This newsletter was shared with you by a TPM member. JOIN TPM
One must-read delivered daily to your inbox

Let’s Face It: Trump’s Iowa Result Was Pretty Weak

 Member Newsletter
January 16, 2024 10:10 a.m.
Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump gestures at the end of a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, on December 19, 2023. An appeals court in Colorado on December 19, 2023 ruled Donald Trump can... Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump gestures at the end of a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, on December 19, 2023. An appeals court in Colorado on December 19, 2023 ruled Donald Trump cannot appear on the state's presidential primary ballot because of his involvement in the attack on the Capitol in January 2021. (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS

For something like a year I’ve been predicting that Donald Trump is absolutely positively going to be the 2024 nominee. I was predicting that back when a lot of people really thought that Ron DeSantis was going to at least give Trump a run for his money. I don’t make confident predictions unless I’m certain there’s little chance of being wrong. But I must tell you that this result simply isn’t the victory most reporting makes it out to be.

The Republican version of the Iowa caucus is simply a vote, carried out by less formal means. Each participant writes down a name and that gets counted — no real caucusing. The final result shows Trump getting 51% of that vote.

That is not just a plurality win, the metric customarily used to judge this contest. It’s actually an absolute majority. Barely. (DeSantis has 21.2% and Haley 19.1%.) But everyone now recognizes that Trump is running as the de facto incumbent. Certainly he’s running as the universally recognized leader of the GOP. And yet he has only barely managed a majority in a state which — unlike, say, New Hampshire — is pretty tailor-made for his politics. To put that characterization into context, while Iowa is today is a fairly red state, it has long had a reputation as a state which has a very liberal Democratic Party and a very conservative GOP. The Iowa GOP caucus electorate especially is made up of a high percentage of conservative evangelical voters. It’s overwhelmingly rural. By any fair measure, 51% of those voters is underwhelming.

Now, a win is a win.

What’s more, Trump’s erstwhile rivals and not-so-secretly hoped-for future friends now face the unpleasant choice of running as spoilers. Trump was and is going to be the nominee. Period. But if DeSantis or Haley had managed, say, 40% they could argue that there’s a real race. Despite the lackluster result, Trump’s 51% makes it clear it is not going to be a real race. Or to put it a bit more specifically, the fact that he beat each of them by some 30 percentage points makes that clear. This is enough to get us to another contest in New Hampshire. But the logic of their spoilerdom is going to become apparent very quickly. To really dig in on that basis requires not just making the argument that Trump isn’t the best candidate — the universal argument every candidate must make against any rival. They’ll need to argue he’s a bad one. No professional politician with any hope of a future runs a no-holds-barred campaign against a candidate who’ll definitely be the nominee of their party.

This seems all the more unlikely since neither of these candidates has been willing to run that kind of campaign even when it was permissible to do so. DeSantis and Haley, like all the others aside from Chris Christie, ran for the nomination as though Donald Trump, their best friend, wasn’t in the race. They trip over themselves to cover for his criminal conduct. They rush to promise to commit to pardoning him.

The best argument against what I’m saying here is that it’s that oldest political trick, just substituting a new benchmark of expectations against which Trump crushing his rivals seems a disappointment rather than a triumph. There’s some truth to that. But any argument about expectations is actually an argument about context. If that’s where the argument is really lurking, the context or rather the story we’re telling ourselves — or the one the dominant political press is telling us — about the 2024 landscape is at least significantly out of whack.

If Trump is the de facto incumbent, the current leader of the GOP, this result is a good enough but hardly a resounding result. Almost half the people who turned out to vote, even knowing Trump was an overwhelming favorite, decided to vote for someone else. It suggests a party in which Trump is the dominant figure but a party that is also quite divided and which will have to rely on polarization to make up for those divisions. It is at best an underwhelming result. There’s no other way to put it.

Sure, by the standards of a sane world, it’s a shattering victory. Trump should be living in a friendless political disgrace, doing his best to stay out of prison, avoiding interviews. Winning primaries for a political comeback shouldn’t be anywhere in the cards. But we haven’t been living in that world for a long time. Set your expectations by this one and the result and its meaning are pretty clear.

Did you enjoy this article?

Join TPM and get The Backchannel member newsletter along with unlimited access to all TPM articles and member features.

I'm already subscribed

Not yet a TPM Member?

I'm already subscribed

One must-read from Josh Marshall delivered weekly to your inbox

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

One must-read from Josh Marshall delivered weekly to your inbox

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: