After months of campaigning and speculation, voting in the Republican presidential primary finally began in earnest last week with the Iowa caucuses. Former President Donald Trump posted a dominating victory, firmly securing his position as the clear frontrunner to win the GOP nomination for the third time.
Trump received 51% of caucus votes, more than the combined total of his two main rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who got 21% and 19%, respectively. DeSantis dropped out of the race on Sunday. The only other candidate to receive more than 1% of the vote in Iowa, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, suspended his campaign on the night of the caucuses.
For all of the attention Iowa gets for being first to cast ballots, the state has historically been a poor indicator of what to expect in the GOP primary. The last nonincumbent Republican to win in Iowa and go on to secure the party’s nomination was George W. Bush in 2000. Trump narrowly lost to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz there in 2016 before notching a series of victories that helped become the nominee.
Even before a single vote was cast, Trump was the obvious favorite to represent the GOP against President Biden in November’s general election. His commanding win in Iowa is now raising debate over whether the GOP primary is already over just days after it officially began — or if the New Hampshire primary this coming Tuesday can reset the trajectory of the race.
Why there’s debate
In the eyes of many pundits, the results out of Iowa were confirmation that — despite years of controversy, election losses and his unprecedented legal problems — the Republican Party still unequivocally belongs to Trump.
They argue that, even with DeSantis out, Haley has no realistic path to pose a substantive challenge, let alone actually win, once the tallies from the remaining 49 states are counted.
Some political analysts believe Trump could actually have been vulnerable had a single opponent with a strong strategy to unseat him emerged from the fray early in the campaign, but it’s too late at this point.
But others say American politics is far too unpredictable to definitively shut the door on the primary this early in the race — particularly with such a volatile candidate as frontrunner. Trump’s critics are quick to point out that he only got half of the vote in Iowa, which they argue shows that there really is an appetite among a large share of the GOP base for someone else to lead the party.
Haley, meanwhile, has been polling within striking distance of Trump in New Hampshire, giving his GOP critics some hope that she can still pull off an upset. A loss in New Hampshire could shake the air of inevitability from Trump’s candidacy and fuel questions about his ability to beat Biden in the general election, particularly as the various court cases against him ramp up into full gear.
If Haley does post a strong showing in New Hampshire next week, the first major test of whether the dynamics of the race have changed will come in her home state of South Carolina. Polls currently show Trump ahead by a large margin in the Palmetto State, but the monthlong break after New Hampshire could create room for Haley to eat into his lead before votes are cast.