- 29.8%: The margin of victory in Donald Trump’s Iowa Caucuses win
- 31: The number of minutes after the start of the First in the Nation Iowa Caucuses before the AP called the race (before many precincts had even cast a vote)
- 49%: The share of Iowa Republican Caucus voters who cast a vote for someone other than Donald Trump
- 98: The number of counties won by Donald Trump (out of 99)
- 21,085: The number of ballots cast for Nikki Haley
- 23,420: The number of ballots cast for Ron DeSantis
THE IOWA CAUCUSES – A LOVE STORY
Strategic Elements prides itself on our Iowa roots, and naturally, our founders started their careers as young field reps in the First in the Nation Iowa Caucuses (in fact, they spent their first year of wedded bliss working the Caucuses – that’s one crazy honeymoon period!). In this week’s edition of The Weekender, enjoy some perspectives you won’t see elsewhere. And forgive our home team pride and unabashed affection for what is clearly, undeniably, and most obviously the world’s greatest political event.
Tell me again, why was every conceivable news outlet apparently freezing their tails off in Iowa this week?
The Iowa Caucuses are the first nominating contest for the presidential campaign. When an incumbent president is running, the Caucuses are a bigger deal for the opposing party (Republicans this year). For their part, Democrats are still figuring things out on their calendar, but that’s for a different edition. A caucus is a precinct-level political party meeting. In the early 70s, Iowa started taking a “straw poll” at these meetings to gauge the strength of potential candidates (this was at the beginning of the move away from convention-based nominations). Enterprising politicos quickly sensed an opportunity for their candidates to get a leg up and an international political spectacle was truly born when a little-known peanut farmer and Allman Brothers fan from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, set up camp in Iowa in 1975 and rode his victory all the way to the White House. Since then, Iowa’s role has evolved: the Caucuses generally do not choose the ultimate nominee – or the next president. Their job is to winnow the field down to a more manageable size for the rest of the nominating contests to sort out.
For well-known candidates, the Caucuses serve as a gauntlet that tests their mettle and shows if they are as good as their carefully crafted images and resumes would lead us to believe. For lesser-known hopefuls, they provide an opportunity to appeal directly to savvy voters and potentially break through to national prominence. For candidates with a new message, issue or style, the Caucuses can reveal emerging trends that resonate with voters – or divide them.
The process rewards those who connect with the party’s stalwart activists (only about 1 in 5 registered Republicans make the effort to attend their Caucus) who are adept at sniffing out those not ready for the spotlight. It is grueling – with scores of trips to a state that offers scorching summers and brutal winters – with as many seven townhall meetings a day. The old trope, “I’m not sure if I’m ready to vote for him. I’ve only talked to him four times” still largely holds true.
Many candidates don’t even make it to the starting line, let alone make their way to winning one of the vaunted “three tickets out of Iowa.” But that’s the beauty of it. It’s not a perfect system, but it makes candidates work and stretch and prove themselves to voters (or not) in ways a simple primary does not. Getting tens of thousands of people to show up to 1,657 precinct meetings at 7pm in extremely cold conditions, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and invocation, patiently listen to representatives for each candidate running, then write the name of the candidate they support on a slip of paper, requires a candidate who connects, a message that resonates, a sophisticated campaign operation, and very dedicated supporters. And that’s why the Iowa Caucuses play such an outsized role – they not only winnow the field, but they make candidates and campaigns better.
OUR TAKE ON MONDAY’S RESULTS
Thoughts from an Iowa Politico: John Stineman
As a topic of conversation, the Iowa Caucuses are second only to Iowa’s weather and the week leading up to the vote gave people plenty to discuss. Iowa went from Christmas in the fifties to two feet of snow accompanied by fierce winds and bone-chilling temperatures that left campaigns scrambling to replace scrubbed events and ensure their supporters still made it to their Caucus locations. Accordingly, turnout was lower than the past two contests (‘16 and ‘12), but on par or better than previous years. There are usually three stories coming out of Iowa: who won, who exceeded expectations, and who underperformed. Trump won, and he won big, setting a new record with 51% of the vote – effectively voting his polling (nearly double his share in 2016). It’s clear that Trump had his act together this time around with a far more sophisticated campaign operation that leveraged his legendary rallies to fortify a strong turnout operation. Trump won 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties, but notably, he did considerably better in more rural areas. Margins were narrower (sometimes even tight) in suburban and urban areas, perhaps something to watch in coming primaries and something he will need to address in the general should he be the nominee.
