DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump has won the Iowa caucuses, NBC News projects, cementing his firm status as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump, who is aiming to be the first former president since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s to return to office after losing re-election to a second consecutive term, scored a record-breaking showing Monday in the first contest of 2024.
He will receive a majority of the vote, NBC News projects, and his final margin of victory will surpass the 13 points that Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas won by in the 1996 Republican caucuses. And Trump's commanding performance is the strongest sign yet that there is no decisive demand for an alternative as the race shifts to next week's New Hampshire primary.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, prevailed over former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in what became the more closely watched battle for second place. But there is no guarantee that such a distant finish will afford him anything resembling momentum.
"I really think this is time now for everybody, our country, to come together," Trump said Monday while addressing supporters in Des Moines. "Whether it's Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative, it would be so nice if we could come together."
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy — who started the race as a Trump defender arguing for a new generation of leadership but had annoyed Trump in the race's closing days with some swipes at the former president — announced he was suspending his campaign after his fourth-place finish and endorsing Trump.
Neither DeSantis nor Haley made moves to drop out, and both argued that they are leaving Iowa in a position of strength. But their showings will not immediately reshape the dynamics of the race. Haley, according to the final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll last week, had leapfrogged DeSantis in Iowa, though there were warnings that her support might be soft. She also has been polling closer to Trump in New Hampshire.
Speaking to her supporters Monday, Haley asserted that it was now a "two-person race" between her and Trump. DeSantis, for his part, presented himself as resilient, even though he once vowed to win Iowa.
"They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us," the governor said at his caucus night event. "In spite of all of that they threw at us, we've got our ticket punched out of Iowa."
Trump, said a source familiar with his travel plans, will follow up his Iowa victory with a trip Tuesday to New York to attend his civil trial in a defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll, a writer whom Trump last year was found liable of sexually abusing and defaming in a separate trial. Afterward Trump will head to New Hampshire.
Turnout was the major unknown in the hours leading up to caucus time Monday. Heavy snow last week and bone-chilling subzero temperatures over the weekend made an icy mess of Iowa’s roads, and Monday’s high was, at best, forecast to be -2 degrees F.
The brutal weather probably kept would-be caucusgoers at home. Based on initial vote returns, NBC News estimated that there would be 115,000 Republican caucusgoers — substantially less than the nearly 187,000 who caucused in 2016, the last time there was a competitive GOP race for president.
DeSantis' second-place finish for now avoids a rock-bottom scenario. He began his White House push last year with the highest of ceilings, along with a campaign and aligned super PAC flush with more than $150 million in cash. But he has failed to perform to those lofty expectations, and he and his allies had spent much of the weeks leading up to the caucuses lowering them.
Where DeSantis once confidently predicted he would win Iowa, he more recently has insisted that he is in it for "the long haul." But finishing third would almost certainly have put pressure on DeSantis to end his campaign.
"They threw everything at Ron DeSantis," a senior DeSantis campaign official said Monday night. "They couldn’t kill him. He is not only still standing, but he’s now earned his ticket out of Iowa. This is going to be a long battle ahead, but that is what this campaign is built for. The stakes are too high for this nation and we will not back down."
The contrasts between Trump and Haley, meanwhile, were in stark relief in the converted chapel of the old Franklin Junior High events center in Des Moines, where several precincts caucused Monday night.
Haley appeared at the caucus site to make the pitch for herself, delivering a 10-minute version of her stump speech. Her microphone went out at one point. When it was replaced with another, she continued through her remarks despite periodic interruptions of a malfunctioning sound system. In a steady tone, she praised the values of faith, family and country, and then asked for support.
When Haley walked off, Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, took her place in front of an audience of roughly 200 people. Aside from pushing through his own struggles with the microphone, he took a different tack, launching several direct attacks on Haley, President Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. Trump Jr. said he sees Haley as “Hillary Clinton dressed up as a conservative for Halloween.”
