It took the editors at The Associated Press’ elections desk all of 31 minutes to publish their conclusion, with voting in Iowa barely underway: Donald Trump was the runaway winner of the first contest in the 2024 GOP primary, notching the biggest victory ever in a contested caucus in that state.
Trump’s blowout victory solidifies his commanding position atop the Republican field, leading many to wonder whether the race to take on President Joe Biden in November was all but over before it began. By the time Iowans trudged through the snowy night to cast their votes, his victory was all but certain.
The real contest Monday night was between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who were locked in a battle for second when Trump took the stage Monday night to call for the party to unite around him. “We are going to come together. It’s gonna happen soon, too. It’s gonna happen soon,” Trump said at a victory party in Des Moines a little before 10 p.m. local time. “I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a good time together. We’re all having a good time together. I think they both actually did very well.” As Trump was finishing his remarks on stage in Des Moines, the AP declared DeSantis the silver medalist.
Read More: Inside Ron DeSantis’s Final Push in Iowa.
Both DeSantis and Haley are often mentioned as players in the GOP’s future. But Iowans—like so many Republicans, from Maine to California— remain in Trump’s grip. The AP call for Trump was as sudden as it was sure. Trump’s campaign headquarters hadn’t even started admitting supporters yet. At the dejected offices of rival campaigns, advisers huddled around their data platforms trying to assess how the fight for second place was shaking out. DeSantis’ advisers accused the media of rigging the results for Trump, deterring Iowans from heading out to cast their vote by declaring a winner as caucuses were still ongoing. But his team was happy to emerge with a second-place finish that offered a ticket to next-up New Hampshire.
The outcome was less important for Haley, who has slowly climbed in, in Iowa and nationally, propelled by capable debate performances, massive outside spending, and a perception that she was the candidate most capable of building a winning coalition, despite her reluctance to take on Trump directly.
Read More: Nikki Haley’s Slow Burn Was No Accident.
DeSantis, meanwhile, went all-in on Iowa. With a lurch to the right on education, racial history, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and even a culture-war feud with Disney, the Florida governor seemed to chase an agenda that could make him viable to the largely white, Evangelical, and conservative Iowa electorate. A full 54% of caucus-goers described themselves as white Evangelical or born-again Christians, down from 64% in 2016—suggesting DeSantis’ team was running the last campaign and not this one. Among caucus-goers, 46% specifically were white, working-class voters—and Trump carried them by a two-to-one margin. The entrance polls taken as caucus-goers showed up reveal a party in full thrall to Trump. A full 44% of Iowa Republicans describe themselves as Make America Great Again disciples. Some two-thirds do not believe Biden actually won the presidency in 2020. And 63% of Republicans said that a potential Trump conviction would be immaterial to his fitness to serve another term in the White House.
Iowa is always a culling ground for also-rans. Moments after Trump left the stage, fourth-place finisher Vivek Ramaswamy announced he was dropping out of the race and endorsing Trump. “We’ve looked at it every which way and I think it is true that we did not achieve the prize we wanted to deliver tonight,” the tech entrepreneur told supporters. “There is no path for me to be the next President absent things that we don’t want to see happen in this country.”
Ahead of the results, some of DeSantis’s backers pressed his inner circle about the candidate’s next steps should he trail Haley when all the caucuses were counted. These DeSantis donors were debating among themselves whether to align with Haley or accept that Trump was their best bet in the end, according to one fundraising consultant. Those questions were less urgent with DeSantis’ second-place finish, which will carry him on to New Hampshire. But neither that state nor the ones immediately following, including Haley’s native South Carolina, look like fertile ground for a DeSantis comeback.
The fight is finally starting to winnow to one against Trump. The frontrunner from the start, Trump’s standing has only increased with every passing indictment, lawsuit, and challenge to his eligibility for office. Trump has convinced rank-and-file Republicans that he is their warrior in this race; 81% of Trump supporters in Iowa said they went with him because he’s fighting for people like them.
There may yet be a firewall against Trump’s third nomination in eight years. New Hampshire has a history of rejecting Iowa’s judgments, and South Carolina could deliver a surprise. Haley’s fourth-quarter fundraising haul didn’t hurt, either. But with Trump’s commanding win and indifference to political gravity, he has cemented himself as the prohibitive favorite in the GOP primary in its opening contest.