For the first time since I’ve been covering politics, the Iowa caucuses are… a snoozer. It’s hard to get excited about a contest where the frontrunner is leading by more than 30 points. No one I’ve spoken with who is involved at any level with the Republican presidential contest thinks former President Donald Trump will lose. The only mildly interesting speculation involves the size of Trump’s win and whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has staked the fate of his campaign on the state, will come in second or third place behind former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
But that doesn’t mean the outcome is insignificant. In particular, here are a couple of things I will be watching for on Monday night:
To me, Trump’s margin of victory is less important than whether he gets a majority of the vote. And it’s not just because four of the last five polls show Trump at or about that threshold. (I am writing this on Wednesday, before the final NBC/DesMoines Register poll has been released.)
For months now, the opposition to Trump has argued that his core base of support is more malleable than it seems. The theory of the case is that while most Republicans like Trump, his floor is more like 35-45% than 45% or greater. The candidate capable of putting together a coalition of “Never Trump” Republicans (who make up anywhere from 15-20% of the electorate) and “Sometimes Trump” Republicans (who are about 35%-50%) of the electorate, can beat the former president in a one-on-one contest. That theory, however, goes out the window if he rolls up a majority of the vote.
What would an “underperformance” for Trump look like? The largest margin of victory in a Republican caucus was Bob Dole’s 12-point victory over Pat Buchanan in 1988 (eventual nominee George H. W. Bush came in 3rd place). If Trump doesn’t at least hit that margin, that would be considered a failure. For the record, the closest any Republican candidate has come to hitting 50% in a competitive caucus was George W. Bush in 2000, who took 41% — 10 points ahead of businessman Steve Forbes.
The biggest challenge in front of Haley isn’t just beating out DeSantis for second place. It’s proving that she can win over the kinds of voters she’ll need to be successful in South Carolina. A second-place showing certainly gives Haley a boost of momentum going into New Hampshire. But to ensure that she can remain competitive post-New Hampshire, she needs to perform better than expected among evangelical, very conservative, non-college educated, and Republican voters. Why? Because the South Carolina electorate looks much more like Iowa than New Hampshire. For example, according to 2016 exit polls, just 25% of New Hampshire voters identified themselves as evangelical, and 42% identified as independent. In Iowa and South Carolina, two-thirds of the electorate identify as evangelical, and only 20-22% call themselves independent.
The weather report for the state looks downright miserable and bone-chillingly cold for the coming week. Combine that with polling that shows Trump way ahead, and it’s easy to understand why many Iowa Republicans, as hardy as they are, may choose to stay home.
But, turnout is also a proxy for enthusiasm writ large. For months now, polling has shown Republicans are much more interested in this upcoming election than Democrats are. Does this translate into actual votes? The caucuses will be our first chance to see that. In 2016, Republicans set a turnout record of 180,000 voters. The state is even more Republican-leaning today than it was 8 years ago.
Late this afternoon, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced at a New Hampshire town hall event that he was dropping out of the race. While his absence will be a help to Haley in New Hampshire (a recent UNH/CNN survey showed that two-thirds of Christie voters picked Haley as their second choice), Christie did not endorse her. Moreover, just minutes before the townhall, a “hot mic” captured Christie telling those around him that “she’s going to get smoked.”
Even if Christie were to embrace Haley, it wouldn’t solve her bigger challenge, which as I noted earlier is her inability to appeal to a more “traditional” Republican primary audience like the one she’ll see in South Carolina. The CNN/UNH poll, for example, finds Haley winning almost 50% of those New Hampshire voters who define themselves as independent or Democratic, but just 27% among Republicans. Among moderates, who are a much smaller share of the South Carolina and Iowa electorate, Haley is getting 55%. But among conservatives, who make up a larger share of the South Carolina electorate than the New Hampshire electorate, Haley gets just 20%, compared to Trump’s 60%.
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