Was Donald Trump buying or leasing the Republican Party when he descended that escalator in 2015?
At the time, many a longtime Republican tried to argue that Trump was no Republican, let alone a conservative. Just about every major figure in the party circa 2015 viewed him as an interloper, certainly not the avatar for what the GOP was then or would become later.
But eight years later, in the aftermath of Trump’s decisive caucus victory, it’s clear that he is no outsider anymore. He’s no “hijacker” of the GOP; he is the Republican Party. And, to the chagrin of a lot of small-government conservatives in my orbit, he has also redefined the very definition of the word “conservative” in the modern political dictionary.
How Ronald Reagan defined conservative is very different from how Trump defines it. The phrase “limited government” isn’t something Trump thinks much about, unless it has to do with government’s taxing or regulating real estate developers.
Outside of his own parochial interests of keeping government out of his businesses, Trump is actually an advocate for a big and “strong” government that is interventionist when he decides it should be. It isn’t small government, and it isn’t just “any” government — it’s his way, period.
These conclusions are easy to draw once you dive deeply into the Iowa entrance polls we conducted before the caucuses the first time Trump ran for president — the 2016 caucuses he lost — as well as the 2024 caucuses that he won Monday in a low-turnout rout.
As similar as the GOP of 2016 and the GOP of 2024 may seem, it’s striking how much the party has changed since Trump took over.
The clearest example of this evolution comes from one of the candidate quality questions we ask consistently on our exit and entrance polls of voters — about how important voters think it is to have a candidate “sharing my values.”
Of the four candidate qualities we tested, “sharing my values” was most important to Iowa voters both in 2016 and in 2024. But while that didn’t change, Iowa Republicans’ views of who shares their values certainly has.
In 2016, just 5% of Iowans surveyed in our entrance poll said Trump shared their values. Five of Trump’s competitors scored better on this candidate quality than he did: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Rand Paul.
Fast-forward to Monday evening, and it was Trump who scored highest among Republican presidential hopefuls on “share my values,” at 43%, ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, at 31%, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, at 13%.
Defining “values” is highly subjective, but it’s telling that the GOP of 2016 viewed Trump’s character suspiciously, which explains his low performance. Has Trump changed from who he was in 2016 to 2024 — or have the voters?
Or, more accurately, has Trump simply remade the party in his own image? It sure looks like he has changed the party.
Let’s go back to all the ways the 2024 Iowa GOP electorate is different from the 2016 electorate.
In 2016, the gender gap in the Iowa GOP electorate was just 4 points — 52% male, 48% female. Now? It’s 12 points — 56% male, 44% female.
How about the age of the electorate? This is another massive shift. In reporting out our survey work, we divided the electorate into four age groups: 17-29, 30-44, 45-64 and 65-plus. In 2016, the largest group of Iowa GOP voters fell into the 45-64 subgroup (46%). Seniors ages 65 and over were the next biggest chunk, at 27%.
Eight years later, the average age of the GOP electorate has skyrocketed. It was seniors who made up the largest share of the electorate in Iowa in 2024, at 41%, with 35% falling into the 45-64 category.
Another big shift with this electorate: self-described ideology. In 2016, just 40% of Iowa caucusgoers called themselves “very conservative,” compared to 45% who identified as “somewhat conservative.” This year, over half of caucus attendees, 52%, called themselves “very conservative,” compared to 37% who called themselves “somewhat conservative.”
Like the word “values,” it turns out the word “conservative” is also an “eye of the beholder” descriptor — because the dominant candidate among the 52% of “very conservative” Iowa Republicans was Trump, who received a whopping 61% of those votes. This is a 40-point improvement among self-described “very conservative” voters, who gave him just 21% support in 2016.
Also noteworthy is the number of evangelical voters who showed up. In both years, a majority of Iowa Republicans identified as evangelical or born-again Christian, but in 2016, the number was 64%. On Monday night, it was 55%.
So to sum this up, the Iowa GOP of 2024 was more male, older, less evangelical and more conservative. And factor in my thesis that Trump has become the definition to most Republicans of what is “conservative,” and you see how he has bent the will of the GOP in his direction.
Just last week, I was writing about whether former Rep. Liz Cheney should try to reform the GOP from the inside or give up and start a new “Conservative Party.” If what we saw in Iowa on Monday night is what the GOP electorate is basically going to look like nationally in 2024 (and I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary), then the answer is clear. The Republican Party is Trump’s party, and any challenge to it has to come from a new party on the outside, as opposed to from within.
