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Iowa was Trump’s to win. Can anyone stop his march to the nomination?

The race for the Republican nomination heads to New Hampshire, where the pressure is on for Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis to wrest a win from the former president

Former president Donald Trump arrives at his caucus night watch party at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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DES MOINES — Iowa was never destined to surprise. The caucuses were always Donald Trump’s to win, and he did that easily Monday night, beginning what could be a quick march to the Republican presidential nomination and a likely rematch against President Biden in the November general election.

Trump vanquished his principal challengers, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who battled until late in the evening, when DeSantis was projected to finish ahead of her. If there are to be obstacles in Trump’s path, they will have to come soon — in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.

Even an unexpected loss next week wouldn’t necessarily be enough to stop Trump, unless someone — Haley or DeSantis — can quickly assemble a coalition capable of wresting the nomination away from the former president. Neither of them can claim that at this point, though historically the dynamics of races have changed quickly.

Does anyone really expect an upset considering Trump’s lead in the polls has been both strong and stable for many months? After a dip in his standing after the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans underperformed expectations and Trump’s favored candidates fared badly, the former president quickly retook command of the party and the nomination contest. Ironically he was aided by four indictments in four jurisdictions, including two cases involving his efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election.

Trump wore those felony counts — 91 in total — as badges of honor, and Republican voters responded by flocking to him. The indictments presage a general-election campaign in which courtrooms will compete with campaign rallies to define the personalities of the two likely candidates as well as one of the major choices for voters, which is whether they view Trump as a threat to democracy.

Preliminary results from an entrance poll of caucus participants illustrated the degree to which Trump owns his party. Asked whether Biden was legitimately elected in 2020, about 2 in 3 said he was not, siding with Trump’s false but persistent claim that the election was rife with fraud — “stolen,” in his words.

A related question asked whether these caucus-goers would consider Trump fit to be president if he were convicted of a crime. More than 6 in 10 said yes, and he was winning about 7 in 10 of those Iowans.

Those issues will be adjudicated if the general election presents voters with a choice between Biden and Trump. Biden has already made clear that he will make the case against Trump as a threat to democracy in what could be the core argument in his bid for reelection.

Those issues, however, have never really been a part of the Republican campaign, neither in Iowa nor anywhere else. Over nearly a year of campaigning, neither DeSantis nor Haley — nor, frankly, any of the other candidates except former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson — took direct aim on Trump on his indictments. At times they took his side by arguing that he was the victim of a weaponized Justice Department.

For all the time and money invested by the candidates and attention paid to the state by the news media, Iowa has never been a great predictor of the future. The last non-incumbent Republican to win the caucuses and go on to win the nomination was George W. Bush in 2000. This year could be different, absent a sudden and significant shift in the dynamics of the campaign. That is what makes New Hampshire so critical.

This is not a replica of the 2020 Democratic race, in which Biden ran fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada before winning easily in South Carolina with the overwhelming support of Black voters and going on to secure the nomination. Trump’s challengers must strike quickly — otherwise his Iowa victory could begin the same kind of consolidation around him, which would add to the pressure on Haley and DeSantis to fall in line.

If Trump wins New Hampshire, he will be the first non-incumbent Republican to carry the first two states on the calendar since the caucuses gained prominence in the 1970s. Stopping him after that will become more difficult by the week.

New Hampshire offers Haley her best opportunity to embarrass Trump. Though he won the state’s first-in-the-nation primary eight years ago after losing in Iowa, Haley has been gaining ground on him in recent weeks.

A University of New Hampshire poll for CNN released last week showed her seven percentage points behind Trump. Other New Hampshire polls give him a bigger lead. Iowa’s results often have some impact on New Hampshire voters, but sometimes to move the nominating contest in a different direction.

What gives Haley an opportunity in New Hampshire is that the electorate there is more moderate than in Iowa. In 2016, 40 percent of Iowa caucus-goers said they were very conservative, while 26 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters identified themselves the same way. More than 6 in 10 in Iowa’s 2016 caucuses identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. In New Hampshire, the percentage was 25 percent.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley addressed supporters following her third place finish in the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Beyond that, independent or unaffiliated voters historically play a bigger role in New Hampshire. With the Democratic primary there a nonevent — Biden is not on the ballot, but there is a write-in effort on his behalf — independents looking to slow down the former president could choose to participate in the Republican primary and cast ballots for Haley.

The Iowa poll released Saturday showed Trump leading among independents, with Haley within a few percentage points. But among Republicans, Trump was winning more than 50 percent, with Haley and DeSantis far behind.

In the UNH poll for CNN, Trump led Haley 39 percent to 32 percent. Among Republicans, his lead over her was 58 percent to 21 percent. Among independents, Haley led Trump 43 percent to 17 percent. So, a big influx of independents in New Hampshire next Tuesday could put Haley in a position to win.

Independents helped John McCain defeat Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary and will be key to Haley’s hopes of winning the Granite State. But as McCain showed in 2000, winning the nomination without significant Republican support is nearly impossible, and Haley shows no sign yet of challenging Trump for Republican votes.

McCain faltered in states where the electorate was open only to Republicans or where voters tilted sharply in a conservative direction. That’s potentially what awaits Haley. But her hope, buoyed by late polls showing her overtaking DeSantis for second, was to emerge Monday night in Iowa well ahead of the Florida governor and hold Trump’s margin below what the polls had shown. Through most of the evening, however, Haley and DeSantis were effectively tied.

Regardless of what happens in New Hampshire, the following contests continue to favor Trump. South Carolina is Haley’s home state, but the Trump campaign is prepared, if necessary, to flood the airwaves there with negative ads in an attempt to put her at odds with the state’s conservative Republican electorate. A loss in her home state would be crippling for Haley.

For DeSantis, survival was his priority in the closing days in Iowa. After dropping in the polls, he was badgered repeatedly with questions about whether a poor showing in the caucuses would force him out of the race. He insisted he would persevere regardless of his finish in Iowa, though New Hampshire is potentially hostile territory for him, for the same reasons it is fertile ground for Haley.

Though he is not in office, Trump has run in this campaign as an incumbent, a former president on a quest to reclaim the Oval Office. That is what makes this opening phase of the election year, the period when intraparty battles take precedence over the issues that will animate general-election voters, different from the past and why the general election is as much on the minds of people as the primaries.

Given the sour state of the country, the disaffection among many voters, the open talk by Trump of using a second term in office to extract retribution and the stakes for the country, it’s no surprise that people are looking past the primaries. The Biden campaign is as eager for a focus on November as Trump is to claim that the Republican nomination contest is over.

Everything has pointed and continues to point toward the fall election, a 2020 rematch that many Americans say they don’t want. Iowa did nothing to suggest something other than the prewritten script. The next few weeks will bring the picture into focus more definitively.

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