Why Trump's Iowa Win is Pretty Underwhelming
The results in Iowa reveal some of Trump's general election weaknesses
Well, that was anticlimactic.
Before most caucus-goers even cast their ballots, Donald Trump was declared the Iowa Caucus, beating Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley by about 30 points.
Trump’s victory has been described as “historic,” “massive,” a “rout,” and a “thorough ass-kicking.” It is unquestionably the largest victory in the modern history of the Iowa Caucus. It is also another arrow pointing to Trump’s dominance over a weak and feeble Republican Party. Trump’s margin is an indictment of the miserable campaigns run by Haley, DeSantis, and all of the anti-Trump forces in the GOP. Eight years later, not one of them learned a single lesson from the 2016 Republican Primary when Trump took all of their lunch money. From the perspective of candidate skill, messaging, strategic thinking, and resource allocation, it was a truly embarrassing performance all the way around. Why did Republicans blow the very winnable 2022 midterms? Look at the folks running the DeSantis and Haley campaigns as well the Koch Network that lit millions on fire (and lined their own pockets) trying to beat Trump.
There is nothing in the Iowa results to support even the vaguest notion that Trump could somehow lose the nomination.
Regular Message Box readers know I am a natural pessimist — one of the world’s few “glass is one-tenth empty" people — so unsurprisingly, I long ago stopped analyzing the GOP primary through the prism of who would win. I now operate under the assumption that Trump will be the nominee. Therefore, I am looking at tonight’s results for clues about Trump’s strength against Biden this fall. And from that perspective, Trump’s Iowa victory is not historic; it’s underwhelming.
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1. Poor Showing for an Incumbent
The coverage around the release of the vaunted Des Moines Register poll claimed Trump had the “largest lead ever in the final DMR poll,” which is a particularly weird and picayune statistic to trumpet. The conversation centered around how Trump was on his way to winning Iowa by the largest margin ever. These stats are factually accurate. There is no disputing that. But pundits and reporters keep touting them as “historic.” This suggests that people are continuing to commit the fundamental analytical error about Trump that has colored all of the coverage of this primary for a year.
Donald Trump is not a typical presidential candidate like George W. Bush, John McCain, or John Kerry. For this Republican electorate, who consume a daily buffet of Fox News and other Right Wing media, Trump is an incumbent president running for reelection. According to the entrance polls, 66% of caucus-goers do not believe that Biden won the 2020 election legitimately.
Trump’s incumbent status gives him a massive advantage in name identification and depth of knowledge about his (lack of?) character and (abhorrent?) views. Trump should have won tonight. There is no modern example of an incumbent president losing a nomination fight. When you shift your frame of reference to analyzing this race through the prism of an incumbent president fending off a primary challenge, Trump’s victory last night doesn’t seem so impressive.
The fact that half of Republicans chose someone else should be embarrassing for Trump.
2. Signs of General Election Weakness
Trump’s performance in Iowa once again demonstrated that he is a truly flawed general election candidate.
First, in the Des Moines Register poll, more than a quarter of likely caucus-goers would not vote for Trump if he were the nominee.
These are not soft Republicans, RINOs, or passive political participants; these are Republicans who told the best pollster in the business that they were planning to brave subzero temperatures to go to a two-hour meeting on a Monday night. According to the Pew Validated Voter study, 92% of Republicans voted for Trump. Therefore, his performance in this caucus is a warning sign of erosion within his base.
If that number holds across the battleground states, Trump will struggle mightily to return to the White House.
Second, according to the entrance polls, 32% of caucus participants believe that if convicted, Trump won’t be fit for the presidency. From a moral/common sense perspective, that number is shockingly low, but it does speak to the massive political danger that Trump’s legal problems pose to his candidacy.
3. Low Turnout
In 2016, Republicans set a turnout record with 186,000 caucus participants — up from 119,000 in 2008. Last night, the Iowa Republican Party estimated about 100,000 Iowans — a big drop from just four years ago. Many folks will attribute this shortfall to the frigid weather and the fact that the outcome was never really in doubt. Those factors played a role, but weather alone cannot explain why turnout was cut nearly in half 2016.
Trump is known for cult-like loyalty from his supporters, the ability to generate tremendous enthusiasm among the GOP base, and to bring new Republicans into the political process. None of those were on display last night. Either there is diminished enthusiasm for Trump among all but the most die-hard MAGA voters or Trump’s campaign organization could not get his voters to the polls. Neither is a particularly encouraging sign for Trump supporters.
Trump will be the nominee. He could very well be the next president, but let’s pump the brakes on the idea that winning the Iowa Caucus was some massive demonstration of strength from the two-time loser of the popular vote. You don’t want to draw too many conclusions from 100,000 Iowans. Color me unimpressed by this win.