As long as Trump is leading the GOP, there is no appetite for a different direction — especially if the candidates not named Trump don’t want to engage in that debate.
There’s a part of me that still wonders whether the GOP electorate would have been more engaged in a debate over its direction if either Haley or DeSantis were actually advocating against Trump’s direction, not just his character. Regardless, it does seem as if this current iteration of the GOP isn’t interested in a different direction.
And I emphasize “current iteration,” because another way to look at the change in Iowa from 2016 to 2024 is to see who has left the party. While Trump has increased the GOP’s appeal to men, older folks and the very conservative, he has turned off enough women, younger folks and moderates that they’ve left the party altogether — and that is why Haley and DeSantis weren’t even that close in Iowa.
In 2016, a number of these voters were still Republican and trying to rally around candidates like Rubio and John Kasich. Even Cruz made an appeal to these folks toward the end of his campaign.
In 2024, this pool of non-Trump GOP voters has shrunk, and it now appears the only chance for Haley (or DeSantis, if he chooses to engage in New Hampshire) is to hope that New Hampshire’s open primary system — and its unique political culture, which invites Democrats and independents into the presidential primary mix more than in other states — will give her a shot at defeating Trump.
And make no mistake, the pressure is all on Haley and DeSantis to win. Somewhere. Anywhere. There’s no more second place to fight over, because we are in the Ricky Bobby stage of this campaign already: If you ain’t first, you’re last. If Haley can’t beat Trump in New Hampshire, then where is she going to win? The same question can already be asked of DeSantis, because if he couldn’t beat Trump in Iowa, where he had more built-in advantages, including more money on the ground and the support of the popular governor, then where is he going to win? And neither can beat Trump if the other is still actively in this race.
New Hampshire has defied the conventional wisdom before and stopped coronations in the past — see the Democratic primary in 2008, when Hillary Clinton defied the polling indicating Barack Obama was about to pull off a clean sweep of Iowa and New Hampshire. That result sent that primary season into near-overtime.
While anything is possible, it’s hard to fathom a similar result next Tuesday. But, then again, who had both the Packers and the Lions in the second week of the playoffs and the Cowboys and the Eagles both out?
Iowa's general election warning signs for Trump
As sweeping as Trump’s caucus victory — and his makeover of the GOP as a whole — was in Iowa, there were some red flags in the entrance polling that could signal an eventual electability problem for him.
While a lot of anti-Trump doom-scrollers wanted to dunk on the two-thirds of Iowa Republicans who said a Trump conviction wouldn’t change their views about his fitness to serve as president, it’s notable that nearly a third of Iowa Republicans did indicate a conviction would be a problem — and 82% of them supported Haley or DeSantis.
While Democrats regularly wring their hands over the fact that President Joe Biden isn’t popular with a significant chunk of people who voted for him in 2020, it’s not as if Trump doesn’t have the same issue. The “suck it up” voters for both Biden and Trump are perhaps the most important segments of the entire electorate. (That’s what I call them because it’s the message Biden/Trump partisans basically use to get their party members in line.)
Both campaigns will have to figure out how many of these unenthusiastic voters they will need to rally to win, because — make no mistake — both candidates have a motivation problem.
The early-state lineup
Should Iowa and New Hampshire start to worry about their standing inside the GOP? In 2020, Biden didn’t crack the top three in either early state, and now neither is officially recognized by the Democratic National Committee as an official “early state contest,” having been supplanted (the Democrats hope) by South Carolina, Nevada, Michigan and Georgia.
While Trump might end up winning both early states, what should worry the GOP power brokers in both states who make good livings off the presidential process is that he is doing it without the help of either state’s GOP governor.
In fact, both Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (for DeSantis) and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (for Haley) endorsed against Trump, and both actively have worked hard on behalf of their preferred choices. We all know how transactional Trump can be. Don’t be surprised if some other set of state GOP leaders decides to use the Reynolds and Sununu decisions as ammunition to persuade Trump to punish those state parties and award the first contest of a future election cycle to it.
Knowing how easily Trump can be swayed on something like this, I wouldn’t rule out any state with a Trump club residing in it, even a large state like Florida or New York.