Ron DeSantis’s second place finish was ahead of his polling – generally a sign of a strong ground game, which he had through the SuperPAC backing his candidacy. The other factor was the endorsement from – and strong campaigning by – Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Her endorsement and campaigning were meaningful in a campaign that otherwise struggled through the fall and early winter. The question for DeSantis is, where does he go from here? He is polling in single digits in New Hampshire and still struggling nationally. He got a boost coming out of Iowa, it’s just not clear where he can apply it.
With her solid third place finish, Nikki Haley slightly overperformed her polling, which is a feather in her cap given her late start putting together a ground game in the state. While a second place finish would have given her a major boost heading into New Hampshire, Haley is still enjoying (and certainly claiming) some lift coming out of Iowa. Having started in single digits in the sprint, a 19.1% finish is impressive. Most importantly, polls in New Hampshire have her closing in on Trump and give credence to her claim as the alternative to Trump. She comes out of Iowa with wings, if not the rocket she was hoping to have.
Side note: a lot of analysis will be done on just how much time, energy and money was spent in Iowa between Haley and DeSantis attacking each other – and not on the candidate who bested them by 30 points.
Enter New Hampshire where the past is prologue; until it’s not. Students of the game know that candidates who win Iowa are destined to lose New Hampshire. It doesn’t even matter why, it’s simply true. Unless Trump, not one to let history get in his way, makes it untrue. If Haley can capitalize on a narrowed field and less attention (on and from) DeSantis, who is in single digits there, and beat Trump, New Hampshire’s “never follow Iowa’s lead” axiom will hold true. If not, Trump breaks yet another norm.
Which brings us to another axiom: the eventual nominee always wins two of the first three contests (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina).
This one will either stand or get a modifier. If Haley can beat Trump in New Hampshire, then ride that momentum into her home state of South Carolina for a win there, she would at least have a chance to go all the way. The 2 out of 3 axiom would hold.
However, if Trump wins New Hampshire he has his two wins – and he is currently well ahead in the polls in South Carolina. A win there would break the axiom – or at least modify it to “the eventual nominee always wins AT LEAST two out of the first three contests.”
We will know soon enough.
A Deep Dive into Trump’s Iowa Voter Base
The big news this week wasn’t that Trump won Iowa, but that he won counties and demographics that chose other candidates in the past two presidential election cycles. Places like Larchwood, Iowa, which presented a win to Ted Cruz in 2016, turned their gaze to Trump this year. Much like 2016, precincts with high levels of college graduates did not give Trump the W this week, but places with lower levels of college education ran to him in droves. Places like Story County (home to Iowa State University) and Johnson County (home of the University of Iowa) didn’t send him more than 36% of their votes. The counties with the lowest share of four-year college degrees gave him 62% of the vote, versus the 29% bestowed on him in 2016.
Ted Cruz was the favorite for the evangelicals in 2016, when the highly religious counties were cruising for Cruz and bruising for Trump. This year, those areas offered Trump 58% of their caucus vote. Trump also scored 65% of the low-income vote, a 36-point boost from his 2016 scorecard.
In short, Trump’s base has grown over the eight years since he first appeared on a ballot. It appears the red vote is willing to overlook his red flags, including the Supreme Court’s February 8 arguments to determine whether states can remove Trump from the ballot, citing the Constitution’s 14th Amendment insurrection clause, because of his activity in the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill.
Inside View: What’s it Like to Chair an Iowa Caucus Precinct?
One vote. One piece of paper put a halt to Trump completely sweeping Iowa, and it just so happened to be in the county where one of our public affairs associates, Makenzie Jones, chaired her own precinct.
The aforementioned county, Johnson County, is one of the bluest counties in the state. With only 13,948 registered Republicans to the 39,216 registered Democrats, there was no telling how many people would show up to the 63 Republican caucus precincts in the county. Our associate was tucked away on the outskirts of Iowa City, in a small elementary school lunchroom, where roughly 50 caucus goers signed in to cast a ballot. The first was an eager Nikki Haley supporter, arriving over an hour before the 7 p.m. start time. Not long after followed a Trump Caucus Captain donning the prestigious white hat, a rank promised by the Trump campaign to be present at all 1,657 Iowa precincts.
Voters of all ages and ethnicities walked into the Johnson County precinct, along with a few registered independents who switched their party affiliation before casting their ballots. At this precinct specifically (one of 63 precincts in the county), Trump took the first-place spot by 2 votes, followed by Nikki Haley who received 19 votes, and Ron DeSantis who only scored 3. Vivek Ramaswamy received 2 ballots.
After the results were announced and a short round of applause, caucus-goers packed up their pens, donned their mittens, and were out the doors as quickly as they entered. Our precinct chair, who ran out of voter registration forms, packed up the remaining materials and returned them to the county Republican headquarters. There, she shared her results with fellow precinct chairs, many of whose precincts were won by Nikki Haley (especially those deeper in the city). We hear it all the time, but on Monday night in Johnson County, every single vote mattered.
And Then There Were… Four?
After an eventful day at the Iowa caucuses, two GOP presidential hopefuls – Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson – dropped out of the race with low voter percentages at the Iowa caucuses. Vivek Ramaswamy was in fourth place and Asa Hutchinson was in sixth. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie left the race days before the Iowa caucuses, and adhering to his brand, criticized his competitors on his way out.
Trump, Haley, and DeSantis are claiming headlines – battling it out (largely) for second place. But not all long-shots have given up hope. Ryan Binkley, a Texas businessman and pastor remains in the race despite his low performance numbers in Iowa where he’s concentrated his efforts. (He started TV ads in early May 2023 and had a flurry of mailers in the weeks leading up to the vote.) As Phillip Sitter wrote in the Des Moines Register, “In Iowa, [Ryan Binkley] held the third-most events of any of the Republican presidential candidates in the lead-up to the caucuses but was never able to break away in the polls.” Despite the quantity of Iowa events, Binkley received 0.7% of caucus votes.
In an X post published on Jan. 16, Binkley wrote: “The big question is, why keep going? Well, I have a Republican answer to socialism that works and a road map to a balanced budget that grows the economy. I also want to UNITE the country.” Binkley is continuing his campaign with the intent to decrease division and increase freedom. He hopes his persistence will garner more support as candidates drop out of the race.
Demystifying the Delegates
The chatter after the caucuses can leave many voters wondering – how do the Republican caucuses work? Iowa Republican caucuses have meetings at 1,657 sites where representatives of each campaign make a brief pitch for their candidate. After everyone has spoken, attendees cast secret ballots. Individuals must be registered Republicans to vote in the caucus. Less well known, is that among these caucus-goers are delegates to the subsequent county, district and state conventions. The state convention is where delegates to the national convention are elected.
To win the Republican party’s nomination overall, a candidate must receive at least 1,215 of the 2,429 national delegates. These delegates represent the proportion of the state’s votes and must stay pledged to that candidate at the Republican National Convention (RNC) after the caucuses.
Once each state has completed their caucuses or primaries, the delegates attend the RNC to represent their committed candidates. But what happens if no candidate receives the magic number of delegates? In this case, delegates must vote at the RNC to nominate the party’s candidate. The state’s Republican party runs its caucuses or primaries, not the state. Iowa, the first state to hold its caucuses, has 40 delegates, each of which can be gained depending on how many votes candidates receive at different precincts. States’ numbers of delegates rely on the state’s population. Precincts are where voting takes place for caucuses and primaries.
Let’s take Iowa as a case study. Former President Trump received 20 delegates in Iowa, while Governors DeSantis and Haley received 9 and 8, respectively. The different methods of assigning delegates include hybrid, convention-based, proportional, and winner-takes-all, depending on the state. Iowa’s system, like most states, is proportional. In a proportional system, the number of votes a candidate receives at a caucus is proportional to how many delegates they receive in that state. When a candidate drops out of the race, the rules for what happens to their delegates vary by state. States may choose not to release a candidate’s delegates if that candidate drops out of the race; others allow the former candidate to choose where their delegates will go, which is a more common route.
See you next week!