February 25, 2024

DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump has won the Iowa caucuses, NBC News projects, cementing his firm status as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump, who is aiming to be the first former president since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s to return to office after losing re-election to a second consecutive term, appeared Monday night to be headed for a record-breaking showing in the first nominating contest of 2024.

Trump’s final margin of victory could eclipse the 13 points that Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas won by in the 1996 Republican caucuses. And a commanding performance, especially if he wins a majority of the vote, would be the strongest sign yet that there is no decisive demand for an alternative as the race shifts to next week’s New Hampshire primary. 

More suspenseful is what’s become a closely watched battle for second place between former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — and if they are able to keep Trump from winning a majority.

Follow live results from the 2024 Iowa caucuses.

Trump, said a source familiar with his travel plans, will follow up his Iowa victory with a trip Tuesday to New York to attend his civil trial in a defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll, a writer whom Trump last year was found guilty of sexually abusing and defaming in a separate trial. Afterward Trump will head to New Hampshire for a rally.

In last week’s final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll, 48% of likely caucus-goers picked Trump as their first choice, 20% chose Haley and 16% preferred DeSantis. Running in the single digits were biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Texas pastor Ryan Binkley.

Turnout was the major unknown in the hours leading up to caucus time. Heavy snow last week and bone-chilling subzero temperatures over the weekend made an icy mess of Iowa’s roads, and Monday’s high was, at best, forecast to be -2 degrees F.

The brutal weather may have kept would-be caucusgoers at home and recalibrated best-case scenarios for the top three candidates. Based on entrance poll interviews and initial vote returns, NBC News estimates that there will be 130,000 Republican caucusgoers — substantially less than the nearly 187,000 who caucused in 2016, the last time there was a competitive GOP race for president.

Trump maintained high expectations earlier Monday.

“I don’t know about the total number of votes because, you know, it is a little cold out there, but not really, and remember, everybody is indoors,” Trump said during an interview with Jeff Stein on News/Talk 1540, an eastern Iowa radio station. “So you’re not standing outside. So I think it’s going to be very close to record-setting, maybe even record-setting.”

A distant second-place finish by Haley or DeSantis would not completely reshape the race, but both are looking to leave the caucuses with even the slightest suggestion of momentum as the race shifts to next week’s New Hampshire primary. Haley has been polling much closer to Trump there, so eclipsing DeSantis in Iowa could allow her to argue that she is now the best hope for Republicans who want to prevent Trump from winning the nomination.

Such a scenario would represent a potential rock-bottom scenario for DeSantis, who began his White House push last year with the highest of ceilings and a campaign and aligned super PAC flush with more than $150 million in cash. But DeSantis has failed to perform to those lofty expectations, and he and his allies have spent much of the weeks leading up to the caucuses lowering them.

Where DeSantis once confidently predicted he would win Iowa, he has more recently insisted that he is in it for “the long haul” and that he will continue his campaign even if he doesn’t do well here. But finishing third would almost certainly put pressure on DeSantis to end his campaign.

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts,” DeSantis told reporters Sunday in Dubuque when asked about the possibility of a third-place finish, “every day would be Christmas.” 

The contrasts between Trump and Haley, meanwhile, were in stark relief in the converted chapel of the old Franklin Junior High events center in Des Moines, where several precincts caucused Monday night.

Haley appeared at the caucus site to make the pitch for herself, delivering a 10-minute version of her stump speech. Her microphone went out at one point. When it was replaced with another, she continued through her remarks despite periodic interruptions of a malfunctioning sound system. In a steady tone, she praised the values of faith, family and country, and then asked for support.

When Haley walked off, Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, took her place in front of an audience of roughly 200 people. Aside from pushing through his own struggles with the microphone, he took a different tack, launching several direct attacks on Haley, President Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. Trump Jr. said he sees Haley as “Hillary Clinton dressed up as a conservative for Halloween.”

Trump’s comfortable win reflects the loyalty he still commands among GOP voters, despite being under four criminal indictments and holding far fewer Iowa events than his rivals have. Although Trump canceled three of four Iowa rallies planned for over the weekend, blaming brutal winter weather, he made quicker, unannounced stops, picking up food at Casey’s, a gas station known for its pizza, and delivering pies to firefighters in Waukee. 

