What to watch out for in Iowa, the first contest of the 2024 GOP primary

It’s finally here: the first test of the Republican primary field at the hands of voters.

Four prominent Republican candidates have charged into the Buckeye state hoping for different outcomes. Donald Trump, the frontrunner, wants a convincing victory to signal to voters (and donors) that the race is all but wrapped up. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are hoping for shock successes that will give them the momentum needed to overtake Mr Trump in later states, such as New Hampshire. And Vivek Ramaswamy is hoping for a shot of adrenaline in the heart of his struggling campaign following an unceremonious exclusion from the debate stage lineup.

Chris Christie, seeing himself wholly uncompetitive in the first contest of 2024 — and losing ground in New Hampshire — has thrown in the towel.

Political analysts hoping for clues about the trajectory of the rest of the primary, and most crucially an answer to the question of whether anyone has a chance at beating Mr Trump, are also looking at Iowa closely. Monday’s results will likely determine the fate of several candidates, while also providing a window for speculation about the general election.

Here’s what The Independent is keeping an eye on over the weekend:

The Haley surge — is it real?

This is Nikki Haley’s moment, and she knows it. After months of focusing much of her efforts in the relatively friendlier territory of New Hampshire, the former governor and ambassador embarked on a last minute Iowa barnstorm these past few weeks as polling suddenly showed her closing the gap and even possibly overtaking second-place Ron DeSantis across Iowa. That leaves two potential boons for her campaign on the table: a boost of momentum that could carry her into New Hampshire, where she is polling competitively against Mr Trump, and the other prospect of dealing an early deathblow to the DeSantis campaign.

The collapse of her greatest rival among the Trump-alternatives could significantly benefit Ms Haley’s bid. It could also backfire, though, if more of Mr DeSantis’s supporters decide to come home to Donald Trump following his downfall.

Donald Trump — can he win it all?

It’s not just Nikki Haley’s moment. This should be Donald Trump’s moment, too.

Iowa is ideal ground for the former president as he seeks to wrap up the nominating contest and convince fellow Republicans to throw in the towel. To do that, he needs a victory in Iowa — a convincing one, something to the tune of 15-plus points. Anything less guarantees that this primary will be dragged out for at least another month, as he heads into a barnburner against Ms Haley in New Hampshire.

That kind of result is almost just as unlikely as Ms Haley or Mr DeSantis pulling off a surprise first-place showing, though not quite. One thing is for sure, though; the argument for him to hide from debates with his opponents becomes much thinner if he does not win by at least a comfortable margin.

The weather — will it matter?

Putting too much stock into weather-related phenomena having a noticeable effect on election results is usually just asking for embarrassment. But this year may be an exception: forecast for Monday is for brutally cold temperatures, including a wind chill far below zero. In a year when voter enthusiasm is thought to already be in short supply, blizzard-esque conditions could actually come into play in some small way — quite possibly affecting the candidate whose voters presume that he will win, Donald Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy — will he drop out?

Mr Ramaswamy, the right-wing gadfly playing for the 4chan-adjacent wing of the Republican Party, has thrown everything he’s got into Iowa. Even as snowy conditions grew more severe throughout the week, the struggling Ramaswamy campaign attempted to continue a late-game push for voters across the state, leading at one point to his vehicle being trapped on an unplowed road. He even appeared virtually at one event, an aide positioning a tablet on her lap while the GOP candidate delivered his message.

A disappointing performance for Mr Ramaswamy on Monday will almost certainly put a nail in his coffin. Whether he continues on as the lowest-performing candidate now seemingly unable to qualify for the debate stage appears to be in question.

Iowa officials — will they screw up?

The big headlines out of Iowa in 2020 were not centred around any one candidate. Instead they focused on an unprecedented technology failure that delayed the results of the Iowa caucus and plunged the state into recounts for days. Eventually, Pete Buttigieg came out ahead in the Democratic contest in terms of delegates, while Bernie Sanders won the popular vote. But the damage was done; the Democratic Party has abandoned the state as its choice for the party’s first-in-the-nation contest.

Now, the stage is set for the state to either redeem itself in the eyes of national political experts or further throw its political relevancy into question. A second cycle in a row plagued by technological screwups or good, old-fashioned human error could result in the GOP shaking up its primary and caucus calendar too.

That decision would torpedo Iowa’s prominence in the primary calendar and would have noticeable effects on the state’s media and tourism economies, too.