Trump’s comfortable win reflects the loyalty he still commands among GOP voters, despite being under four criminal indictments and holding far fewer Iowa events than his rivals have. Although Trump canceled three of four Iowa rallies planned for over the weekend, blaming brutal winter weather, he made quicker, unannounced stops, picking up food at Casey’s, a gas station known for its pizza, and delivering pies to firefighters in Waukee.
Beyond his occasional visits and constant media presence, Trump augmented his Iowa campaign with a turnout operation much more sophisticated than the slapdash version he deployed en route to a second-place finish here in 2016.
Using reams of data, his campaign put a special emphasis on finding Trump fans who haven’t caucused in the past and turning them out to vote, according to a senior campaign official. The campaign’s approach to identifying and turning out voters was strikingly similar to that of other modern campaigns, including those of some of his rivals and their outside allies — a proficiency that Trump wasn’t known for in his previous White House bids. And Trump himself used his speeches and teleconferences with supporters to share information about how to caucus and where to find more information.
Precinct captains — more than one for each of the state’s 1,600-plus precincts — were each charged with getting 10 new voters to caucus, the official said. When Trump campaigned in Iowa on Sunday, he wore a gold-lettered “Trump Caucus Captain” hat, a nod to his phalanx of commissioned officers on the ground.
At his rally Sunday, Trump emphasized loyalty. He noted how Haley was challenging him after serving as his ambassador to the United Nations. He mocked DeSantis for begging for an endorsement in his 2018 bid for governor. He chastised Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose rise he also took credit for, for backing DeSantis. And he put a spotlight on his ability to bring vanquished rivals to heel, inviting North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whose campaign for the GOP nomination never took off, to join him on stage and offer an endorsement.
"There’s something," Trump mused at one point, "about the lack of loyalty in politics."
Trump’s vice-like grip on the party faced a surprisingly bold challenge from Ramaswamy, who initially positioned himself as a next-generation Trump — someone less threatening and more deferential to the former president. Trump’s advisers appreciated Ramaswamy’s slashing attacks on Haley at the early debates. But in recent weeks Ramaswamy’s kindness and fealty gave way to a strenuous new pitch that Trump’s legal woes had rendered him damaged goods.
"Very sly," Trump posted Saturday on Truth Social, "but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the 'other side' — don’t get duped by this. Vote for 'TRUMP,' don’t waste your vote! Vivek is not MAGA.”
But Trump largely avoided harsh criticism from his rivals. The indictments against him, including charges stemming from his behavior leading up to the riot by his supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, only seemed to embolden him. Most of his rivals, with the exception of former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who finished at the bottom of the GOP pack Monday, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race last week, rushed to Trump’s defense by dismissing the investigations into him as political.
Trump’s poll numbers began rising at a time when his legal issues mounted and when DeSantis was trying to establish himself as a strong alternative. But until recently, DeSantis resisted campaigning on Trump’s troubles. And many of the other Republican candidates at the first debate last summer, DeSantis included, raised their hands when asked if they would support Trump as their party’s nominee — even if he had been convicted of a crime.
Christie, a one-time Trump ally who ran as a Trump scold, polled relatively well in New Hampshire but was surpassed by Haley. Former Vice President Mike Pence, whose refusal to block certification of President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 enraged Trump and his supporters who stormed the Capitol, never gained traction and dropped out in October.
DeSantis and Haley both hit Trump harder down the stretch toward Iowa. But they didn’t aggressively advertise against him and their attacks often centered on more prosaic issues, such as his refusal to defend his record and answer questions on the debate stage.
Trump often fell back on his poll numbers when asked why he wouldn’t debate. Occasionally, he made it clear that he knew his legal situation had only solidified his status in the party.
"Every time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls," Trump told his audience last August at an Alabama GOP dinner. "We need one more indictment to close out this election. One more indictment, and this election is closed out. Nobody has even a chance."
CORRECTION (Jan. 15, 2024, 10:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article mischaracterized the jury's finding last year in the defamation case against Trump brought by E. Jean Carroll. Trump was found liable for sexually abusing and defaming her; since it was a civil trial, he was not found guilty.