior senator Chuck Grassley) by visiting every one of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Rick Santorum did that back in 2012 and closed with a rush that year, finishing in a dead heat with frontrunner Mitt Romney, the eventual GOP nominee. It didn’t happen for DeSantis, even though he spent more time in Iowa than Haley and Trump combined. In the end, Florida’s governor barely held on to second place over a surging Haley. But hold on he did, and on Monday night DeSantis sounded as giddy as a death row inmate given a momentary reprieve.
“They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us,” he bellowed during his brief and oddly triumphant remarks to supporters. “They spent almost $50 million attacking us. The media was against us, they were writing our obituaries months ago. They even called the election before people even got a chance to vote.”
Given the landslide nature of Trump’s win, the behavior of the news media was hardly a deciding factor. But DeSantis had a valid complaint. CBS, Fox News, CNN, and the Associated Press violated their own procedures to call the election while the caucuses were still taking place.
“Media outlets calling the results of the 2024 first-in-the-nation caucus less than half an hour after precinct caucuses had been called to order – before the overwhelming majority of Iowans had even cast their ballot – was highly disappointing and concerning,” said Iowa GOP state party chairman Jeff Kaufmann.
“One of the key differences between the Iowa caucus and a standard primary election is that Iowans have the chance to listen to presidential candidates or their surrogates and deliberate to make an informed decision,” Kaufmann added. “There was no need to rush one of the most transparent, grassroots democratic processes in the country.”
That said, the additional assertion from DeSantis campaign communications director Andrew Romeo that the early calls proved “the media is in the tank for Trump” was quite a stretch. At MSNBC, the anchors and commentators moaned that Iowa’s caucus results were proof of “racism” and “fascism.” CNN was hyperventilating over exit polls showing that a majority of Iowa’s caucus voters thought Biden’s 2020 victory was tainted or said they’d still vote for Trump if he was convicted of various crimes.
If anything, however, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis were just as defiant as the Iowa voters.
Although Haley placed third, she argued that her showing in Iowa – and current standing in New Hampshire – had already turned the contest into “a two-person race.” Barely acknowledging DeSantis, Haley pivoted to a broader, more bipartisan rebuke of the current president, and his predecessor. “Our campaign,” she told supporters, “is the last best hope of stopping the Trump-Biden nightmare.”
In Haley’s telling, the two men “are both about 80 years old,” added trillions of dollars to the national debt, face distracting investigations, and are “consumed by the past.” What’s more, she said pointing to public opinion polling, nearly 70% of Americans report wanting something other than a Trump vs. Biden rematch.
“Americans deserve better,” Haley said before ending the night by declaring, “Iowa, I love you, but we are on to New Hampshire.” Moments after leaving the stage, her campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, released a campaign memo to clarify their vision.
Trump had predicted a win by as much as 60 points, Ankney wrote. “He won by 30%. In a state in which caucus voters are among the most pro-Trump of any electorate in America, he got 51%, and 49% preferred someone else,” she added. “That’s far from the ringing endorsement of Trump that the media portrays.”
“The race now moves to less Trump-friendly territory,” she continued. “And the field of candidates is effectively down to two, with only Trump and Nikki Haley having substantial support in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.”
Perhaps, but Trump is leading the field in both those states, too, and not by trivial margins. Can Haley beat Trump if she gets him one on one? A large gaggle of Republicans thought that way in the 2015-2016 cycle – and did so again in this presidential election – and none of them have anything to show for it. But hope dies hard.
“They were just so excited about the fact that they were predicting that we wouldn’t be able to get our ticket punched here out of Iowa,” DeSantis said Monday night. “But I can tell you because of your support, in spite of all that they threw at us, everyone against us, we got our ticket punched out of Iowa.”
After betting the farm on Iowa though, DeSantis now faces an uphill battle in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. Those states are not nearly as red as Iowa, nor were they as much of a point of emphasis.
DeSantis’ “ticket punched” line is a reference to the old adage that there are three tickets out of Iowa (but only two out of New Hampshire). Perhaps. But if that’s true, Donald J. Trump is using his private jet while Haley and DeSantis are flying commercial. And if the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina are any guide, DeSantis is stuck flying coach – in a middle seat.
But it’s good to be alive. And to keep Nikki Haley off balance, Florida’s governor will detour to New Hampshire by way of her home state of South Carolina. There, the state motto is “Where I breathe, I hope.” For now, DeSantis does both, albeit just barely.