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To listen to the pundits and pollsters tell it, Monday’s lead-off caucuses are a critical test in the Republican primary. Months have been spent tracking the aspirants’ bobs and weaves, this tick up or down in polling, that endorsement or defection. For some candidates, the caucuses have been years in the making, the culmination of their first introduction to a national audience.
But here’s the dirty truth: when Republicans gather for their convention in Milwaukee this summer, less than 2% of the total delegates will be awarded from Iowa. No one wins the nomination in Iowa; there are only losers coming out of the 1,657 activist-run caucus sites scattered in high school gyms, church basements, and fire houses. No, the real prize is the Big Mo’, the sense of hope that the caucuses can bestow on the candidates hoping to derail ex-President Donald Trump’s third nomination in eight years.
Would it even matter? In the last five competitive Republican caucuses, the winner of Iowa averaged fewer than 37,000 supporters, ranging from the 1996 tally of 25,000 supporters behind Bob Dole to the 52,000 Ted Cruz fans who set the modern record in 2016. Among those five, dating to 1996, the most recent three winners in Iowa failed to be the actual nominee; the last to win Iowa and the big prize was George W. Bush in 2000. And all at the cost of millions upon millions of dollars; Republican ad spending in the state has topped $100 million this cycle alone.
As many GOP candidates have lamented, Iowa is hardly representative of the party as a whole. More people live in one square mile of Manhattan than will be behind Monday night’s Iowa winner. Yet candidates can’t ignore it. Plenty have tried skipping the Hawkeye State’s vast plains in favor of friendlier terrain. As Chris Christie knows well by now, it’s exceedingly difficult to pull off.
None of this is to disparage Iowa, a place where I’ve watched seemingly knowledgeable and competent national figures crumble into brow-beaten know-nothings as the party activists pepper contenders with detailed policy questions. The Christian Evangelicals there are a good test for candidates’ ability to message to the party’s base and can very quickly spot a huckster—or reward a Mike Huckabee. And the state’s tricky caucus system demands that candidates figure out how to build a machine beyond headlines and hype; it’s how Cruz bested the biggest braggart in politics in 2016.
Democrats, burned by the caucus system after the failure of the party’s app four years ago and looking for an electorate more representative of their party, decided to can Iowa’s lead-off position in 2024 and instead start their official calendar in South Carolina on Feb. 3. (New Hampshire, meanwhile, has something to say about that, and will have a rogue primary on Jan. 23 that won’t feature Joe Biden on the ballot.)
And yet, neither party can afford to ignore the message that Iowa will send on Monday night. If Trump dominates as expected, it will reaffirm his sense of inevitability heading into New Hampshire on Jan. 23. If Trump loses—or fails to meet expectations, as described by TIME’s Eric Cortellessa here—it sends him to New England with wobblier odds. The fight in Iowa appears to be for second place, and it has put Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on a collision course. A disappointing result could well be the end of the road for DeSantis, who has pinned the future of his campaign on a strong result in the caucuses.
Put simply: the result of Monday’s caucus matters as much as each watcher allows it to mean. Not because the outcome will determine who gets crowned at the convention this summer, but because it offers a hint about who is viable and—perhaps more importantly—who is not. The race is not won in the first moments, but you sure can stub a toe at a starting line and never recover from it.
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