• Associated Press

Iowa’s Leadoff Caucuses Are Underway After Donald Trump Urged Republicans to Give Him a Huge Victory

AP
The stage is set before Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump appears at a caucus night party in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Voting began Monday night in the Iowa caucuses, where former President Donald Trump is aiming for a victory that sends a resounding message that neither life-threatening cold nor life-changing legal trouble can slow his march toward the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination.

The opening contest in the monthslong Republican primary process unfolded inside more than 750 schools, churches and community centers where participants gathered to debate their options before casting secret ballots.

The findings from AP VoteCast suggest that Trump is in a strong position as the caucuses began. He shows significant strength among urban, small- town and rural communities. Trump also performs well with evangelical Christians and those without a college degree. And a majority of caucusgoers say that they identify with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

One relative weakness for Trump comes in the suburbs, where only about 4 in 10 support him.

AP VoteCast is a survey of more than 1,500 voters who said they planned to take part in Monday’s Republican caucuses in Iowa. The survey is conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Trump has predicted he will set a modern-day record for a competitive Republican caucus and called on his supporters to deliver huge margins as a rebuff to his opponents. His onetime chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, is fighting for his political survival in a make-or-break race for second place. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the only woman in the race, stands in DeSantis’ way. The two have competed aggressively in recent weeks to emerge as the clear alternative to the former president, who has alienated many Americans and could end up being a convicted felon by year’s end.

With our situation in this country right now, to me, the only candidate is Trump. … He won’t back down, said 71-year-old Vicki Cannon, of Ankeny, as she waited Monday to hear Donald Trump Jr. campaign on his father’s behalf. “I just feel the only one that can get us out — I’m just sad it’s only going to be for four years — is Trump. Even if people don’t like him because of the way he talks sometimes, you know, he was a good president.”

On the issues, those voting Monday have a greater desire to focus on cultural matters like immigration than the health of the U.S. economy, according to AP VoteCast.

Their message to GOP candidates in this first presidential contest is clear: About 9 in 10 want an upheaval or substantial change in how the U.S. government operates. Many expressed skepticism about the government’s legal system and the integrity of American elections, evidence of the sway that Trump still holds on a sizable share of the Republican Party.

Polls suggest Trump entered Monday with a massive lead in Iowa as Haley and DeSantis dueled for a distant second.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are also on the ballot in Iowa, as is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who suspended his campaign last week.

With the coldest temperatures in caucus history and dangerous travel conditions in virtually every corner of the state, the campaigns were bracing for a low-turnout contest that will test the strength of their support and their organizational muscle. The final result will serve as a powerful signal for the rest of the nomination fight to determine who will face Democratic President Joe Biden in the November general election.

After Iowa, the Republican primary shifts to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina over the coming weeks before moving into the rest of the country this spring. The ultimate nominee won’t be confirmed until the party’s national convention in July, but with big wins in the opening contests, Trump will be difficult to stop.

Trump’s political strength heading into the Iowa caucuses, which come 426 days after he launched his 2024 campaign, tells a remarkable story of a Republican Party unwilling or unable to move on from him. He lost to Biden in 2020 after fueling near-constant chaos while in the White House, culminating with his supporters carrying out a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. In total, he faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases, including two indictments for his efforts to overturn the election and a third indictment for keeping classified documents in his Florida home.

In recent weeks, Trump has increasingly echoed authoritarian leaders and framed his campaign as one of retribution. He has spoken openly about using the power of government to pursue his political enemies. He has repeatedly harnessed rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.” And he recently shared a word cloud last week to his social media account highlighting “revenge,” “power” and “dictatorship.”

Trump’s top surrogates played up the stakes Monday.

I truly believe that God has placed each and every one of us here at this moment, for this moment to save this country, Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake told Trump supporters in Fort Dodge.

The final Des Moines Register/NBC News poll before the caucuses found Trump maintaining a formidable lead, supported by nearly half of likely caucusgoers, compared with 20% for Haley and 16% for DeSantis, who are in a close battle for second. Trump is also viewed more favorably than the other top contenders by likely caucusgoers, at 69% compared with 58% for DeSantis and 48% for Haley.

More than 1,000 miles to the east, Biden’s campaign sought to signal strength from its Delaware headquarters.

The Democratic president’s team announced early Monday that he and the Democratic National Committee raised more than $97 million in the last quarter of 2023 and finished the year with $117 million in the bank. His team wants to offer a stark contrast between the two parties: While Biden is flush with cash entering 2024, facing token opposition in the Democratic primary, the Republican field has spent more than $90 million on Iowa advertising alone, much of it designed to attack each other.

Meanwhile, Trump used his Truth Social site early Monday to knock Haley. Her campaign answered that Trump’s diatribes, some of them contradictory, prove he considers her a threat.

Haley began the day in central Iowa by encouraging some of her caucus precinct captains to “speak from the heart” as they make their statements on her behalf before votes are cast.

Trump predicted he would set a modern-day Republican caucus record with a margin-of-victory exceeding the nearly 13-percentage-point victory that Bob Dole earned in 1988. Still, he played down expectations that he would eclipse 50%, preempting any criticism that a majority of Republican voters might prefer someone else.

The temperature in parts of Iowa on Monday could dip as low as minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 26 degrees Celsius) while snowdrifts from Friday’s blizzard still make travel hazardous across the state.

Forecasters warned that “dangerously cold wind chills” as low as 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit were possible through noon Tuesday. The conditions, according to the National Weather Service, could lead to “frostbite and hypothermia in a matter of minutes if not properly dressed for the conditions.”

The winter weather, intimidating even for Iowa, will make an already unrepresentative process even less representative. Only a tiny portion of the participants will be voters of color, given Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population, a fact that helped persuade Democrats to shift their opening primary contest to South Carolina this year.

Iowa’s caucuses are also playing out on Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday.