What’s at Stake at the Iowa Caucuses

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Most at stake on Jan. 15: President Donald Trump’s ‘air of inevitability’ and Ron DeSantis’s viability after year-long, Iowa-intensive campaign.

While the number of delegates at stake in the Iowa Republican caucuses amounts to less than 2 percent of the total at stake in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, the impact of the contest can hardly be overstated.

The victor will lay claim to an early lead, but every candidate’s performance in Iowa will be measured against how they polled heading into the race. The difference between polling versus the final results will gauge who emerges as winners and losers from the Jan. 15 Republican caucuses, the first electoral contest in the 2024 presidential race.

As of Jan. 2, support among likely GOP voters for former President Donald Trump was at exactly 50 percent in 538’s average of Iowa polls, more than 30 points ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 18 percent, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley at 16 percent, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 6 percent.

That means success for the Trump campaign is to notch at least 50 percent of the tally during the one-day caucus when voters from 1,657 Republican precincts gather in about 730 sites across Iowa’s 99 counties to cast ballots beginning at 7 p.m. that Monday evening.

“It is as much an expectation game as it is a reality game, not just in the results but in what you do compared to what people thought you would do,” said Dr. Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor and assistant director of the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.

“For Trump,” he told The Epoch Times, “the expectation is he is going to win a majority of the vote,” at least 50 percent, but “if he wins with more than 50 percent, that will exceed expectations and, by traditional standards, be a big win” considering six other candidates are on the ballot Iowans will see.

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While 50 percent would be “a good win” for the former president, Dr. Jewett said, if “Trump blows [challengers] out of the water” with 60 to 70 percent, “that will put a lot of pressure” on campaigns such as those for Mr. Ramaswamy.

“If the polls in Iowa are correct and Donald Trump overwhelmingly wins the caucuses, Gov. DeSantis and Dr. Haley would be in a very difficult position,” said Dr. Meena Bose, executive dean for public policy and public service programs at the Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

While polling can be inaccurate, when it comes to Iowa, pre-caucus surveys have a reliable track record. The biggest variance in polls taken in the month before the caucus to the actual results was in 2012 when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tally fell 12 percentage points below polling in a tight contest ultimately won in a recount by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.)

“I wouldn’t say it is definitely all over but clearly a major victory for Donald Trump in Iowa would be significant,” Dr. Bose told The Epoch Times.

“It would be very difficult for anyone to derail him if [Trump] was to meet or exceed poll-driven expectations. The pressure would really be on [DeSantis and Haley] to make a strong showing” in New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary,” she said.

A Trump rout “confirms pretty much what polling has shown but it doesn’t sew things up. He did well in his first-at-bat, now onto New Hampshire,” University of Georgia Political Sciences Professor Dr. Charles Bullock III told The Epoch Times.

Few expect to see flagging campaigns fold regardless of how the Iowa caucuses turn out.

While “thorough defeats” in Iowa would damage the DeSantis, Haley, and Ramaswamy campaigns, “they are going to wait until New Hampshire” to make any decisions because New Hampshire elections are conducted “in the more standard way we do politics,” Dr. Bullock said.

“It’s still very early,” Dr. Jewett said. “No matter what the results, most likely DeSantis and Haley will hang in there.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign rally at the Thunderdome in Newton, Iowa, on Dec. 2, 2023. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign rally at the Thunderdome in Newton, Iowa, on Dec. 2, 2023. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DeSantis Has Most At Stake

Dr. Jewett said the stakes are higher for Mr. DeSantis than for any other candidate. The Florida governor has campaigned extensively across the state since last winter, doing the “full Grassley,” stumping in all Iowa’s 99 countries. He’s been endorsed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats, and influential radio commentator Steve Deace.

“Finishing third instead of second, especially with single digits, might be the one scenario where [his campaign] actually say ‘end it,’” he said.

“Finishing third in Iowa is not the way to start out” any electoral campaign but whoever finishes third in Iowa won’t only be “losing steam” with voters but “losing potential donations,” Dr. Marc Clauson, a professor at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, told The Epoch Times.

Dr. Bose said the stakes are also high for Mr. Trump.

“Winning big is important for Trump, it seems. The pressure is really on Trump to do well,” she said because with anything less than 50 percent, “his air of inevitability will disappear” and he could be in for “a three-way race.”

Dr. Bose said happened in the Democrats’ 2008 caucus when “the heavily favored presumed nominee” Hillary Clinton finished third. “Barack Obama had punctured that air of inevitability,” she said, and rolled onto the nomination and two terms in the White House.

Not scoring a resounding victory in Iowa would be “highly problematic for Donald Trump,” she said. “That indicates the polls don’t match up with the ground game in Iowa and raises questions about what is happening in other states.”

“If Trump doesn’t meet expectations—he wins but not as impressively—that really would synch up the race quite dramatically,” Dr. Jewett said. “The polls have been consistent. If he somehow wasn’t to do as well, that would reenergize DeSantis and Haley, particularly whoever finishes second.”

A “strong showing” by the DeSantis and Haley campaigns in Iowa would be “a respectable 15–25 percent” with Mr. Trump failing to top 50 percent, he said.

“From there, they certainly go on to New Hampshire and we’ll see what happens,” Dr. Jewett said.

If Trump falls below the 50-percent threshold and either Mr. DeSantis or Ms. Haley or both each score 30-35 percent, “that is significant,” Dr. Clauson said, and would spur “enthusiasm and donations and a greater ability to reach voters in other states.”

All believe Mr. Trump will win but if he somehow doesn’t finish first, “Losing Iowa doesn’t mean” his campaign is dead, but “given how much Trump has been ahead in polling, that’s going to get everybody’s attention,” Dr. Bullock said.

Undecided voters, donors, and “some Republican leaders, who have not been cheerleaders for [Mr. Trump], will begin to think, ‘Hmmm, maybe he does have feet of clay’ in leading the GOP to general election wins against Democrats, he said.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs campaign materials at a campaign event in Coralville, Iowa, on Dec. 30, 2023. (Austin Alonzo/The Epoch Times)
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs campaign materials at a campaign event in Coralville, Iowa, on Dec. 30, 2023. (Austin Alonzo/The Epoch Times)

Trump Loss A Wake-Up Call—For Democrats

“If Trump were to lose,” Dr. Bullock continued, “it should also be a wake-up call to Democrats sticking with Biden” in 2024 because “he was the only one who could defeat Trump” in 2020.

If Mr. DeSantis or Ms. Haley—both who poll better head-to-head against Mr. Biden than the former president—were to win, Republican voters elsewhere could conclude: “It may be that Trump is the only person who can’t beat Biden,” he said.

If anyone other than Mr. Trump wins “it would completely shake up the race,” Dr. Jewett said. “Then we get voters in other states, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, to begin to entertain the possibility that maybe we should take a second look at these other candidates.

“If Trump wins big, the money is going to begin to dry up for DeSantis and Haley,” he continued. “Conversely, if Trump stumbles, doesn’t do as well, or doesn’t win, the big donors will also begin to look elsewhere.”

“If he can’t win in Iowa, then voters in other states may begin to see him as not the best candidate,” Dr. Clauson agreed, noting as 2024 progresses “these legal issues he is having” could start to weigh on voters more, especially if he falls short of polling expectations.

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy (C) has a selfie with supporters at Jalapeno Pete's Bar at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy (C) has a selfie with supporters at Jalapeno Pete’s Bar at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Does Iowa Really Matter?

The Iowa Caucus is one of more than 50 preliminary contests to be staged nationwide between January and June.

Other than its coveted—and lucrative—spot as the election cycle’s kick-off event, Iowa otherwise is not that pivotal in the grand scheme of things. Thirty states have more electoral votes and five have the same number—six—as Iowa.

Since Mr. Trump kicked off the 2024 Republican presidential campaign in November 2022, at least eight rival campaigns have fallen out of the pack with six coming into the caucus like racing greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit that always wins while the frontrunner has been doing victory laps on his own one-lane track.

It’s already been a long sprint for Republican candidates just to get to the Iowa Caucus. But now, the marathon becomes, without pause, a steeplechase with seven preliminary contests—most notably South Carolina on Feb. 27 and Michigan on March 2—scheduled before March 5 when 16 states conduct their “Super Tuesday” primaries.

“For DeSantis and Haley, the goal would be to win but, short of that, to head to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada with momentum” confirming the primaries will be competitive, Dr. Bose said. “I think by February, we’ll have a better idea.”

The caucuses themselves make uncertainty the only certainty and, in some views, undermine Iowa’s first-in-the-nation vote, Dr. Clauson said.

“The Iowa Caucus is an extraordinary situation. Even though the news media and the polling organizations are all giving Trump these huge leads, the Iowa Caucus could be different because of its nature,” he said.

Republican precinct members, sometimes as few as a dozen, “come together to vote and emerge with a winner” from the ad hoc gatherings, meaning, “You can have an outcome you don’t expect and that is what makes people on edge about Iowa’s caucuses.”

“Caucuses are hard to predict,” Dr. Jewett said. “You don’t know who is going to show up and stick around for hours” with consensus often determined “basically by who is in a particular room, who shows up, who does the talking, and who is more malleable versus who is more unwilling to change.”

Caucuses “are strange creatures” because unanticipated factors—such as which advocate makes the best pitch for a candidate—can influence the outcome, Dr. Bullock said, and turnout could be affected by, say, a snowstorm or if the Kansas City Chiefs, very popular in Iowa, are in a playoff game that night, which is possible.

A boy prepares to leave school before the arrival of Caucus voters at Walnut Hills Elementary School in January 2012 in Urbandale, Iowa. (Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)
A boy prepares to leave school before the arrival of Caucus voters at Walnut Hills Elementary School in January 2012 in Urbandale, Iowa. (Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)

Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

The Iowa caucuses also “have not been terribly good predictors in the past” in signaling which candidate would win the party nomination by summer—especially for Republicans, he said.

None of the winners of the past three Iowa GOP caucuses before Mr. Trump’s unchallenged 2020 campaign went on to be the Republican presidential candidate.

“Iowa is such a strange state,” Dr. Clauson said, noting its evangelical Christian community plays an outsized role in the caucus. “It’s now trending conservative but conservatives in Iowa are not the same elsewhere. [Iowa] may have a significant Trump faction, but I am not convinced they have an overwhelming Trump faction.”

In the unlikely event that Trump doesn’t finish first—or doesn’t like results—at least one thing is certain: Mr. Trump will claim the election “is stolen,” Dr. Bullock said, noting he made the allegation in 2016 after finishing behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

“That seems to be his standard: ‘If I lose, there’s something wrong with the system.’ He’s got that line well-polished,” he said.

If so, Dr. Clauson said, a legal challenge would need to be filed in state court. He would expect “a fast decision in favor of the winning candidate. [Iowa] courts are not going to fiddle with results and call for a re-vote, for a re-caucus. That would be a mess.”

The caucuses will “be competitive,” he said. “Trump may not have a strong win, but I think he will win.”

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