February 21, 2024

(Bloomberg) — The only problem with being the Republican presidential frontrunner in 2024 is that voters expect a blowout victory.

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The outcome of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the first fight in the quest for the GOP nomination, looks to be in little doubt. Recent polls show former President Donald Trump’s support among Iowans at 51%, dwarfing the backing of his chief rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, Trump’s onetime ambassador to the United Nations.

Trump’s campaign hopes a decisive win can force DeSantis out of the race and suffocate Haley, who is angling for a stronger showing the following week in New Hampshire. Clearing the field would let Trump focus on a general-election clash with President Joe Biden, as well as his numerous legal battles. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bowed out of the race on Wednesday.

Read more: Christie Quits 2024 Race, Mocking Haley and DeSantis on Exit

Yet Trump aides fear that some voters, seeing his dominance, could stay home on what is forecast to be a frigid night in Iowa — and that a less-imposing margin of victory will prolong the primary fight.

“You are asking someone to go to a political meeting at 7 p.m. at night, when it has been dark at night for two hours, it’s 7 degrees outside and there’s snow on the ground,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. Trump has a large, energetic base of supporters, Robinson said, but his pitch no longer feels as new as in 2016.

“When you first start dating someone, nothing will keep you away,” said Robinson. “Trump doesn’t have that anymore.”

For months, the Trump campaign has sought to lay the groundwork for a convincing victory. It has recruited foot soldiers to get out the vote. It produced a three-minute video that instructs first-time caucus-goers on how the process works. Local team captains in white hats patrol Trump rallies, recruiting more supporters. Trump himself has stepped up his appearances in the state of late.

“We already have the votes there to win. We had them for months,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “All we need to do is turn them out.”

If Trump prevails in Iowa by the same margin he enjoys in the polls, and notches a similar victory in New Hampshire, it could effectively end the race, analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. wrote in a note this month. Yet closer outcomes could keep the nomination in doubt for longer, through at least February’s South Carolina primary or into Super Tuesday, according to the analysts.

“A win for President Trump is a win, regardless of margin,” said Trump senior adviser Jason Miller. “But winning is not something Rob DeSanctimonious or Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley will be doing in Iowa or anywhere else.”

Historic Margin

No candidate has ever won the Iowa caucuses by a margin of more than 12.5 percentage points, and the Trump campaign said it would consider topping that milestone a major victory. In 2016, when Trump had no operation or organization in the state, he lost in Iowa to Texas US Senator Ted Cruz by roughly 6,000 votes.

“This time we put a premium on building an actual operation,” LaCivita said. “We have demystified the process of caucusing. We don’t want to make it difficult.”

The Iowa caucuses doesn’t always foreshadow who the Republican nominee will be. Past winners including Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum each failed to secure the nomination. Yet the potential to crush his GOP opponents and move on to the bigger showdown with Biden is especially important to Trump, who has also been working to consolidate his support among elected Republicans.

Haley and DeSantis have tried to make inroads in Iowa, campaigning in-person far more than Trump and trying to appeal to voters who grew tired of Trump’s chaotic White House or want to back a younger candidate. But they have failed to gain lasting traction.

Despite Trump’s myriad legal troubles, polls show that Republican voters have largely remained in his corner, believing he is the only GOP candidate strong enough — and quarrelsome enough — to take on Democrats and America’s adversaries abroad, Republican strategists say.

Polls that show Trump defeating Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head have undercut the argument that Trump couldn’t win over voters in key battleground states. Voters are nostalgic about Trump’s presidency before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, from a strong economy to fewer headlines about US involvement in foreign conflicts, said an operative who previously did some work on a rival campaign.

Fighting Complacency

While Trump is expected to emerge as the nominee even in a more closely fought primary season, a longer race could be costly and time-consuming. That makes getting Iowa voters to the polls in spite of the weather and Trump’s aura of inevitably crucial, observers say.

“We can’t let our people be complacent,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican strategist and longtime Trump pollster.

Ethan Hughes, 21, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said he hasn’t yet made up his mind on whom to vote for on caucus night, but said the cold weather won’t deter him from attending his first caucus.

“It could deter others, I mean, -17 sounds pretty harsh,” he said. “But I’ll be out there.”

The Biden campaign is meanwhile preparing to run against Trump. They think his positions on abortion and often-vengeful rhetoric will turn off independents, moderates and suburban women in an election that both parties assume will come down to results in a handful of states.

Trump “has built expectations pretty high,” Marc Short, a former top adviser to Mike Pence’s presidential campaign and former head of legislative affairs in the Trump White House, said about Trump’s 2024 candidacy. “If DeSantis finishes in a closer second, it would be more a boost in the coverage he gets, but I’m not sure it changes the trajectory we are on inevitably.”

–With assistance from Josh Wingrove and Hadriana Lowenkron.

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