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Home / News / Did Iowa set stage for inevitable Trump v Biden clash?

Did Iowa set stage for inevitable Trump v Biden clash?

Last night Donald Trump won a comprehensive electoral victory in Iowa, a conservative, largely rural, deeply religious state. Many voters cited his pro-life credentials, crediting him with overturning the Roe V Wade abortion decision in the Supreme Court.

Today he is supposed to be in New York, attending a court case where he is being sued for defamation by E Jean Carroll, the columnist who has already won $5m in damages against Trump in a civil sexual assault case.

While the rivals he battered in the snowy vastness of Iowa have left Des Moines – Ron DeSantis going to South Carolina, Nikki Haley heading straight to the next battleground, New Hampshire – Trump is once again court-bound instead of campaigning.

Or so it appears.

In fact the courts are the campaign.

Trump has turned the cases to his advantage (at least so far), convincing half the Republican voters in Iowa to pick him at their caucuses – an unprecedented level of support. He was also thirty percentage points clear of his nearest rival, DeSantis – again a record gap – the previous biggest margin was 12 points.

Donald Trump topped the poll in 98 out of 99 counties in Iowa

And he topped the poll in 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Nikki Haley won the remaining one, Johnston County. Though that is subject to a full audit of the caucus results by the state Republican Party.

So the New York property developer may yet end up with a monopoly of wins, if someone happens to find a few extra votes. DeSantis made much of the fact he had visited every single county – the only major candidate to do so. So much effort, so little return.

He also spent big – some estimates claim $50 million – betting the farm on a good showing in this agriculture-dominated state. And by good showing he was hoping to give Trump a close run for his money. Which in normal times would have meant cutting a 12 point lead back to maybe six? Putting him in the “viable alternative” ballpark. It certainly didn’t envision a 30 point gap opening up like a vast electoral sinkhole beneath his feet.

This was supposed to prove the DeSantis concept. But 21%, when the winner got 51%?

Where now is Ron DeSantis’ path to the nomination? New Hampshire will not be kind to him – liberal, northeastern, not Trump territory. Or pseudo-Trump territory either. Polling has long suggested DeSantis would struggle in New Hampshire, and he had effectively written the state off, concentrating on Iowa and South Carolina, the number three in the chain of primary contests.

The conventional political nerd narrative was that New Hampshire was to be the place where Nikki Haley earned her ticket to the “plausible alternative” ballpark.

Nikki Haley speaks during the 2024 Iowa Republican caucuses at Franklin Jr High School in Des Moines

A recent poll put her just seven points behind Trump – 32% to 39%. That was taken before Chris Christie, the former New Jersey Governor and nowadays an absolute anti-Trump attack animal, pulled out of the presidential race. That same poll put him on 12%, and suggested 60% of his supporters would transfer to Haley. That could conceivably put her pretty much on parity with the former president.

But then came last Saturday’s poll for the Des Moines Register and NBC News, which put Haley in second place in Iowa, just two days before the caucuses. She had pulled out an early poll lead over DeSantis last summer, but his greater activity and spending, with a Rolls Royce campaign team claiming to have knocked virtually every door in the state, he had overtaken her by November – a lead he held until Saturday.

But now a possibility appeared that Haley could do much better than expected in Iowa – and that in turn would call Trump’s narrative of inevitability into question. On the other hand, slipping into third place when the expectations had been raised would look like, a setback? A failure? It would certainly let a little air out of her balloon. And that’s how it feels this morning.

Ron DeSantis is believed to have spent $50m on trying to win Iowa

Now we know that poll was an outlier – but some of those who nerd deeply into the innards of such polls spotted vulnerabilities in the former UN ambassador’s apparent momentum surge; it was not based on likeability and enthusiastic support from Republicans.

A dip in turnout among these less motivated voters – such as those caused by being not too keen on venturing out in “life threatening” night-time conditions, for example – and Haley’s surge could run out of steam, just as DeSantis’ superior boots on the ground were making a final push among their more motivated voters.

Which looks like what happened last night.

Vivek Ramaswamy has given up after attracting less than 8% in Iowa. Why waste more money and energy? Part of the CEO-as-politician myth is to demonstrate decisiveness. He has now backed Trump for the nomination. So many fallers so early in the contest; this is not a normal nomination contest.

I experienced the phenomenon that is an Iowa caucus in Johnston – the townland not the county – a suburb north of Des Moines. driving in in darkness it reminded me of Firhouse in west Dublin, especially the bits built in the last five years.

Volunteers count votes at one polling station in Iowa City

In a very well appointed, box-fresh Middle School, a crowd of 120 filled in their ballots, while anyone who wanted to could make a speech in support of a candidate. DeSantis had two speechmakers, Trump and Ramaswamy had one each, and Haley had none. This was obviously not one of the suburbs she was supposed to do well in.

Then volunteers (who were themselves voters) carried blue plastic buckets swiftly around the hall. In a couple minutes the ballots were cast. In three times that amount of time they were counted – 50 for Trump, 48 for DeSantis, 15 for Haley and seven for Ramaswamy.

This probably doesn’t tell us much about the state-wide contest: DeSantis was much more popular than Haley in this particular suburb; Trump not as dominant here – in fact he barely squeaked a win. Another outlier.

We sampled pro-Trump opinion from those who wanted to talk to the “fake news media”.

“He does what he says he will do” was a constant refrain. The indictments are fake and unjustified. They stir people up to vote for Trump – they don’t put people off, far from it. And immigration is a big concern in one of the states that is least troubled by it. The far away southern border is a big worry, the folks here want it sealed off, and Trump is promising to do that.

Trump is peddling a form of bottled nostalgia, telling people everything was better when he was president. People have short memories, and this tactic seems to be working, mainly due to repetition. Retailing feelings always beats tedious, complicated facts.

Joe Biden posted on X that Trump is now “the clear front runner on the other side at this point”. He has been retailing his own version of the inevitability narrative: That it is inevitable he will contest the presidency with Trump in the autumn. His emotional counter appeal to Trump’s nostalgia is to “protect democracy”.

TV screens show Trump campaign slogans

Both men want to skip over the preliminaries of the US Presidential process, and get straight to the single combat phase.

Opinion polls have been telling us that 70% of Americans don’t want another Trump v Biden contest. But some actual voters in Iowa may have told us differently.

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