Beyond his occasional visits and constant media presence, Trump augmented his campaign with a turnout operation much more sophisticated than the slapdash version he deployed en route to a second-place finish here in 2016. 

Using reams of data, his campaign put a special emphasis on finding Trump fans who haven’t caucused in the past and turning them out to vote, according to a senior campaign official. The campaign’s approach to identifying and turning out voters was strikingly similar to that of other modern campaigns, including those of some of his rivals and their outside allies — a proficiency that Trump wasn’t known for in his previous White House bids. And Trump himself used his speeches and teleconferences with supporters to share information about how to caucus and where to find more information.

Precinct captains — more than one for each of the state’s 1,600-plus precincts — were each charged with getting 10 new voters to caucus, the official said. When Trump campaigned in Iowa on Sunday, he wore a gold-lettered “Trump Caucus Captain” hat, a nod to his phalanx of commissioned officers on the ground. 

In Saturday’s poll, 82% of Trump’s backers said their minds were made up and 49% described themselves as extremely enthusiastic to caucus for him. By contrast, more than one-third of DeSantis and Haley supporters said they could be persuaded to caucus for someone else Monday, and only 9% of Haley’s said they were extremely enthusiastic about her.

At his rally Sunday, Trump emphasized loyalty. He noted how Haley was challenging him after serving as his ambassador to the United Nations. He mocked DeSantis for begging for an endorsement in his 2018 bid for governor. He chastised Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose rise he also took credit for, for backing DeSantis. And he put a spotlight on his ability to bring vanquished rivals to heel, inviting North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whose campaign for the GOP nomination never took off, to join him on stage and offer an endorsement.

“There’s something,” Trump mused at one point, “about the lack of loyalty in politics.” 

Trump’s vice-like grip on the party faced a surprisingly bold challenge from Ramaswamy, who initially positioned himself as a next-generation Trump — someone less threatening and more deferential to the former president. Trump’s advisers appreciated Ramaswamy’s slashing attacks on Haley at the early debates. But in recent weeks Ramaswamy’s kindness and fealty gave way to a strenuous new pitch that Trump’s legal woes had rendered him damaged goods.

As the race in Iowa entered its closing days, Trump’s frustration with Ramaswamy became obvious. Aides began trashing him on the record, and Trump unloaded on him Saturday night.

“Very sly,” Trump posted on Truth Social, “but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the ‘other side’ — don’t get duped by this. Vote for ‘TRUMP,’ don’t waste your vote! Vivek is not MAGA.”

But Trump largely avoided harsh criticism from his rivals. The indictments against him, including charges stemming from his behavior leading up to the riot by his supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, only seemed to embolden him. Most of his rivals, with the exception of Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race last week, rushed to Trump’s defense by dismissing the investigations into him as political. 

Trump’s poll numbers began rising at a time when his legal issues mounted and when DeSantis was trying to establish himself as a strong alternative. But until recently, DeSantis resisted campaigning on Trump’s troubles. And many of the other Republican candidates at the first debate last summer, DeSantis included, raised their hands when asked if they would support Trump as their party’s nominee — even if he had been convicted of a crime. 

Christie, a one-time Trump ally who ran as a Trump scold, polled relatively well in New Hampshire but was surpassed by Haley. Former Vice President Mike Pence, whose refusal to block certification of President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 enraged Trump and his supporters who stormed the Capitol, never gained traction and dropped out in October.

DeSantis and Haley both hit Trump harder down the stretch toward Iowa. But they didn’t aggressively advertise against him and their attacks often centered on more prosaic issues, such as his refusal to defend his record and answer questions on the debate stage.

Trump often fell back on his poll numbers when asked why he wouldn’t debate. Occasionally, he made it clear that he knew his legal situation had only solidified his status in the party.

“Every time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls,” Trump told his audience last August at an Alabama GOP dinner. “We need one more indictment to close out this election. One more indictment, and this election is closed out. Nobody has even a chance.”