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Donald Trump in a suit, standing in front of a large US flag.
Donald Trump is leading in the polls for the nomination for Republican candidate for presidency. Here, he speaks in Iowa during his previous campaign. Bob Daemmrich /Alamy

US election: as the first Republican primary looms, a Trump win looks inevitable – but who comes second matters

Former president Donald Trump has pitched himself as the inevitable Republican nominee for the White House in 2024. So much so that he’s already floating potential picks for his cabinet.

The first Republican (GOP) primary in the country, the Iowa caucuses, scheduled for January 15 2024, could prove Trump right, or (less likely) open the door for a challenger.

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Polling during December in Iowa showed Trump far ahead of the other Republican candidates with 45% of the vote, trailed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis at 18% and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley at 15%. That’s almost certainly too much ground to make up.

But the fight for runner-up matters. If a clear Trump alternative emerges, it could pressure other Republicans to bow out of the race, and clarify the choice for “never Trumpers”. If one doesn’t, a Trump coronation could look inevitable.

The caucuses are gatherings of party members, and around 1,700 happen across the state. Unlike the more convoluted process on the Democrat side (where voters engage in a long process of in-person arguing back and forth for their candidates), the Iowa Republican caucuses simply ask voters to meet and indicate their preference for president.

Delegates from these small groups then represent the precincts at a March county convention. A state convention is held in June and, finally, a smaller number of delegates will represent Iowa at the Republican national convention.

A man wearing a cap signs a register.
A Republican party member attends an Iowa caucus in 2012, they are held all over the state. Zuma/Alamy

“The big mo”

Iowa isn’t a bellwether because its demographics resemble America’s. The state is much whiter, more Christian and more rural than the country as a whole.

Instead, the Iowa caucuses are pivotal precisely because they’re first. They give “the big mo” – big momentum – to the candidates who win or outperform expectations. That can lock in an air of inevitability for successful frontrunners, or upset the predictions of experts.

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Eight years ago, Trump’s second-place finish in Iowa made his flash-in-the-pan candidacy suddenly appear real. After following up with a 20% point win in the New Hampshire primaries, Trump was – much to the chagrin of “the establishment” – in it to win it. It’s why second place in Iowa doesn’t have to be just a consolation prize, even if it probably will.

Desperate DeSantis?

Right now, all eyes are on DeSantis and Haley. DeSantis, whose campaign has mostly floundered, has recently received boosts. Popular Iowa governor Kim Reynolds endorsed DeSantis, provoking Trump to blast her, predicting “it will be the end of her political career”. Bob Vander Plaats, a high-profile Iowa evangelical activist, also gave DeSantis his coveted endorsement.

DeSantis got some added attention (both good and bad) in his recent Fox News debate with California governor Gavin Newsom, which turned into a slugfest. The made-for-TV sideshow included Newsom bluntly telling DeSantis that they have a lot in common: “Neither … will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”

For all that drama, Haley has looked more like the candidate of the hour. Her notable (if still mild) surge in the polls, jumpstarted by fiery debate performances, has attracted the attention of right-wing donors (including the deep-pocketed Koch network). She’s also brought in larger crowds with her consensus-building on hot-button issues such as abortion.

What’s clear going into Iowa is that Haley could be the most formidable challenger in a general election. A Marquette University poll, for example, found Haley ahead of Biden by ten percentage points in a head-to-head matchup, more than Trump (four percentage points) and DeSantis (two percentage points).

The New York Times has reported that Haley’s ascent has “raised hopes among Republicans hungering to end the dominance of former President Donald J. Trump that maybe, just maybe, they have found a candidate who can do so”. A recent Washington Post headline proclaimed: “It’s Nikki Haley or bust for the GOP.”

The only problem for Haley is rank-and-file voters don’t seem to care much about “electability” (much less what the media has to say about her). In fact, many seem to enjoy giving the middle finger to the donor class that, they say, gave them Mitt Romney, who lost in 2012, and John McCain, who lost in 2008.

Yet even if Haley or DeSantis pulls out a second-place finish in Iowa, what matters is how, and by how much. A hairline victory won’t be enough to solidify the non-Trump vote, especially since neither has been willing to tackle Trump head on. Perhaps more importantly, it won’t induce the more marginal candidates to call it quits.

Between them, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and political rookie Vivek Ramaswamy hold 8% of the Republican vote. The longer those candidates tread water, the harder it will be for a Trump alternative to rack up delegates, especially in winner-take-all primaries where pluralities are needed to win.

Trump’s inevitability

Speaking in Sioux City, Iowa, Trump recently declared: “There’s no way Iowa is voting against Trump.” For a candidate who faces 91 criminal indictments, multiple civil trials in New York, and a campaign in multiple states to bar him even from running for office, that might seem like extreme self-confidence.

Then again, this is the inevitable candidacy.

Right now, it’s the “Trump v everyone else” primaries. Nationally, Trump holds half of the GOP electorate, with his rivals splitting the rest. Unless Republicans coalesce behind a single alternative, Trump will run the table.

Trump got to where he is thanks, largely, to the obsequiousness of his opponents. Unable to run through him, just around him, they’ve laid down the red carpet. Distant and desperate are Trump’s opponents, which is why this feels like a coronation.

No lead is safe, and elections are ultimately decided by voters, not by political soothsayers. But absent a major shake-up from Iowa, Trump’s inevitability seems, well, inevitable.

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