DES MOINES, Iowa — The first votes of the 2024 presidential campaign will land Monday night on the frozen tundra of Iowa, where Republicans — along with independents and Democrats who choose to switch parties — will participate in the state’s caucuses.
The final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll, released Saturday, found that former President Donald Trump, who is running to return to the office he lost in 2020, is the overwhelming favorite. His chief rivals, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have settled into a battle for second place.
Also competing in Iowa are Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur who has worked the state hard but trails the top three in polls and did not qualify for last week’s GOP debate here; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; and Ryan Binkley, a little-known pastor from Texas. The results will clarify the GOP race before it shifts to next week’s New Hampshire primary.
Here are five storylines to watch:
Subzero temperatures are forecast statewide Monday, rounding off a week of arctic conditions and setting the stage for what could be the coldest caucus day on record.
DeSantis and Haley postponed events Friday rather than ask people to risk their lives on treacherous roads. And the frigid weekend temperatures most likely depressed turnout at events Saturday and Sunday. Now they threaten to depress turnout on caucus night. Meteorologists might be warning Iowans to stay safe inside at home Monday unless going out is absolutely essential. The question then becomes whose supporters believe that caucusgoing is worth the risk.
Trump has expressed confidence that his backers are the type who would “walk on glass” for him and hardly be deterred by minus-20 wind chills. DeSantis has expressed confidence in the ground game his super PAC, Never Back Down, has put together to turn out his supporters. Though Haley has been rising in the polls, she has not invested nearly as much time or money in Iowa as DeSantis and his allies have. Could she be left out in the cold?
Unless the polls are monumentally wrong, Trump appears to have an Iowa victory in hand — something that eluded him eight years ago when he narrowly lost the caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The only real suspense for him is how high he runs up the score on DeSantis and Haley.
“We’re looking to set records, and we think that, frankly, the other teams aren’t going to be as persistent in getting out as our team, because we really have a great MAGA group,” Trump said Friday night in a telephone call with potential caucusgoers.
If Trump hits 50%, the notion that Republicans are hungry for an alternative becomes far less believable. He could head to New Hampshire with an imposing air of inevitability. Even though New Hampshire voters love to assert their independence — or, as Haley said recently in comments that scanned as a snub, “correct” Iowa’s results — donors whose support has helped keep DeSantis and Haley in the race would almost certainly be looking for an exit ramp.
But if Trump falls short of a majority, there could be renewed effort by the Not-Trump faction of the party to rally around whoever emerges from Iowa as his strongest competitor.
Battle for second
The real suspense Monday night most likely will be about who comes in second place, and by how much. For months now, Haley and DeSantis have been battling to see who can finish in second in Iowa and head into the coming primaries with a bit more momentum than the other.
For DeSantis, it has the feel of being make-or-break. Finish third behind Haley and he is about to head into two states where he is already polling considerably behind her. What’s more, DeSantis, who had earlier said he would win the Iowa caucuses, would suffer an embarrassing setback should he come in third behind Haley, who for months had put more of an emphasis on New Hampshire than on Iowa.
Heading into the contest, the latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found Haley with a 4-point edge over DeSantis, which falls within the margin of error. Both candidates trail Trump by more than 25 points.
Both Trump and Ramaswamy have sought to heavily target caucusgoers who have not previously voted in an Iowa caucus. For Trump, that makes sense — the last time there was a competitive Iowa GOP caucus was in 2016, before his presidency and long before he had remade the GOP in his image.
Should Trump be able to juice turnout with first-time caucusgoers, he has a chance to exceed his poll numbers and win an even more resounding victory — potentially putting a damper on any momentum for the candidate who finishes behind him.
Ramaswamy is focusing here for a different reason, thinking his upstart, outsider campaign can appeal to voters who were not previously engaged in the process and may not be registering in the polling, which has him in a distant fourth place.
The Vivek factor
No one has held more campaign events in Iowa than Ramaswamy, the young right-wing provocateur. He swarmed the state, consistently drawing energetic crowds.
Anecdotally, a number of pro-Trump voters have said they are now backing Ramaswamy after having heard him on the stump. And though Ramaswamy had presented himself earlier in his campaign as a Trump fan who simply believed it was time for a younger generation to take charge, he has leveled more attacks against him in recent weeks.
Ramaswamy recently told NBC News that Trump is “wounded” and that he — Ramaswamy — would be a more capable steward of the MAGA brand. On Saturday, Ramaswamy posed for a picture with supporters wearing “Save Trump, Vote Vivek” T-shirts.
All of that could cut into Trump’s margin in Iowa — and he and his team made it clear in the closing days that they are not happy about it.
“Vivek started his campaign as a great supporter,” Trump posted late Saturday on Truth Social. “Unfortunately, now all he does is disguise his support in the form of deceitful campaign tricks. Very sly, but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the ‘other side’ — don’t get duped by this.”
Perhaps Ramaswamy is nothing more than a spoiler. With polls showing him trailing Trump, Haley and DeSantis, his placing in the top three would come as a major surprise.