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The Iowa Republican Caucus Was a MAGA-Fest, But Iowa Is Far From Representative

Only 1 in 20 Iowa voters took part in the ultra-conservative, white-dominated Iowa caucus that solidified Trump’s bid.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during his caucus night event at the Iowa Events Center on January 15, 2024, in Des Moines, Iowa.

In what might rank as perhaps the most unsurprising election result in recent history, Donald Trump, leader of the MAGA cult, won the Iowa Republican/MAGA cult caucus last night. If you’re yawning already, I feel your pain. Like most dog-bites-man stories, this one really didn’t have an unexpected plot twist. From early in the evening, Trump’s vote totals hovered at roughly 50 percent of the total, just slightly above what the Des Moines Register’s eve of election poll had indicated would be the outcome.

With wind chill temperatures far below zero, a paltry 110,000 caucus-goers trudged through the snow to their caucus sites to debate whether to anoint Trump for another go at the White House, or, if not, whether to try to catapult Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley into the role of the only candidate with even the slimmest chance in hell of derailing the Trump train.

In the end, neither Haley nor DeSantis managed to score a knockout blow against the other, meaning that, going into the New Hampshire primary, the anti-Trump opposition remains fragmented enough to give the ex-president an extra layer of security as he seeks to wrap up the nomination before any of his criminal trials get underway. DeSantis narrowly secured second place, allowing him to just about survive to fight another day. And Haley scored a good enough third-place finish to let her head into New Hampshire still with at least an outside chance of doing real damage to Trump.

The horse-race nature of political coverage means that Trump’s going to take all the media oxygen as the runaway winner, and, at least in terms of the morning headlines, certainly it’s hard to argue with that editorial decision. Trump swept pretty much every county in Iowa, further cementing the GOP’s transformation into a one-man show, a one-ring circus.

But drill down and the numbers are less overwhelming.

First, turnout — whether because of the Arctic chill or because of the sense of inevitability about the outcome — was extraordinarily low: more than a third lower than the number who voted in the 2016 caucuses, and about 50,000 less than the number of Democrats who voted in the Democratic Party’s caucus in 2020. (With Trump running for reelection, there was no competitive GOP caucus that year.) After all, why risk freezing your extremities off on the coldest January day in decades to go caucus against Trump when everyone knew that, at the end of the day, regardless of whether you got frostbite or not, The Donald would come out on top?

More than 3 million people live in Iowa. Only 1 in 20 of the registered voters from among those residents partook in the GOP caucus. Only 1 in 40 registered voters in the state voted for Trump to be the GOP nominee. Iowa is already a spectacularly nonrepresentative state in comparison to the U.S. as a whole. Nearly 90 percent of Iowans are white, and the state is also more evangelical (28 percent of the state identify as such), more rural and more culturally conservative than are most American states. It is within that already extremely nonrepresentative state context that a tiny minority of residents set the tone for the entire country’s presidential candidate selection process moving forward. One would have to put in a vast amount of intellectual energy to design a more ludicrous way of winnowing the early presidential field.

It’s important not to lose track of the narrowness of the group that determined the results of this caucus. According to entrance polling data, the group of conservative Iowans who showed up to the polls last night was definitively skewed toward older, evangelical white men, even more than the state’s population as a whole: CNN entrance polling data indicated 56 percent of caucus participants were male, 41 percent were rural residents, 41 percent were over the age of 65 and 55 percent were born-again Christians. That’s about as unrepresentative a portrait of the American mosaic as one could hope to find.

In other words, a small group of either extremist or simply incorrigibly naïve Iowans, who have fallen hook, line and sinker for the line that Trump is a messenger of God, that his multiple felony indictments are a conspiracy against God’s oracle, that his being found liable for sexual assault is a nonissue, and that his dalliance with paramilitarism and political violence is simply “Trump being Trump,” are sowing the ground for a Trump primary season victory. More than 6 out of 10 voters polled by CNN in an “entrance poll” heading into the caucus told the news outlet that they would still consider Trump fit for office even if he was a convicted felon. A similar number of caucus attendees told those pollsters they self-identified as being part of the MAGA movement.

There is an almost unfathomable level of hypocrisy to this political choice. These Bible-thumping, “family-loving,” “law-and-order” Republicans, are quite happy now throwing in their lot with arguably the most demagogic and immoral leader in U.S. history. They consider themselves “patriots,” yet they are in lockstep with a man and a movement that has tried for the past four years to shatter the U.S. constitutional structure and that was responsible for the bloody assault on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

Breathe deep, breathe deep. While the choices of a majority of Iowa’s caucus-goers may be morally calamitous, and may make for good headlines about the mood of the country, thankfully they represent but a vanishingly small sliver of the population of a small state. No matter how much ink is spilled over the Iowa caucus, this particular demographic isn’t in any way, shape or form representative of this country as a whole. That doesn’t mean the United States isn’t in a potentially democracy-busting political pickle; but it does mean that the results of Iowa alone, no matter how much hype accompanies Trump’s win, aren’t enough to prove that that crisis is terminal.

Second, in Iowa’s larger metropolitan areas, Trump’s vote was anything but overwhelming: In Polk County, home to Des Moines, Trump won, but with only 38 percent of the vote. In the surrounding suburbs he also fell far short of 50 percent. Had he been in a one-on-one race with either DeSantis or Haley, he likely would have lost the greater Des Moines area. In the Cedar Rapids region, he received 43 percent, again less than the combined DeSantis-Haley vote. Those suburbs are the sorts of areas, nationally, where he has to hold his own in a general election — and they’re precisely the communities where Trump struggled mightily in 2020.

The final note from unsurprising-Iowa: Vivek Ramaswamy quit immediately after the results came in, and endorsed Trump. The opportunistic venture capitalist who thrived on a combination of insults and spectacularly inane, cruel policy ideas, ended up throwing his lot in with the opportunistic hotelier who thrives on a combination of insults and spectacularly inane, cruel policy ideas. Do you think, just maybe, that Ramaswamy was always ultimately simply auditioning for a policy role in a putative Trump administration Mark Two?

Either way, on a day in which Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers moved Trump one large step closer to being his party’s eventual presidential nominee, at least they had the good taste to boot this particular spouter-of-nonsense off of the presidential stage.

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