While he loves making headlines, for Donald Trump in the Hawkeye State, no news was good news.
After months of indictments and court challenges and two states pulling his name off their ballots, the Iowa caucuses went exactly as projected, with Trump winning a 30-point victory as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Nikki Haley battled for second place.
“Iowa, we love you,” Trump told a cheering crowd in Des Moines as he touted his record-setting win.
Trump’s 51 percent is the highest total for a non-incumbent Republican in the Iowa caucuses, and his 30-point margin over DeSantis is twice as large as the previous record (Bob Dole’s nearly 13-point win over Pat Robertson in 1988.)
For Trump, the outcome was nearly ideal. He broke the 50 percent barrier, he won across nearly all demographic groups, and none of his opponents significantly outperformed expectations. With DeSantis or Haley battling to nearly a draw, both were denied a burst of momentum heading into New Hampshire.
And it didn’t help the rest of the field when the Associated Press and nearly every news network called the race before 7:30 pm local time — while the caucuses were still underway — sending yet another signal that Trump’s win was historic.
Team DeSantis was particularly unhappy about it.
New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn) told NHJournal, “I wonder what has been the net effect of the media alerts calling the race being sent to caucus participants before voting had even commenced in so many precincts?”
Texas Congressman Chip Roy, campaigning in Iowa for DeSantis, was more direct in comments to reporters: “Are you kidding me? They haven’t even started voting yet and heard all the speeches, and AP calls it?”
And there was even more good news for Trump late Monday night when MAGA-friendly businessman Vivek Ramaswamy announced he was bowing out and backing the former president.
Saying there needs to be an “America First” GOP nominee, Ramaswamy told his supporters, “I congratulate him on his victory, and he will have my full endorsement for the presidency.”
Earlier in the evening, Trump had kind words for Ramaswamy and the rest of the GOP field, a stark reversal from his attacks over the past year.
“It’s time now for everyone — our country — to come together,” Trump said in his victory speech. “Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative: Wouldn’t it be great if we could come together and solve our nation’s problems?
“I want this to be a big part of our message,” Trump added. “We’re going to come together, and it’s going to happen soon.”
As GOP strategist Karl Rove noted on Fox News, “No mention of ‘Birdbrain’ or ‘Sanctimonious.” Instead, Trump went out of his way to compliment Haley and DeSantis, saying “they did a great job” and calling them “smart people, capable people.”
The question many Republicans in New Hampshire and nationwide were asking Monday night is what would those two “smart, capable people” do after Trump’s 50 percent plus performance? Would either follow Ramaswamy’s lead and leave the race?
As Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who endorsed DeSantis, said earlier on Monday, “If President Trump wins Iowa here, I think it’s going to be awfully hard to make the case that you can beat President Trump, and he’s going to be your eventual nominee.”
Thus far, both candidates are staying the course. DeSantis is making a quick stop in South Carolina before heading to New Hampshire on Tuesday.
“Because of your support, in spite of all of that they threw at us, everyone against us — we’ve got our ticket punched out of Iowa!” DeSantis told his supporters Monday night.
Osborne told NHJournal he isn’t surprised DeSantis is staying in the race, even after a 30-point loss.
“As expected, Ron DeSantis is not backing down. It remains clear that he is the only candidate with a shot of taking on Trump,” Osborne said. “Will Haley step out so he can do it or remain in the race to help Trump secure the nomination without a fight or even stepping onto a debate stage?”
Haley, who has a town hall scheduled in the North Country on Tuesday afternoon, has yet to agree to participate in the ABC/WMUR debate scheduled for Thursday night in Manchester.
In her remarks Monday night, Haley said, “Iowa made this Republican primary a two-person race” — an odd claim given she’d just finished third.
Her campaign manager, Betsey Ankney, released a memo late Monday making the case for Haley in New Hampshire and beyond.
“The Iowa results and the New Hampshire polls show Donald Trump is more vulnerable than commonly believed,” Ankney wrote. “He is the polarizing figure he has long been. Trump and Biden are the two most disliked politicians in America. Around half of Republican primary voters want more of Trump, and around half prefer an alternative. That is the picture of a seriously contested nomination.”
Haley’s projections may be overly optimistic, but she almost certainly dodged a bullet by not beating DeSantis in Iowa. If she had, and the Florida governor had dropped out, most of his support would have gone to Trump — particularly with Ramaswamy out of the race.
“The smart move would have been for Haley to give us Iowa and for us to let her have New Hampshire,” a Granite State DeSantis backer told NHJournal. “Instead, she spent millions of dollars in Iowa attacking DeSantis. What a waste.”
Whatever the Haley vs. DeSantis dynamic, Trump isn’t showing signs of taking New Hampshire for granted despite his steady 15-point lead. Trump has a half-dozen campaign events across the Granite State in the coming week.
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta told NHJournal that, despite the growing air of inevitability around Trump, the race isn’t over.
“It was definitely Donald Trump’s night in Iowa. Now, Republicans around the country are looking to New Hampshire to do what Granite Staters do best: provide clarity to the race moving forward. Clearly, Gov. DeSantis and Haley have work to do, but New Hampshire can change a campaign overnight.”