Donald Trump’s Iowa caucus win attracts attention, but its predictive value is historically low due to unrepresentative demographics. Media should avoid overstating Trump’s success and political resurgence based on one caucus.

Donald Trump’s Iowa caucus win attracts attention, but its predictive value is historically low due to unrepresentative demographics. Media should avoid overstating Trump’s success and political resurgence based on one caucus.

N ews headlines reporting Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucus on January 15 give the impression of a much larger victory than should sensibly be drawn from this first expression of American electoral opinion in 2024.

Iowa grabs attention because it’s the first of the 2024 election primaries, but the historical record also shows that it has only predicted the eventual winner on six out of 13 occasions since it took on this role in 1972.

The last successful GOP candidate who won the Iowa caucus was George W Bush in 2000.

This is partly because Iowa, with just over 3 million inhabitants, represents less than 1% of the wider US population. Its voters are also much older, more rural, whiter (90%), more evangelical and less college-educated than the US at large. Although formerly a swing state Iowa has been solidly republican since 2016.

Those turning out to vote for Trump were also a smaller, self-selecting subset of even that tiny population. Those supporting Trump were 51% of those registered Republicans who turned out to vote on one of the coldest nights of the year amounted to just 110,298 people.

Similarly, Trump’s margin of victory needs context. His 51% share of the vote and margin of victory over the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, of 30%, are – as much of the press note – “unprecedented”. But so is the fact of a former president standing in the primary and caucus process. This has not happened since Herbert Hoover ran, and lost, in 1940.

Still styling himself “President Trump” and turning up with his secret-service detail in full view makes Trump unlike any of the other candidates. Similarly, his reputation, name recognition and constant presence in the news headlines over the past year have all contributed to his success in the mid-western state. So the result there has come as no surprise to close watchers of the process.

While Trump leaves Iowa in a strong position, there remains the possibility that former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – who ran third in Iowa – could do sufficiently well in New Hampshire and South Carolina to carry on throughout the primary process as an alternative to Trump. But to do so would require her to match Trump’s attacks on her with a more critical response to the record and reputation of the former president.

Her reluctance to do so suggests to some that Haley is running for the number two spot in order to be picked as a potential vice-presidential nominee. A more likely explanation for her failure to attack Trump harder is a desire not to alienate his fanatical base in the hope that she inherits the Republican Party nomination as a result of the unravelling of Trump’s current momentum due to legal reasons (he presently faces 91 criminal charges) or other unforeseen events.

— Still styling himself “President Trump”.

Biden wants Trump to win

Joe Biden’s response to the news from Iowa was conspicuously unflustered. He posted on X (formerly Twitter) that:

“Looks like Donald Trump just won Iowa. He’s the clear front-runner on the other side at this point.
“But here’s the thing: this election was always going to be you and me vs. extreme MAGA Republicans. It was true yesterday and it’ll be true tomorrow.”

— Joe Biden, on X

This is also how Biden and his team want it. Trump’s electoral record in national polls is dismal. He lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020, and candidates backed by him did very badly in the November 2018 and 2022 mild-term elections. By contrast, polls pitting Biden against either Haley or DeSantis show a marked improvement in the prospect for the Republican Party.

Not only has Trump proved a minority taste for Americans nationally, but the Democrats are banking on Trump’s legal woes having a negative impact on his national standing as the year progresses. As the New York Times notes “a mountain of public opinion data suggests voters would turn away from the former president” if he were actually convicted of a crime.

It is for this reason that Trump is employing every tactic possible to obstruct and delay any legal reckoning until after the primary process or, ideally, the general election in November itself. His hope is that by securing the Republican nomination, he will be able to portray all the legal cases against him as partisan interference in the American electoral process, and in doing so, he hopes to avoid legal accountability.

By contrast, the Democrats see such a process as their best chance of overcoming Biden’s own unpopularity with the electorate.

Negative ratings

Whatever way the Republican Party nomination process plays out, however, Iowa should not be confused with the support that Trump has on a national basis. Trump’s national favourability ratings currently stand at 42%. While these are slightly better than Biden’s at 41% the key point here is that the likely two contenders for November’s election are closely matched in their overall lack of appeal with the American population at large.

This is a very different picture from that painted by the news coverage from the Iowa caucus. So the media needs to be careful not to oversell the idea of Trump’s success. It would be wrong to reach the conclusion from this one result that his political resurrection and eventual electoral triumph is in some way inevitable.

PMP Magazine


Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 16 January 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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