The State of Play in Iowa: What to Know About the G.O.P. Presidential Caucuses

Voters in Iowa are about to cast their ballots, and we’re back, ready to guide you through what promises to be an election year like no other.

I’m Lisa Lerer, the founding writer of On Politics. As you’d expect at this time of year, I’m writing to you from chilly Des Moines, where I just outran some serious snow to cover the final week before the caucuses.

Typically, this is a period of the political calendar known for drama. Candidates race across the state, attack ads flood local television and Casey’s general store does rapid business in breakfast pizza.

This year is … not that, exactly. Donald Trump leads the polls by more than 30 points, despite visiting the state infrequently compared with his rivals. His expansive advantage has transformed the Iowa caucuses into a contest for second place. If none of Trump’s five rivals chip away at his lead, the caucuses could become more like an early coronation.

But Iowa loves to surprise. Just ask former President Barack Obama, who delivered a crucial blow to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Or Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who surged over the December holidays to win the contest that same year. Obviously, it didn’t work out that well for Huckabee, who lost the nomination to Senator John McCain.

In fact, Iowa has a terrible record of picking the Republican Party nominee. In the seven contested Republican races since 1980, the Iowa winner has captured the party’s nomination only twice: Senator Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996 and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in 2000. Even in competitive years, fewer than 200,000 Iowans typically participate in their party’s caucuses. That number could be even lower this year, given the subzero temperatures forecast for next Monday night.

The race for second

As often the case with Iowa, the stakes this year go beyond a simple victory. For Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, a strong second-place finish would catapult her campaign into the New Hampshire primary with the most coveted of political narratives: momentum.

For Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose standing in the race has slipped, this is make-or-break. If he doesn’t come close to either Haley or Trump, it will become increasingly difficult for DeSantis to justify continuing his bid for the G.O.P. nomination.

Trump’s speeches have focused on how he expects to roundly defeat President Biden in November. But in recent days, he has taken aim at Haley, accusing her of being “in the pocket” of “establishment donors,” and of being a “globalist,” my colleague Shane Goldmacher reported this weekend.

Haley is threatening not only to eclipse DeSantis for second place in Iowa but also to compete with Trump in New Hampshire, where independent voters are giving her a lift in a state with an open primary. Trump’s new line of attack suggests his campaign sees Haley as a possible roadblock to its goal of quickly locking up the nomination.

Watching from Wilmington, Del., is the Biden campaign. Publicly, Biden aides say they’re preparing to run against any of the Republicans in the field. But privately, they’re pretty confident Trump will be their general election opponent once again. Their argument echoes their pitch from four years ago, casting the election as a referendum on American democracy and fundamental freedoms like abortion rights.

In Charleston today, Biden tried to rally support among Black voters with a fiery speech at the pulpit of the South’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church. My colleague Peter Baker reports that Biden linked Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election to the nation’s history of white supremacy, which he called “the old ghost in new garments.”

One certainty of presidential politics: Past victories are no guarantee of future results. And this race promises to be a doozy. Biden, almost certain to be the Democratic nominee, would be the oldest presidential candidate in history. He’s widely unpopular, even among some key parts of his own coalition. The likely Republican nominee is facing 91 felony counts and is expected to pingpong through much of the election year from the campaign trail to the courthouse.

We’re here to help make sense of it all. You’ll hear from us three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — delivering your dose of political news from a revolving crew of top political reporters at The New York Times. For the next few months, I’ll be sharing this newsletter with my colleagues on the politics desk, including Reid Epstein, Adam Nagourney and Katie Glueck.

Before we close this very first newsletter of 2024, I would like to remember Blake Hounshell, our irrepressible and brilliant colleague who last helmed this newsletter and died last year at the age of 44. We miss him very much, and know he would have been as riveted by this campaign as we are.

With that, dear readers, I invite you to join us on this journey. Get ready: It’s gonna be a rocky ride.

Attendees prayed during an event held by former President Donald Trump’s campaign in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

A different kind of evangelical voter

White evangelical Christian voters have lined up behind Republican candidates for decades. But evangelicals are not exactly who they used to be.

Today, being evangelical is often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Donald Trump looms large.

“Politics has become the master identity,” said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor. “Everything else lines up behind partisanship.”

The Republican caucuses in Iowa will be a test of how fully Trump continues to own that identity. Among his rivals, Ron DeSantis has invested most heavily in courting Iowa evangelicals, securing the support of prominent leaders and emphasizing his hard-line bona fides on abortion. In early December, Trump had a 25-point lead over DeSantis among evangelical voters, according to a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

Karen Johnson identifies as an evangelical Christian, but doesn’t believe going to church is necessary. “I have my own little thing with the Lord,” she says.

Johnson’s thing includes podcasts and YouTube channels that discuss politics and “what’s going on in the world” from a right-wing, and sometimes Christian, worldview. No one plays a more central role in her perspective than Trump. She believes he can defeat the Democrats who, she is certain, are destroying the country.

“Trump is our David and our Goliath,” Johnson said recently as she waited outside a hotel in eastern Iowa to hear the former president speak. — Ruth Graham and Charles Homans

Read the full story here.

More politics news and analysis

Shutdown watch: The far right balks as Congress begins a push to enact a spending deal.

Protests: Demonstrators interrupted Biden’s South Carolina speech.

Weather update: A snowstorm in Iowa is hindering Republicans’ campaign plans.

Deep red: Once a competitive swing state, Iowa is now a Republican stronghold.

Need to know: The Pentagon is under pressure to explain the hospitalization of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

Ousted: The Republican Party of Florida voted out its chairman, who is facing a criminal sexual-assault investigation.

Job switch: Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure coordinator, is stepping down to help lead the president’s re-election campaign.

Find more live coverage and reporter updates here.

The scan

  • Nikki Haley avoided controversy for months — but not anymore, The Washington Post reports.

  • The shifting congressional map is complicating the election, Politico reports.

  • Michelle Obama says she’s terrified about the outcome of the 2024 election, CNN reports.

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