Trump’s Victory in Iowa Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Biden

Donald Trump barely campaigned in Iowa, insulted its most prominent evangelical leader, and still won last night’s caucus by a historic margin. Joe Biden better have something stronger to offer in the general election than “I’m not Trump.”

Donald Trump won by 30 points in Iowa last night, leaving his two closest challengers scrapping it out for a very distant second place. (Jabin Botsford / Washington Post via Getty Images)

For the past three years, the Democratic Party has carried out a full-court press with the singular goal of undermining Donald Trump’s chances of being renominated: the yearslong media and congressional spectacles around January 6, the series of criminal indictments against Trump, even the recent attempts to use the courts to boot him off the ballot in several states. Instead, Trump’s support within the GOP has only grown, sometimes seemingly directly because of these efforts.

With Trump’s whopping victory in last night’s Iowa caucuses, the Democrats might want to finally ask themselves if they need a strategy for the former president’s political defeat, instead of formulating more ways to find a cheat code to avoid one.

Trump won by 30 points last night, leaving his two closest challengers scrapping it out for a very distant second place, with his 51 percent of the vote outdoing already rosy preelection polling. That margin of victory is nearly three times the widest of previous GOP winners in Iowa: Bob Dole beat TV pastor Pat Robertson by 12 points in 1988, when neither ended up winning the nomination; George W. Bush triumphed by 11 points in 2000 in a thin field that saw millionaire publisher Steve Forbes take second; and Mike Huckabee beat runner-up Mitt Romney by 9 points in 2008, in another race where the eventual Republican nominee was one of the contest’s also-rans. Trump prevailed in every single county but one, where he lost by a single vote.

Trump managed this feat despite the constant stream of what were meant to be campaign-killing scandals and negative coverage, despite not bothering to attend a single debate, despite not even physically showing up in Iowa until the start of this month, and despite the fact that his nearest rival (an oxymoron here), Ron DeSantis, put everything he had into trying to capture the state, including going to all of its ninety-nine counties. Moreover, Trump pulled this win off despite a falling out with local evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, whose endorsement has anticipated every Iowa caucus winner since 2008 and who this year went to DeSantis, with Trump consolidating the evangelical vote despite skipping all of Vander Plaats’s events in a show of major disrespect.

This alone may be the strongest demonstration of Trump’s iron grip on the GOP base. Trump narrowly lost Iowa in 2016, to Ted Cruz of all people, largely because of the suspicions he drew from evangelical voters, who make up a large chunk of registered Republicans in the state. But following Trump’s four years as president delivering win after win for the voter bloc — most importantly, appointing the three anti-abortion Supreme Court justices that helped kill Roe v. Wade last year — born-again Christians have become born-again Trump supporters. Trump notched his biggest gains in the state’s most religious areas.

But it wasn’t just evangelicals that Trump dominated. Nikki Haley’s base in the state turned out to be wealthier, more college-educated areas, but she still trailed Trump in both. The former president also overwhelmingly led in lower-income areas and those with more college graduates, improving his standing with each group since 2016. Exit polls should be taken with a grain of salt, but they show him winning majorities or large pluralities of voters thirty years or older, Republicans, conservatives, independents, and every education level, as well as both those who want abortion banned and those who want to keep it legal.

The depressed turnout, likely owing to the caucuses’ coldest-ever day, isn’t much of a balm. Given yesterday’s inhospitable conditions, it’s debatable how much to take away from the 14.4 percent turnout anyway, which is markedly lower than what were considered high-turnout contests in the past three competitive primaries but rivals the roughly 15.6 percent and 16.7 percent recorded in 2000 and 1996, respectively.

In any case, it’s true that turnout fell in the more urban counties that were Trump’s weakest this year, and this may have shifted the result somewhat. Yet this also suggests something highly inconvenient: the ultimately passive, uncommitted nature of the anti-Trump wing of the GOP, and, by contrast, the fervent passion of Trump voters (“I would’ve army-crawled across ice to get here,” one first-time caucus-goer and Trump fan told the Washington Post) — something especially significant in light of president Joe Biden’s dire lack of enthusiasm and support from his own party.

Those hoping this primary season spells Trump’s political oblivion have plenty else to soothe themselves with. Besides the lower turnout, the Iowa caucuses are vastly less predictive of who ends up with the GOP nomination than they have been for Democrats, and there are further contests ahead that could turn things around. But any honest look at last night’s result should lead Trump’s opponents to stop living in fantasyland, both about the nature of the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement and about what the general election this year will look like.

Perversely, the second-biggest winner from last night is Biden and his team, whose entire election strategy hinges on Trump being the nominee, to motivate underwhelmed Democrats and — at least so far — let the president run a largely policy-free campaign centered on the prospect of four more years of Trump chaos and criminality. But the caucus result should be sobering for them, too. The party was already wrong once that a Donald Trump loaded with scandals would be rejected by GOP voters and disappear from the political landscape. They might be just as wrong that his baggage will be enough to put the election in the bag for Biden.