WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Former President Trump has always been the favorite to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
But his performance in Monday’s Iowa caucuses made clear what a mountain his party rivals need to climb to beat him.
Trump’s fate in a general election is a much different matter, of course.
He has lost the popular vote both times he has run, in 2016 and 2020 — and that was before the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, or Trump’s four indictments on 91 criminal charges.
Most polls show former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley beating President Biden by a wider margin than Trump does, though the polling on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s chances against Biden is much less definitive.
In any event, the prize immediately in front of Trump is the Republican nomination.
Here are four reasons why it’s hard to see how it can be prised from his grasp.
His voters show up
Before the caucuses, there were legitimate questions about whether Trump’s backers would turn out.
He was about 30 points clear in the polls and, as just about every preview of the caucuses noted, Iowans were experiencing savagely cold weather.
Even Trump seemed to fear complacency setting in, telling supporters at the one rally he held during the final weekend, in Indianola, that they should caucus as if “we are 1 point down.”
Meanwhile, aides began playing down expectations for a blowout victory.
They need not have worried.
The MAGA battalions showed up in force, carrying Trump to a 30-point victory and, importantly, lifting him above 50 percent of all votes cast.
To be fair, DeSantis also got his vote out. But Haley underperformed slightly, falling from the second place predicted in polls to third.
Some Trump detractors hoped that his support might be soft, or exaggerated in polls.
They were wrong in Iowa. There’s no reason to think they’ll be right elsewhere.
There is no sole alternative
Monday’s results were almost perfect for Trump because, in addition to the resounding margin of his victory, DeSantis and Haley were separated by only 2 percentage points.
The narrowness of the difference — and the fact that DeSantis secured second place — means that the Florida governor and the former U.N. ambassador will likely stay in the race for some time to come.
The longer Trump can put off a one-on-one match-up, the greater the chances that his lead will become impregnable — especially in the delegate race that ultimately decides the nominee.
In addition, it’s far from clear that DeSantis’s backers would migrate en masse to Haley if the Florida governor dropped out.
Iowa underlined how the supposed alternatives to Trump have huge vulnerabilities.
Iowa seemed tailor-made for DeSantis because of the influence of religious and social conservatives in the GOP caucuses. He lost by 30 points.
Haley struggled mightily to win the support of voters without a college education — an important bloc within the GOP.
According to the Associated Press “VoteCast” survey, caucusgoers without a college degree outnumbered those with a college degree: 61 percent to 36 percent.
Among the larger group, Haley received just 12 percent support. Trump got 63 percent.
The geographical path to beating him is vanishingly narrow
It’s not only a question of Trump’s numerical dominance. There’s also the primary calendar — and Iowa’s impact on the contests soon to come — to consider.
Haley has long seen her best chance of upsetting Trump to be in New Hampshire.
Unaffiliated voters in the Granite State can show up on primary day and request a ballot for either party’s contest. This, combined with New Hampshire’s history of delivering upsets, seems to make the state fertile ground for Haley.
In the polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ), Haley has closed to within 8 points of Trump.
But even if Haley were to win the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary, what then? Her hopes would rest on primary voters in her home state of South Carolina rallying to her side.
They conspicuously have not so far — Trump leads her in the DDHQ polling average by more than 2-to-1.
Haley’s third place in Iowa deprives her of a tailwind going into New Hampshire.
As for DeSantis, it’s just not clear what his path is. Perhaps the plan is to survive New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he trails far behind, hope Haley drops out and magically defeat Trump on Super Tuesday, March 5.
The chances of that actually happening look close to zero.
When all is said and done, it’s Trump’s party
Trump’s rivals have clearly made mistakes, including Team DeSantis’s well-documented internal strife and Haley’s more recent propensity for important missteps.
But their detractors often fail to grapple with a bigger reality.
It may be that Trump is simply unbeatable in a GOP primary in 2024.
Consider just a few data points:
Sixty-two percent of Iowa caucusgoers, according to the AP’s VoteCast, consider themselves supporters of the Make America Great Again movement that is synonymous with Trump.
Beliefs that once threatened to put Trump beyond the pale no longer do; 63 percent of caucus-goers falsely believe Biden’s election was illegitimate. Speeches in which he warns of “terrorists” crossing the southern border, once deeply controversial, now cause barely a ripple. The same goes for his false claims of election fraud.
The data from Iowa is consistent with the national picture, too.
In the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, 82 percent of Republicans said they held a favorable impression of Trump.
Haley and DeSantis have their flaws, for sure.
But nobody knows how Trump can be beaten in today’s GOP.