Impressions from Iowa and the Inevitability of Donald Trump

 /  Jan. 22, 2024, 7:32 p.m.

Iowa Events Center, Jan. 15th, 2024

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

For one day every four years, the entire country looks to Iowa. Presidential candidates fight over farmers for endorsements like they’re influencers and Des Moines becomes the kind of place where you could run into Billionaire Governor JB Pritzker at Starbucks. You’ve both ordered dirty iced Chai lattes, extra ice.

Being on the ground in Iowa, the ‘raucous’ that is the caucus hits you in doses. The weather is all-consuming: at ten below zero, news outlets report that 2024 was the coldest Iowa caucus in history. Bundled beyond belief, constantly receiving texts from family about catching frostbite, you run into your caucus location directly at 7 p.m. It looks like any other middle school: an auditorium, lockers, anti-bullying signs made by students adorn the halls. Then the speeches start and you realize that Florida’s attorney general has traveled to this same auditorium at McCombs Middle School in Southern Des Moines to deliver a 2-minute speech on behalf of Governor Ron DeSantis. The news is happening right in front of you. 

I was expecting the Iowa Caucuses to be a bloodbath. I packed my bag with apolitical colors, got a COVID booster days before, and braced myself for neighbors screaming misinformation and ad hominem at one another within high school gymnasiums. The reality was the complete opposite: a democratic, efficient, anticlimactic political experience. 

Overwhelmingly, Iowans seemed to respond most favorably to common sense, good faith arguments. When the speaker who spoke for Trump began his two-minute speech, he didn’t defame the other candidates or even attack Biden. He spoke about going to a rally, believing in Trump, and saying that while all the candidates were good in his opinion, he saw value in reelecting someone familiar with the job— as opposed to a newcomer who would need a couple years to learn the ropes and protocols. 

Haley’s advocate talked up her record, and DeSantis’ speaker spoke about her experience of working under the Governor and how much legislation he had passed during his tenure in office. The caucus officiator passed around an envelope for caucus goers to deposit their voting slips, and like any other school election for student body president that had taken place in that same auditorium years before, the caucus was over in twenty minutes. 

The truth of the caucuses is that, for most Iowans, it is just another day in their lives. As the other Gate writers and I were finishing up dinner at a local restaurant in Clive, Iowa, we asked our waitress if she was planning on caucusing. She was wiping down the bar, and with three 60-inch LG TVs above her, consecutively playing the same DeSantis attack ad, she asked “What’s that?” Our Uber driver from the state capitol to the Iowa events center expressed a similar tone of indifference: saying that she saw no point in caucusing because “They’ve already decided who won.”

This indifference amongst Iowans was evident in the results. With a turnout of around 110,000 voters, the 2024 Iowa caucus reflected a depressed electorate in comparison to 2016 (around 187,000) and 2012 (around 122,000). This was due, in part, to the extreme weather, but also to the unspoken predictability of the results. 

Inevitability has been the overarching theme of Trump's third campaign for the GOP nomination. Though Trump abstained from the two debates that preceded the caucus and significantly reduced his campaign appearances from 323 (in the 2016 campaign cycle) to only 93 so far (in the 2024 campaign cycle), Donald Trump emerged early in the night as the unequivocal winner. 

Trump, running as an insurgent incumbent, finished the caucus with 51% of the vote, 98 of the 99 counties, and major news outlets called his victory within 31 minutes of the caucuses opening. 

At 10 p.m. local time, Trump delivered his victory speech. His tone was confident, if not eerily professional. 

“We want to thank the great people of Iowa thank you…I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a good a good time together, we’re all having a good time together, and I think they both actually did very well…There are very smart, very capable people,” said Trump.

Trump’s victory speech marked a change in rhetoric for him. He sounded reserved and his message was one of unity, despite his years-long reputation for being a divisive, discriminating political force.  

DeSantis’ closing speech also gave way to a new tone, but this time he echoed the type of conspiratorial speech that we’ve come to expect from Trump. In light of news organizations calling the caucus for Trump before thousands of Iowans officially voted, DeSantis’ communications director Andrew Romeo released a statement calling into question election security and media bias in caucus coverage. “Absolutely outrageous that the media would participate in election interference by calling the race before tens of thousands of islands even had the chance to vote. The media is the tank for Trump, and this is the most egregious example yet,” Romeo said

Though DeSantis came in second, it was not the night that his campaign had been hoping for. After relocating a third of his campaign staff to Iowa and visiting all 99 counties, DeSantis was banking on a significant second place finish and for Haley to suspend her bid by the end of the night. DeSantis did take home second, but at a much softer percentage of the vote than preferred: DeSantis with 21% of the vote and Haley with 19%. This ending was a best case scenario for the Trump campaign, as both DeSantis and Haley maintained enough incentive to stay in the race, and by consequence, further divided Republican voters in search of a Trump alternative.

Perfectly on cue, at 10:20 p.m. on caucus night, Biden addressed Trump’s Iowa victory and proceeded to ask for donations over Twitter for the anti-MAGA fight.

“Looks like Donald Trump just won Iowa. He’s the clear front runner on the other side at this point. But here’s the thing: this election was always going to be you and me vs. extreme MAGA Republicans. It was true yesterday and it’ll be true tomorrow. So if you’re with us, chip in now,” Biden said.

With no viable path to the presidency remaining, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced on Jan. 21 that he would be suspending his presidential campaign. This strategic decision has reshaped the Republican primary landscape into a two-man race, pitting former President Donald Trump against challenger Nikki Haley. The upcoming New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23 is poised to serve as a pivotal moment, offering insight into the trajectory of the remaining Republican primary season. The key question looms: Will former DeSantis supporters rally behind Haley, intensifying the competition, or will they reverberate back to Trump, potentially foreclosing the primary contest?

These questions will be answered soon, and with Iowa 2024 now in the rear view, the caucuses will be remembered as the kind of bona fide politicking that you learn about in Introduction to American Politics. Politicians kissing babies, showing up at local ice cream shops, and hounding you for your vote [and wallet] over text.

The image in this article is licensed for noncommercial use under CC0 1.0. It was created by Chip Somodevilla and has not been modified from its original form found here.

Chelsea Seifer


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