clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to decode the Iowa caucuses result

“Who wins” isn’t as simple as who comes in first. Here’s what Trump, DeSantis, and Haley each need.

Campaign signs for Republican presidential candidates, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron Desantis line the road in front of Drake University, where CNN hosted a presidential debate on January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The question of who will win the Iowa caucuses isn’t as simple as who comes in first place.

“Winning” Iowa doesn’t get you much except bragging rights and an insignificant number of delegates. The true importance of the contest is in how it can shape the perceptions of the political world — the media, donors, activists, politicians, and voters — of who can win.

So the candidates’ true goal is to exceed the expectations the political world has for their Iowa performance. Which means the results will need a bit of decoding.

For instance, if Donald Trump wins but his vote share or margin of victory is unexpectedly small, this will be covered as a shocking development that throws his seeming inevitability into question.

And a bad result in Iowa might not impact Nikki Haley’s campaign much, but such a result for Ron DeSantis would all but doom his hopes of defeating Trump. Here’s what each candidate needs.

Expectations for Trump are for a huge win

Donald Trump speaking into a microphone in front of a banner declaring “Trump country: Make America great again.”
Current Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on January 6, 2024, in Newton, Iowa.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Most political indicators currently suggest Trump will win the GOP nomination easily, and that the first step toward this will be a big win in Iowa.

Polls of Iowa Republicans show Trump getting about 50 percent support, more than 30 points ahead of any other competitor.

That’s where his expectations are set. If Trump ends up doing about that well, or even better, it will confirm the political world’s belief that he’s the overwhelming favorite.

The flipside is that if Trump underperforms polls — getting around 40 percent or lower, or having another contender come surprisingly close to him — he will be deemed a “loser” of Iowa even though he won because the results showed his support looking less rock-solid than expected. Much chatter would then ensue about whether he is more vulnerable than commonly believed.

An actual Trump loss in Iowa currently seems so unlikely that, if it happens, it would make the political cognoscenti question everything they think they know about this race.

Still, even a shocking Iowa defeat wouldn’t doom Trump’s campaign. He currently leads in every other state too. Iowa is understood to be kind of a quirky contest; weird things can happen there. And back during the 2016 nomination contest, Trump actually lost Iowa but went on to win anyway.

Expectations for Nikki Haley in Iowa are low

Nikki Haley holds a microphone while standing in front of a backdrop that reads “Pick Nikki January 15.”
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on January 11, 2024 in Ankeny, Iowa
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Haley, by contrast, has some upside in Iowa, but the consequences for a bad performance there may not be so awful to her.

That’s in part because Haley has been generally viewed as on the rise (even though her national poll performance remains quite weak). But it’s mainly because Haley has prioritized the next contest — New Hampshire’s primary on January 23 — over Iowa. She has been explicit about this, telling a New Hampshire town hall that their crowd would “correct” Iowa’s result.

Iowa’s conservative base and the heavy influence evangelical activists have there aren’t a great fit for Haley, who is running as more of a traditional establishment Republican. All last year, Haley was polling third in Iowa behind DeSantis, and most recent polls show her about tied with him (though one shows her jumping ahead to second).

In Iowa, Haley trails Trump by 35 points in polls. But in New Hampshire, she’s 14 points behind Trump, on average. The Granite State is clearly a more promising opportunity for her. And its voters are famous for thumbing their noses at Iowa’s picks, meaning they might not hold a bad Iowa performance against Haley.

The low expectations for Haley in Iowa even make it possible that, if she comes in a strong second place (ahead of DeSantis and closer than expected to Trump), she could be deemed the “real” winner by many in the political world. But either way, it’s New Hampshire that will determine whether Haley’s campaign is for real.

Ron DeSantis needs to do really well to show his campaign has a pulse

A sign reading “DeSantis 2024” is seen in a snowy field beside a road and three makeshift wooden crosses.
A sign supporting Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen on January 11, 2024 in Ogden, Iowa.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Because DeSantis’s campaign is so widely viewed as doomed, he needs a dramatic success in Iowa to alter those perceptions and justify staying in the race.

After spending much of the past year declining in the polls and losing donors, DeSantis has bet everything on Iowa as his best shot for a comeback. He has the endorsement of the state’s governor and has spent years cultivating right-wing activists.

But he’s spent most of the past year a distant second to Trump in Iowa polls, and the most recent polls show him and Haley — who, again, hasn’t prioritized the state — neck-and-neck. And, unlike Haley, he doesn’t have a more promising opportunity coming up: DeSantis is polling at an awful 6.5 percent in New Hampshire.

To revitalize his chances in the race, DeSantis really needs to over-perform in Iowa. A distant second place edging out Haley likely wouldn’t be good enough. Perhaps a strong second, much closer than expected to Trump, would do the trick. Anything short of that would likely mean curtains for him, since he’d lose his last remaining support from GOP donors.

Vivek Ramaswamy needs to prove he’s a real candidate

Vivek Ramaswamy holding a microphone in front of a backdrop of an American flag, a Don’t Tread On Me flag, and an Iowa flag.
Vivek Ramaswamy, chairman and co-founder of Strive Asset Management and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, during a campaign event at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024.
Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As for Vivek Ramaswamy, he’s more of a wild card. After a brief burst of attention several months ago, media and GOP voter attention have largely moved on from the former biotech CEO, who’s been stuck at single digits in polls nationally and in all the early states.

Polls do show Ramaswamy doing slightly better in Iowa (where he averages 6.5 percent) than in other early states (where he averages 3 to 5 percent). And he has been campaigning very intensely in Iowa, visiting each of the state’s 99 counties twice. If he has a hardcore base of intense supporters who are disproportionately likely to turn out, the low-turnout caucuses could be an opportunity to punch above his weight.

Conversely, an unimpressive performance in Iowa would likely suggest Ramaswamy won’t do too well anywhere else, either. Single digits are not enough anymore. Ramaswamy has tried to set an achievable expectation by saying he hopes to finish at least third in Iowa, but that would likely not be enough to make him a serious contender, given his lack of prospects in other early states.

Ramaswamy is largely self-funding his campaign and could theoretically stay in as long as he wants since donors won’t be able to force his hand by stopping payment of his staffers’ salaries. But anything other than an extraordinary overperformance in Iowa would result in him being written off by the political world.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.