A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Former President Donald Trump’s commanding victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses confirmed the writing on the wall - a committed core of the party will follow him into the freezing cold or anywhere else.
That the GOP is Trump’s party was indisputable in CNN’s entrance polls.
Nearly half of Republican voters said they considered themselves to be part of the MAGA movement, referring to the “Make America Great Again” slogan that Trump popularized in 2016. Two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was legitimate, despite all evidence to the contrary. Nearly two-thirds of caucusgoers don’t see a criminal conviction as something that would make Trump unfit for office.
It is almost as if his 2020 loss has been erased in the minds of many Republicans who still view Trump, who says he’s running for retribution, as their president. That gives him the unique distinction of running simultaneously as a sort of incumbent who Republicans know and an insurgent trying to topple Biden in a rematch.
Turnout dropped dramatically
One quirk of this particular caucus night, with its arctic temperatures, is that turnout, according to uncertified results, was down from 2016, the last time Trump faced a crowded field of rivals. Voters braved wind chill that reached the negative 30s to appear at their caucus sites. Democrats, following a calendar change request from the national party, did not vote for president at their caucuses in Iowa this year and are instead relying on a mail-in system.
Around 110,000 Iowans took part in the caucuses this year compared with nearly 187,000 in 2016, when Trump finished second to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. That’s a substantial drop of around 41%, and it was reflected all of the state’s 99 counties. Caucusgoers represent a small fraction of the total state population, which exceeds 3.2 million.
Trump pursued an incumbent’s strategy of staying above the fray of the campaign in Iowa. While he made appearances in the state, he skipped debates and appearances with other candidates.
The decision paid off. He ran more strongly among most demographic groups of Iowa caucusgoers than he did in 2016 – men, women, college graduates, non-college graduates, White evangelicals and conservatives. They all turned out for him.
The makeup of caucusgoers changed in some important ways
In 2016, less than half, 40%, described themselves in entrance polls as “very conservative.” This year, more than half, 52%, described themselves that way.
The portion of caucusgoers describing themselves as “moderate” ticked down from 14% in 2016 to 9% Monday night.
Iowa caucusgoers, unlike most of the country, overwhelmingly support banning most or all abortions nationwide. National polls suggest strong majorities of Americans nationwide support abortion rights.
Iowa’s Republican-controlled state government last year enacted a ban on most abortions in the state, but that law has so far been blocked by courts. Iowa voters could be asked on the general election ballot to make clear there is no right to abortion guaranteed in their state’s constitution.
A growing educational divide in the GOP
CNN polling and analytics editor Ariel Edwards-Levy also notes that Trump’s strength continues to be built on the voters with the least formal education.
“The results also highlight the stark educational divide that has become a defining feature of the GOP electorate. While Trump held a commanding lead among Iowa caucusgoers without college degrees, college graduates were more closely divided among Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis,” she writes.
Would a criminal conviction change minds?
Trump’s win in Iowa was decisive and marks a stunning political turnaround from the time when the country was shocked by the January 6, 2021, insurrection he helped inspire. But in a potential general election that could be decided by the slimmest of margins, the question about Trump’s fitness for office if convicted could give some Republicans pause.
If, even in this most committed group of Republican caucusgoers, nearly a third see a conviction as potentially making him unfit for the White House, that could spell trouble for Trump in a general election. He faces four different criminal trials, although it’s not at all clear which ones will be concluded by Election Day in November.
The first criminal trial on the calendar, his prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith in a Washington, DC, courtroom, is still tentatively scheduled to get underway March 4, the day before Super Tuesday, the busiest day of the 2024 presidential primary season. An appeals court is set to rule on whether Trump, as he argues, is immune from all prosecution related to his time as president.
On the other hand, even some Republicans who have tried tirelessly to defeat Trump have said they could ultimately support him.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed second-place Iowa caucuses finisher DeSantis and has been a frequent target of Trump’s verbal taunts. But she made clear this week that she would ultimately support Trump if he’s the nominee.
“I’m a Republican, and you know, all of the candidates running are going to be better than what we have,” she said on Fox News before the caucuses.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has been even more vocally opposed to Trump and has endorsed Haley, but Sununu told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins last week he would ultimately support Trump even if he’s a convicted felon.
“I think most of us are all going to support the Republican nominee – there’s no question,” he said.
The most vehement Trump opponent who ran for president as a Republican in this cycle, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, recently dropped out of the race but has not endorsed Haley or DeSantis.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com