Now that the results are in from the Iowa Caucuses, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what if anything they mean for the general election, so I assessed that issue at New York:
Donald Trump’s landslide victory in the Iowa Caucuses sealed his position as the overwhelming favorite to win a third straight Republican presidential nomination. For the millions of Americans who either hope or fear that our most-impeached and most-indicted president will consummate his comeback in November, the big question is what the Iowa results can tell us about the general election, beyond the high odds that Trump will be on the ballot.
The clearest answer is that Trump will be the nominee of a relatively well-united Republican Party that is familiar with his act in all its outrageous permutations and is fine with it. That’s quite the contrast with where he was the last time he participated in contested Iowa Caucuses, in 2016. Then he was an insurgent candidate who lost to the more conventional (if hard-core) conservative Ted Cruz, and eventually won the nomination by wearing down the opposition and taking a number of steps (including the choice of the hyper-conventional Mike Pence as his running mate) to win over skeptics. But even as the nominee he had a lot of intraparty problems; 33 percent of Republicans gave him an unfavorable rating in mid-October of 2016, according to Gallup.
The latest such poll this year, from YouGov, showed just 16 percent of Republicans giving him an unfavorable rating, despite eight intervening years of relentless mendacity, shout-outs to authoritarians, erratic (at best) management of a pandemic, and then the 2020 election denial followed by an attempted coup d’état via thugs invading the Capitol. And that’s just the high spots of a record that you’d think (and think wrong) might give a lot of Republicans pause about going to war with this particular general in the lead tank.
Yet as Iowa showed, they are plunging straight ahead. He won there by a record 30 points, with 51 percent, despite being heavily outspent by opponents on campaign advertising. Yes, caucuses like Iowa’s draw a very small percentage of voters, even within the limited universe of the GOP. But here’s the thing: Trump is actually doing a lot better in national polls of Republicans, registering the support of 61.4 percent of them in the RealClearPolitics averages. And the entrance polls in Iowa do indicate that Trump is winning broad support within the GOP, across ideological and geographical lines. Nothing happened there that should make you doubt the general election polling that shows him leading Joe Biden.
There are some shadows in the Iowa numbers for Trump, however, as the ever-insightful Ron Brownstein points out at The Atlantic after looking at the entrance polls:
“[N]oteworthy was voters’ response to an entrance-poll question about whether they would still consider Trump fit for the presidency if he was convicted of a crime. Nearly two-thirds said yes, which speaks to his strength within the Republican Party. But about three in ten said no, which speaks to possible problems in a general election. That result was consistent with the findings in a wide array of polls that somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of GOP partisans believe that Trump’s actions after the 2020 election were a threat to democracy or illegal. How many of those Republican-leaning voters would ultimately support him will be crucial to his viability if he wins the nomination.”
This confirms that Trump’s conduct on January 6, along with the criminal charges he faces, could have a crucial effect on the general election, even though these same factors may have actually helped him win the nomination (in part by forcing his most formidable rivals to defend him!). But it is very, very difficult to assess at this early point where exactly the various court procedures involving Trump will be just before and on Election Day, much less what exactly they will reveal and how the revelations (or the unprecedented spectacle of a presidential nominee in the dock) will affect the campaign and the outcome. You cannot just assume the people (in Iowa or elsewhere) who now say a criminally convicted Trump isn’t fit to serve as president will vote for Joe Biden or some other non-Republican candidate. How many of them said in October of 2018 that the swinish man revealed by the Access Hollywood tape would never get their vote for president … and then voted for him anyway just weeks later? Yes, Trump’s conduct and efforts to hold him accountable will become part of a powerfully presented comparative case by the Biden campaign to make voting for the Republican difficult if not impossible even for voters who aren’t happy with the incumbent’s performance. But it’s one of many variables that will determine how many swing voters there are in November and which way they will swing.
Trump’s hold on a majority of his partisans is fierce, though like Biden he is going to have some defectors, and it’s likely to be a close general election unless conditions in the country improve enough to lift Biden’s job-approval ratings significantly. Anyone hoping that Trump would stumble early on the road back to the White House is likely going to be disappointed.