Iowa rarely predicts a winner but Trump may be the exception

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There are two ways to interpret Donald Trump’s cruise to victory in Iowa. The first, which I lean towards, is confirmation that the former president owns the Republican party in a way that no figure has done before. But we have known that for years. It looks as though he has the 2024 nomination wrapped up.

The second interpretation, which cannot be dismissed, is that Iowa is a quirky state that presages nothing. The Midwestern state is routinely bad at predicting what will happen in other primaries. A quick glance at history tells us why: it has only identified the eventual nominee of either party six times in nearly 50 years.

The last time Iowa picked the Republican winner was at the turn of the millennium. For the most recent Republicans, victory in the state’s caucuses has been a better predictor of a career on cable TV. In 2012 it was the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and in 2008 it was the Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Ted Cruz, who won in 2016, remains a US senator but also graces Fox News frequently.

Those three names were natural draws for the state’s heavy evangelical Christian vote. They fared far less well the following week in New Hampshire, where religion is far less of a factor.

Their example is particularly bad news for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the only candidate to visit 99 counties but who finished a distant second on Monday with just a fifth of the vote. Not only was he the natural candidate of the state’s so-called values-based voter, he also threw his campaign’s kitchen sink at the state. DeSantis could hardly expect to do better in New Hampshire. His rapid exit from the field would not be a shock.

It was a less bad night for Nikki Haley because her campaign never bet on winning in Iowa. Her big test will come in New Hampshire, where she has placed most of her chips. If Haley does not pull off at least a strong second to Trump there, her planned breakthrough in South Carolina the following month may turn out to be bathetic.

An interesting test of her expectations is whether she finally removes the proverbial gloves in the next few days and attacks Trump directly. In her speech to supporters on Monday night, she showed signs she was ready to go after America’s 45th president. But if she persists with the weak-tea approach, it would be a sign that she is keeping her options open to be Trump’s running mate.

Having been raised in the only immigrant family in a South Carolina town, Haley is tough and capable of bare-knuckled politics. Yet she routinely ducks opportunities to assail Trump’s character. Her refusal in response to a recent question to say that the American civil war was fought over slavery spoke volumes about her fear of offending Maga Republicans.

If Trump had any downsides on Monday night, it was the relatively low turnout. With his heavily rural base and a wind-chill factor of minus 30C, the absence of enthusiasm may be unsurprising. But it suggests there are limits to the cultish devotion of his fans.

Yet his margin of victory was unprecedented. Here, both interpretations arrive at the same answer. Trump won the caucuses by about 30 percentage points. The previous largest margin of victory was George W Bush’s 11 percentage points in 2000. Whether or not Iowa is predictive, Trump still looks set to sweep the table. The only question is whether Haley’s baring of teeth on Monday night is a sign she has finally decided to go for his jugular.

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