5 Takeaways from the Republican Iowa Caucuses

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday.

Former president Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses Monday in the first step toward the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, keeping him on course for the coronation that has looked likely for months.

With an estimated 88 percent of the vote in, Trump led Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 51 percent to 21 percent. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley was in third place at 19 percent, followed by businessman Vivek Ramaswamy at 8 percent.

The result was no big surprise, as Trump has led in polls by around 30 points for months.

Here’s more on what happened, the numbers behind it, and what it means, at least for the near future.

1. Trump is the huge favorite we thought he was

Pretty much regardless of the margin Monday, Trump was going to begin the primary calendar as an overwhelming favorite. The results suggest he might well be a prohibitive one.

The winning margin set a record for a Republican Iowa caucuses that didn’t include an incumbent, more than doubling Bob Dole’s 13-point win in 1988.

It’s tempting to play the expectation game – to look at who is rising and falling at this particular moment, as well as how they fared relative to the polls and their own goals. But there is no getting around the fact that the biggest takeaway, now that voting has begun, is that Trump looks every bit the favorite he has since the summer.

The result is the culmination of a year-long trend in the Republican Party back toward Trump. Shortly after the 2022 election, virtually every national poll showed DeSantis leading Trump head-to-head; Monday’s results – Trump taking a majority of votes in a crowded field – suggested even that highly hypothetical path is cut off.

They also came after Trump was indicted on 91 criminal counts and after he was found liable in civil court for sexual abuse and financial fraud. If there was any doubt that Republicans would stick by their man once it came time to actually vote, he went a long way toward erasing it.

If you’re scrounging really hard for some kind of bad news for Trump, it’s that nearly half of voters voted against someone who amounted to an incumbent. Also, entrance polls showed 3 in 10 voters said he wouldn’t be fit to serve as president if he’s convicted of crimes, and a Fox News analysis showed 7 in 10 Haley voters said they wouldn’t support Trump in the general election. Those numbers could cost Trump significantly in a general election if they held.

But the party proved it will rally around him, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that continue.

2. Haley didn’t get her pre-New Hampshire bump

The second piece of good news for Trump was who finished second.

DeSantis beat Haley for that spot, according to the AP, despite late polling that had suggested she might overtake him.

It was close, but that would seem to reinforce the fact that Republican voters aren’t yet set on a Trump alternative. Haley was surely hoping that beating DeSantis coming out of Iowa – a state he focused heavily on – would inject some momentum into her efforts to beat Trump in the New Hampshire primary next week. It’s really the only state polling somewhat competitively, and one she hopes will recast the race.

The results undermine Haley’s claim to being that true alternative. A win in New Hampshire would be huge, but it’s probably more difficult now. And it’s more likely now that she’ll have to deal with DeSantis sticking around and peeling away non-Trump voters in future states, even if she gets a very positive result next week.

Shy of that, we have what we’ve long thought we’d have: a competition for the front-runner of the also-rans – the candidates slugging it out for second place, hoping to put themselves in position in case Trump somehow implodes – and letting Trump avoid a truly sustained campaign against him in the process.

3. A few key entrance poll findings tell the tale

A few of the most important entrance poll findings that explain what we just witnessed:

-About two-thirds of voters wrongly believe President Biden wasn’t legitimately elected in 2020. That’s similar to where the GOP has been in national polls. But also consider this: Fewer than 1 in 10 Trump voters said Biden’s win was legitimate. Trump’s baseless claim pervades the party, but it defines his most devoted base.

-DeSantis actually won nearly half of voters who said abortion was their most important issue. That’s compared to 25 percent for Trump, the man who appointed the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. (Trump has criticized Florida’s six-week ban as being too harsh.) The problem was these voters accounted for just 11 percent of caucus-goers. More than 7 in 10 voters emphasized the economy or immigration, and Trump dominated among them.

-Haley dominated among voters who said having the right temperament was the most important candidate quality. She also competed with Trump among electability-first voters. But these groups combined for only about one-fourth of the vote. There were more voters who preferred a candidate who “fights for people like me,” and Trump took 8 out of 10 voters there. Character and pragmatism took a distinct back seat Monday, and Trump benefited.

-Trump managed to win college-educated voters, even as he generally does better the less formally educated a voter is. (He finished third among college-educated voters in the 2016 caucuses.) If he even competes to win those voters in other states, his opponents have basically no shot.

4. Turnout was down a lot from 2016, but …

Notably, it was way down from the 187,000 who voted in the 2016 caucuses, which also featured Trump. Final numbers aren’t yet in, but it’s estimated to be about 115,000.

Certainly, some will see that as a potential sign of diminished enthusiasm on the GOP side. But caucus night featured frigid, negative temperatures – the coldest caucuses ever – and turnout was similar to 2012 and 2008. Also, the race didn’t look too competitive leading up to the caucuses, meaning some voters might have decided their vote wasn’t that important.

New Hampshire, which looks more competitive and won’t feature such conditions, should be a better gauge.

One thing we can say: Results closely mirrored late polling, suggesting that the lower turnout didn’t particularly cost any one candidate.

5. Ramaswamy’s exit could bolster Trump a bit

The caucuses did feature one significant casualty. Ramaswamy, whose single-digit showing came up well shy of his repeated promises of a major surprise, announced shortly afterward that he was dropping out and endorsing Trump.

The exit could bolster Trump further, given that Ramaswamy geared his campaign toward Trump supporters, lavishing Trump with praise and lodging a number of conspiracy theories.

But Ramaswamy’s support both nationally and in New Hampshire was lower than it was in Iowa.

Trump’s campaign in the closing days went hard after Ramaswamy, accusing him of undermining Trump while ostensibly praising him.