Tom looks at the kick-off event of the 2024 election season.
The Republican Iowa caucuses take place tomorrow (Monday) night, and there is not much suspense about the topline outcome in this very white, very evangelical, Trump-crazed state. So let’s get this easy prediction out of the way, for what it’s worth: BTRTN predicts Donald Trump will win the Iowa caucuses handily, likely by 25-30 points. Neither snow nor wind nor bitter cold – all in the forecast -- will keep the Iowa Trumpsters from their appointed task.This is something, you may (or may not) recall, that they failed to do in 2016, when Ted Cruz nosed out Trump by a 27% to 24% margin, with Marco Rubio in third, only a point behind Trump. Those were the days before Trump grabbed control of the GOP by the scruff of the neck, and he has yet to let go or be tossed aside. Indeed, those were arguably the very last days before that occurred, since he won the New Hampshire primary convincingly just eight days after Iowa. He went on to win South Carolina, Nevada and seven out of the eleven Super Tuesday races, and, while he lost more than a few after that, his nomination, after New Hampshire, was not closely contested.
The question for this year’s Iowa caucus is not who will win, but rather who will come in second? With Chris Christie’s sudden departure from the field four days ago, five candidates remain – Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson (inexplicably), Vivek Ramaswamy and Trump. The field will likely narrow after Iowa, before New Hampshire (just eight days later), the only question is by how much.
Nikki Haley will surpass Ron DeSantis and take second. Her polling momentum has been unmistakable. Haley trailed DeSantis for months and months, by 20 points in the first half of 2023, then began her ascent after strong debate performances in August and September, finally catching him in mid-December. They had been running neck-and-neck for the last month, until two new polls (by Suffolk and the Des Moines Register) showed Haley jumping ahead of DeSantis by 6 and 4 percentage points respectively, at the 20% level (Trump was at 54% and 48%). Two others recent polls still had them even, but the momentum is with Haley and we think she will nose ahead of DeSantis when all is said and done. DeSantis's decent debate showing may limit the Haley upside a bit, but that is hard to divine.
A quick caveat is that the Iowa contest is a rather difficult one to predict. The simple reason is that it takes far more effort to vote in a caucus than a primary, requiring spending an evening at a local gym or Town Hall rather than simply stopping by a polling center and casting a vote. This is particularly true this year, when the forecast calls for sub-zero temperatures across the state, and wind chills in the -30 range. Thus translating poll results into election results, hardly a slam dunk with regular elections, could be that much harder in Iowa this year. Team DeSantis believes its ground game is stronger than either Trump’s or Haley’s and, if true, that could go far in adverse weather circumstances. But it is hard to imagine many Iowans willing to risk their health for Ron DeSantis, of all people.
Having said that, we still feel reasonably confident the polling norms will hold. What then?
DeSantis put all his proverbial eggs in the Iowa basket, offering himself up as an easier-to-take, more effective, like-minded alternative to the presumable “unelectable” Trump. But, as countless have said since, the more Iowans got to know DeSantis, the less they liked. The humorless sourpuss showed less charisma on the campaign trail than a cold corndog in January, and no amount of effort – lord, he tried -- could hide that simple truth from those God-fearing souls. I mean, this is a man who, at a break in the debate, went over to the edge of the stage and shook hands with Iowa’s governor -- and then also shook hands with his own wife, Casey DeSantis! Hard to imagine.
A third place finish in Iowa simply undercuts any rationale for DeSantis’s wildly disappointing candidacy, and he should drop out (if he is sane) shortly after the votes are counted (he is polling at about 5% in New Hampshire and getting there in South Carolina). It stands to reason that he will endorse Trump, because he still likely harbors illusions that he can inherit the Trump base in 2028, particularly since the base is not a particular fan of Haley, the only other contender who has emerged from this year’s campaign with a future.
Vivek Ramaswamy should also pull out. He also spent an enormous amount of time in Iowa, to virtually no effect. He will gladly endorse Trump and hope he gets the VP call sometime down the road. His smartass shtick clearly turned a few heads early, but they quickly turned away as it wore thin, with some help from Haley, who eviscerated him in subsequent debates. He’s young, but that does not mean he is viable long-term. He, like DeSantis, is who is he is, and what he is ain’t selling.
(Asa Hutchinson, who rates only a parenthetical aside, should have dropped out long ago. The amiable Arkansan reminds me of hapless Connor Roy in Succession, desperately trying to hold onto to his 1% so he can cash it in for a lesser Ambassadorship at the appropriate time. The problem is that 1% is really a rounding error, worth little.)
If all that happened, then suddenly we would be down to the two-person contest that Trump did not want, and certainly not this soon, him against Haley. With her own well-earned momentum plus the added juice of a second place finish in Iowa and the departure of Christie (she is the natural destination for most of his supporters), she could very well win in New Hampshire. That would set up a true mano-a-mano contest for the rest of the primaries. (If you think I have made a gender mistake here, be advised than mano-a-mano means “hand to hand” in Spanish, not “man to man.”)
Now, New Hampshire could very well be a one-off win for Haley, because there are an array of factors there that simply will not be replicated elsewhere, at least in full. New Hampshire is famously contrarian to the desires of Iowan Republicans, as shown. It holds an open primary, meaning that Independents can vote, which certainly advantages the more mainstream Haley. It is a Northeastern state, meaning there are fewer hardcore evangelicals who zealously favor Trump. The Republican Governor, Chris Sununu, is wildly popular, has endorsed Haley, and is her chief surrogate. The confluence of all these factors are certainly keys to her success in the Granite State, and are in large measure unique to the state.
On the other hand, the momentum alone of a New Hampshire win, and all the resultant free media, could replace those factors and carry Haley forward on her own – especially in her home state of South Carolina on February 24. (The impact of Nevada’s contests, in early February, will be mitigated given the confusion over the dueling elections, a state-constitutionally-mandated primary on February 6, which is non-binding in terms of delegate selection, oddly followed by GOP-driven caucuses on February 8, which are the contests that count for the count.)
Those of you looking for omens, note this: Iowa has not picked the winning candidate in any of the last three cycles, and has long been a mixed bag on that front. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won, while eventual nominee John McCain came in fourth. Rick Santorum edged out future nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and, as mentioned Cruz defeated Trump in 2016. Other Iowa losers included Ronald Reagan (to George H.W. Bush in 1980) and Bush himself in 1988 (to Bob Dole). In each case, the ultimate nominee won in New Hampshire. But this is one of those trends that seem very meaningful – until they are not.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have finally buried the Iowa caucus as a launching pad, using the 2020 debacle, when reporting system glitches preventing any results at all showing up in prime time, to do away with a state that bears little resemblance to the Democratic coalition. New Hampshire, also lily-white, was also jettisoned, but that has proven a more embarrassing transition. Stubbornly sticking to their state constitution mandates, they are holding a primary that the DNC has ruled will not count in delegate selection, and thus is nothing more than a beauty contest. Joe Biden is sitting it out, as the Dems have given the leadoff slot to the more diverse South Carolina, which (not coincidentally) saved Biden’s campaign in 2020.
We’ll be back with more on New Hampshire on the eve of the primary next week.
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