Former president sweeps early contests as he moves closer to GOP nomination
Former President Donald Trump cemented his frontrunner status in the Republican presidential primaries with decisive victories in the Iowa caucuses on January 15 and the New Hampshire primary on January 23. The primary field, which began with over a dozen candidates, has narrowed to just two: Trump and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. The next contests in the race will take place in Nevada and South Carolina in February.
Since announcing his campaign in November 2022 after the midterm elections, Trump has consistently led in public opinion polling, though Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ran closely behind him at the onset of the race. Trump was the first major Republican to announce his candidacy for president and was later followed by 12 other candidates, including DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and Nikki Haley.
By the fall of 2023, Trump had consolidated his lead in the polls and held consistent advantages in the early nominating states, building large leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. In the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, just four candidates remained in the race: Trump, Haley, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy.
The January 15 Iowa caucus was the first contest of the primary cycle. The state was seen as a must-win for DeSantis, who had the support of much of the state’s political establishment, including Governor Kim Reynolds. In a contest described by National Review as DeSantis’ “Waterloo,” the Florida governor placed his hopes for victory in Iowa on support from socially conservative evangelicals and college-educated voters. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also campaigned heavily in the state, visiting every one of Iowa’s 99 counties at least two times. In contrast, former President Trump and Ambassador Haley held fewer events, though both increased their presence on the ground in the week leading up to the caucuses.
In the end, Waterloo proved an apt analogy for DeSantis. The former president crushed DeSantis by 30 points, winning every county in the state except for Johnson County, which he lost to Nikki Haley by just one vote. Entrance polls of the caucus showed Trump dominating with every demographic group, especially women, evangelicals, voters without a college degree, and those who described themselves as “very conservative.”
Vivek Ramaswamy immediately suspended his campaign after a distant fourth place finish and endorsed Trump. DeSantis initially vowed to stay in the race, arguing that he had “punched his ticket out of Iowa,” but suspended his campaign six days later on January 21 and pledged to support Trump. Final results showed Trump winning 51% of the vote to 21.2% for DeSantis, 19.1% for Haley, and 7.7% for Ramaswamy. Turnout, which was significantly down from past caucuses, was likely dampened by historic freezing temperatures.
Zane Zachary, a Notre Dame sophomore who interned for the DeSantis campaign, reacted to news of the Florida governor’s departure from the race (and consequent loss of his internship via a Twitter video) with disappointment. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the announcement was “inevitable” due to DeSantis’ poor performance in Iowa. He said that he still believes that DeSantis “remains a highly qualified candidate” and hopes that he “plays a significant role in the next Republican presidential administration.” He added that he now plans to vote for Donald Trump in the primary of his home state, Colorado, assuming Trump is reinstated on the ballot there.
A little over a week later, the race—now a showdown between Trump and Haley—moved to New Hampshire. The Haley campaign justified their relatively light presence in Iowa with a big bet on winning in the Granite State. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Haley supporter, confidently predicted that she would “win in a landslide.” Some polls of the state had Haley within striking distance of Trump due to her strong support among independents and moderate Republicans, two groups that make up a large share of the New Hampshire electorate. New Hampshire’s semi-closed primary, which allows unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary of their choice, was also viewed as favorable for Haley.
If Iowa was DeSantis’ Waterloo, New Hampshire might have ended up as Haley’s Battle of the Bulge. Trump won convincingly, beating Haley by 11 points and over 36,000 votes and dominating in traditionally conservative areas of the state. Haley, aided by the crossover votes of Democrat-leaning voters, won in some urban areas such as Concord and Dover as well as liberal strongholds like Hanover. Exit polls showed Trump performing best with young voters, registered Republicans, those who supported a federal ban on abortion, and weekly churchgoers. Haley did best with self-identified Democrats, college-graduates, and those who cited foreign policy as their top issue. After the race was called, Haley vowed to continue her campaign into South Carolina while Trump called on her to drop out.
Next month’s contests include the Nevada caucus on February 8 and the South Carolina primary on February 24. Both campaigns have placed a special emphasis on winning South Carolina, where Haley served as governor from 2011 to 2017. However, polls show an overwhelming lead for Trump in the state; the polling aggregate FiveThirtyEight shows Trump up 37 points on Haley and holding steady with 62% of the vote. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump also enjoys the nearly unanimous support of the state’s Republican establishment, including the endorsements of Governor Henry McMaster and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.
With South Carolina’s position as simultaneously both the last stand of anti-Trump forces and also a relatively uncompetitive contest, Trump appears set to face Joe Biden again in a rematch this November. If there’s one thing Americans have learned over the last eight years, it’s that anything can happen in politics. But to quote Taylor Swift, one can’t be blamed for beginning to wonder— “Is It Over Now?”
Shri Thakur is a sophomore studying economics with a minor in Constitutional Studies. When he’s not meticulously tracking 2024 election polls, he can usually be found watching an old-fashioned movie. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Liam Enea. Via Wikimedia Commons
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