Donald Trump Wins Iowa Caucuses in Crucial Victory at the Outset of the Republican Presidential Campaign

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he visits a caucus site at Horizon Event Center in Clive, Iowa, on Monday.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses on Monday, seizing a crucial victory that reinforces the former president’s grip on his party at the outset of the GOP’s 2024 nomination fight even as he faces extraordinary legal challenges that could complicate his bid to return to the White House.

The magnitude of Trump’s success is still coming into focus and it was not immediately clear who would emerge as the second-place finisher, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Caucus voters endured life-threatening cold and dangerous driving conditions to participate in meetings that unfolded in hundreds of schools, churches and community centers across the state.

The results are just the first in what will be a monthslong effort for Trump to secure the GOP nomination a third consecutive time. But the victory sends an unmistakable message to the Republican Party that the nomination is Trump’s to lose and crystalizes the challenge facing his GOP opponents.

Trump was already looking ahead to a potential general election matchup against President Joe Biden as he addressed hundreds of cheering supporters at a caucus site at the Horizon Events Center in Clive, Iowa.

He is totally destroying our country, Trump said of Biden.

DeSantis and Haley are Trump’s top rivals, both competing with each other to establish themselves as the top alternative to him. Both are already pivoting their focus, with Haley poised to compete vigorously in New Hampshire, where she hopes to be more successful with the state’s independent voters heading into the Jan. 23 primary. DeSantis is heading to New Hampshire on Tuesday only after a stop in South Carolina, a conservative stronghold where the Feb. 24 contest could prove pivotal.

Trump, meanwhile, was expected to fly to New York Monday night so he could be in court Tuesday as a jury is poised to consider whether he should pay additional damages to a columnist who last year won a $5 million jury award against Trump for sex abuse and defamation.

He will then fly to New Hampshire, the next state in the Republican primary calendar, to hold a rally Tuesday evening.

Iowa is an uneven predictor of who will ultimately lead Republicans into the general election. George W. Bush’s 2000 victory was the last time a Republican candidate won in Iowa and went on to become the party’s standard-bearer.

Trump showed significant strength among urban, small-town and rural communities, according to AP VoteCast. He also performed well with evangelical Christians and those without a college degree. And a majority of caucusgoers said 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 supported him.

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

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

Trump’s success tells a remarkable story of a Republican Party unwilling or unable to move on from a flawed front-runner. 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.

And through it all, Trump has intentionally used his legal problems as a political asset.

Over the last week alone, Trump chose to leave the campaign trail on two separate occasions to make voluntary appearances before judges in New York and Washington. In both cases, he addressed the media directly afterward, ensuring that national coverage of his legal drama would make it more difficult for his Republican rivals to break through in Iowa.

The former president campaigned in Iowa only sporadically over the last year and largely abandoned the state’s tradition of intimate appearances in living rooms and small community venues. He instead relied on larger campaign rallies where he more often listed grievances over the past, most notably his lie that the 2020 election was stolen, rather than articulating a detailed vision of the nation’s future.

Trump has also 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 legal challenges appear to have done little damage to his reputation as the charges are seen through a political lens.

About three-quarters say the charges against Trump are political attempts to undermine him, rather than legitimate attempts to investigate important issues, according to AP VoteCast.

Still, about one-quarter say Trump has done something illegal when it comes to at least one of the legal cases he’s facing: his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, his alleged attempts to interfere in the vote count in the 2020 presidential election or the discovery of classified documents at his Florida home that were supposed to be in government custody.

On the Democratic side, Biden’s campaign sought to signal strength more than 1,000 miles to the east in 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, Iowa caucus participants were forced to brave the coldest temperatures in caucus history as 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, made 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 also played out on Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday.

The legal challenges confronting Trump will intensify in the weeks ahead as he balances the demands of a campaign against multiple legal threats.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether states have the ability to block Trump from the ballot for his role in sparking the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. And he’s facing criminal trials in Washington and Atlanta for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.