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Decoding the Iowa Caucuses

Trump’s adversaries blundered their way to historic losses.

January 16, 2024

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Donald Trump’s win in the Iowa Republican caucus did not surprise. Turnout was desultory, about 40 percent lower than the last time there was a contested GOP race in 2016. Trump’s 56,000 votes would not fill the seats at the local college football stadium. At the same time, the result suggested that the race for the Republican nomination could effectively be over. All of which suggests a few things for the health of our democracy.  

Democracy was not on the ballot 

The Republican candidates have treated us to one of the most bizarre tactical and rhetorical battles in presidential primary history. Trump is the only president in history to have been impeached twice, once for flagrantly attempting to overthrow the Constitution, and he’s now under multiple indictments for crimes committed while in office. His two main challengers acknowledge that his 2020 election defeat was legitimate. And yet neither made this the central part of their case against Trump, or even a major talking point. 

I get it — polls suggest that Iowa Republicans have little appetite for pushback against Trump. A CNN entrance poll from last night showed that two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers do not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president. And about 60 percent would consider Trump fit to be president even if he were convicted of a crime. 

But here’s another take on that data. In a normal primary, trailing candidates hammer away at a front-runner’s vulnerabilities. By refusing to hit Trump where he’s weakest, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis gave Trump a free pass to lie about the 2020 election. They didn’t tell Iowans the truth, and they made it too easy for voters to believe the Big Lie. This is a moral failure, but the first round of results shows it to be a strategic failure as well. 

DeSantis’s money con didn’t work 

We’ve all paid far too little attention to the role of money in this contest — not the horse race of who has the most, but the collapse of campaign finance laws. DeSantis dodged federal rules by outsourcing some of the most basic aspects of campaigning to his super PAC, which has no limit on the size of contributions. Under Citizens United and other court rulings, such committees must be “independent” to be legal. DeSantis barely pretended to try, staffing the supposedly independent entity with allies and confidants. Never Back Down made news mostly for infighting, ineptitude, and accidentally posting the candidate’s debate prep memo on a public website. 

The Iowa results show that the gambit was spectacularly misguided. In the end, DeSantis’s coalition of super PACs spent $31 million advertising in Iowa, earning him a mere 20 percent of the vote. (Super PACs allied to Haley produced much the same result, spending a similar fortune with even fewer votes to show for it.) 

Some hailed DeSantis’s strategy as an innovation. Had it worked, it could have trampled what’s left of our campaign finance laws. It didn’t. Let’s be grateful for small mercies. 

The caucus process caters to the most extreme voters 

Our state-by-state, primary-driven process for choosing presidential nominees emerged almost by accident in 1972. Reformers were reacting to the Democratic nomination fight won by Hubert Humphrey four years earlier after he entered few primaries. It has devolved into a years-long, wildly expensive reality show. Depressingly, other countries have started to copy elements of this system (the British Labour Party, for example). It has some good elements and many bad. 

At least, most of the time, actual voters get to have their say. As was depressingly clear last night, Iowa’s quirky and antidemocratic caucus should not have such an outsize role. The caucus only took on its significance when a one-term, unknown former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, won in 1976 and propelled his improbable victory. It was odd even then. It requires citizens to show up at a specific time and place for hours, with almost no opportunity for early or absentee voting. A tiny fraction of eligible voters participate — and, as the CNN polling suggested, they are often the most extreme and fanatical. This sliver of the electorate willing to shiver in sub-zero temperatures to back their candidate does not necessarily reflect the party, let alone the electorate. 

Democrats abandoned the Iowa caucus this cycle. Better late than never. The Republicans should do the same for 2028.