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Trump aims to break caucus records, but Iowa sometimes surprises

The former president is the heavy favorite, zapping some suspense ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, but Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are angling for a surprise showing

An image of former president Donald Trump on the side of a tour bus outside a gathering of the Bull Moose Conservative Club on Thursday in Urbandale, Iowa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
8 min

DES MOINES — Donald Trump’s expected march to the Republican presidential nomination will begin Monday night in snowy, frigid Iowa. Everything suggests that the competition could be short and uneventful. On this final weekend before the quadrennial caucuses, Iowa normally pulses with energy. This year, it lacks both the drama and suspense of years past.

That doesn’t mean candidates aren’t campaigning — or trying to. They are, but much of the intensity that existed despite the former president’s overwhelming lead in the polls was zapped by a Friday snowstorm and a subsequent plunge in temperatures, which has forced the cancellation of many events.

Forecasts for caucus night say the wind chill could hit 20 degrees below zero, raising questions about who will show up Monday and who won’t. Final polls show Trump well ahead, which means the battle for second is the animating competition.

The final Iowa poll, conducted by Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom, showed Trump leading with 48 percent of the vote, followed by former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley at 20 percent and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 16 percent. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was at 8 percent, and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson was polling at 1 percent.

DeSantis and Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, are trying to one-up the other. A third-place finish would be more costly for DeSantis, given Haley’s advantage in New Hampshire, which holds the next contest, a Jan. 23 primary. But a third-place finish for Haley would run counter to the idea that she has some momentum.

The fact that the battle for second is as much the focus of attention as anything else speaks volumes about the state of the Republican Party in the Trump era. That’s another reason this isn’t a normal pre-caucus weekend. Maybe there will be a surprise. Some candidates have surged near the end of Iowa campaigns — Rick Santorum in 2012 is the classic case — but it would take a historic rise for Haley or DeSantis to threaten Trump’s lead.

Still, Iowa will offer the first voter-based results of Republican sentiment after many months of polls and punditry. Several metrics will define Monday’s results, beginning with the performance by the front-runner. Trump, who has campaigned far less in Iowa than his rivals, hopes to break the record for the biggest margin of victory by a Republican in the caucuses by besting Bob Dole’s 12-point win over Pat Robertson in 1988.

Beyond that, Trump could become the first Republican to win an outright majority of the vote in a multicandidate caucus. With two asterisks, the closest any candidate — Republican or Democrat — has come to a majority was in the 1984 Democratic caucus, when Walter F. Mondale captured 49 percent of the vote to Gary Hart’s 17 percent.

(The asterisks: Tom Harkin won 76 percent in the 1992 caucuses, but only because the other Democratic candidates had ceded Iowa to him because he was a popular senator from the state. In 2000, Al Gore won 63 percent, but that was a two-person race, against Bill Bradley.)

Understanding the Iowa caucuses and why they’re important to the election

Mondale’s Iowa victory led some analysts to suggest he was all but unbeatable for the nomination. The following week, he lost New Hampshire to Hart. Their contest lasted all the way to the final primaries in June, with Mondale ultimately prevailing. Other eventual nominees have stumbled in New Hampshire after winning in Iowa — Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Haley is looking to New Hampshire to deliver the kind of upset that has happened there before. Polls in the Granite State show her climbing toward Trump with DeSantis falling further behind. Trump, however, will be seeking to become the first Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. If he succeeds in that, the likely outcome of the Republican contest will clear, even if Haley and DeSantis continue to compete.

Two Iowa counties illustrate America's political divide

But that’s in the future. The focus for the next few days will be on Iowa and on three storylines: Can Trump’s organization attract a big influx of first-time caucus goers and deliver a huge victory? Can Haley finally surpass DeSantis for second place — and, if she does, can she finish at all close to Trump? Can DeSantis, who has put everything into Iowa, prove wrong all those who say his campaign has been such a mess that he could soon be written off?

Trump’s team is reluctant to entertain questions about his performance, other than to show confidence that his margin of victory will be bigger than Dole’s in 1988. They hesitate to talk about the consequences of a closer-than-expected finish or to set expectations too high. But should the former president, who dominates his party, be satisfied finishing with less than a majority of the vote here?

Trump’s legal problems seem to have only boosted enthusiasm for his candidacy among his loyalists. He faces four indictments and 91 felony counts, including two indictments charging him with attempting to subvert the 2020 election. He has talked openly about using the powers of the presidency to go after opponents. He has said a second term would be about retribution. Extinguishing the threats he poses is the central theme of President Biden’s reelection campaign.

It isn’t hard to find Republicans here who don’t want Trump as their nominee. They have been showing up at campaign rallies for DeSantis and Haley. Haley campaigned Thursday in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, and when those in the audience were asked how many were seeing her for the first time, well more than half raised their hands — an indication that she may be drawing late interest from Iowans, if not support.

Given her gains in polls, Haley has captured the imaginations of many people opposed to Trump. Nancy Sorenson, a retired accountant from Ankeny, voted twice for Trump but said she will caucus for Haley. She said that “the negativity” and “the chaos that follows him” have turned her away from Trump. “It’s like the man doesn’t know when to stop,” she said.

John Brown of Johnston, Iowa, is a Republican but has long opposed Trump. He did not vote for him in either 2016 or 2020. His wife, Shelly, is a longtime Democrat. Both said they will support Haley in the caucuses.

“My ancestors have fought in the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War, in the Korean War,” John Brown said. “They would be pretty distressed seeing what Trump wants to do to our democracy.”

“I'd like to see Trump get beat however it needs to happen,” Shelly Brown said. “I think she's the person who can do it.”

She said that if the general election is a contest between Trump and Biden, she will vote for Biden. But not without some reservations. “I think he’s a good person. I think he’s older,” she said. “And the one thing that scares me is I’m not a fan of [Vice President] Kamala Harris, and if something happens to him. I don’t want her running our country.”

At a DeSantis event Thursday near Des Moines, Laura Hannam, a dental hygienist and regular caucus goer, said she was still undecided. She is weighing whether to support Ramaswamy, who is running a distant fourth in polls but whose outsider status appeals to her, or DeSantis, whose endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds impressed her.

Hannam, too, has soured on Trump. “I thought he did a good job [as president],” she said. “But I didn’t like the way he went down on January 6th,” referring to the 2021 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. She said Trump should have acknowledged his defeat and come back to run again. Had he done that, she said, he would be in position to win in November.

Whether there are enough such caucus-goers — onetime Trump supporters who want the country to move on from his chaos or never-Trump Republicans who see him as a threat to the country — to embarrass the heavy favorite on Monday night is the question of the hour.

Trump advisers are planning for a quick run through the four early states — Nevada and South Carolina coming after Iowa and New Hampshire — and then effectively claiming the nomination in early March. Those who thought at the start of 2023 that he was vulnerable to a challenge for the nomination have spent the past 12 months failing to demonstrate that he is. Monday night will be the first test.