By Emma Shortis and Liam Byrne
Of course, on the day of the first nominating contest for the 2024 US presidential election, there was a storm.
In Iowa over the weekend, blizzards described as “life-threatening” by the National Weather Service brought with them temperatures well below freezing, up to 25 centimetres of snow and ferocious winds.
In these terrible conditions on Monday night, Republicans in the Hawkeye state gathered to choose their preferred candidate for president of the United States. Polls had suggested for a long time that they had already made their choice – former President Donald Trump was set to win in a landslide. The only real question was who would snatch second place.
Iowa holds a caucus vote in presidential nominating contests, as opposed to most other states, which hold primary votes. In the Iowa caucuses, registered Republican voters gather in small groups in their local diners, schools and churches, hear from candidate representatives and each other, and vote privately for their preferred candidate.
As always in US electoral politics, turnout is the main game – which explains the focus on the weather and how it might impact voters’ willingness to turn up.
Iowa was always Trump’s for the taking
Trump, who led recent polls by double digits, did not feel the pressure to mount the type of intensive campaigning that might be expected of a nominee wanting to maximise turnout and make a statement in the first nominating contest.
Why would he? Even when he was not physically present in the state – which was a lot of the time – this contest was already all about Trump. Even when the focus was ostensibly on the other candidates, what Republican voters really wanted to know was how they felt about Trump and his many felonies and constitutional breaches, and how they could have the temerity to challenge someone who has come to dominate the Republican Party to such an unprecedented extent.
As the snow closed in and the roads iced over, those leading competitors – Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy – scrambled to reschedule and relocate their campaign events in the final days before the caucus. But they were fighting more than just the weather.
As bitter as the campaigning between these candidates has been, it has been almost entirely aimed at each other. Not one of them has been prepared to make a substantive critique of Trump and what he stands for. Each has sought to cloak themselves in at least part of his political aura. And each was battling for second place.
In the end, the winner was declared before the caucuses had even finished. Just as predicted, Trump won Iowa by an overwhelming margin, with DeSantis and Haley neck and neck for second place.
The extent of Trump’s power over the party
While the result may have been a foregone conclusion, it is still significant.
The vote shows that the majority of Republican participants in Iowa were willing to publicly declare their support for a candidate who has incited an insurrection and been charged with 91 separate felonies, threatened violent retribution against his political opponents and promised to act as a dictator on “day one” of a potential second term in office. His speeches are also steeped in overt racism that once thrived only on the political fringes.
It is no longer possible to deny this political reality. This election is not like any other that has come before. It is not business as usual.
To an extent that is almost impossible to fathom, Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party. After the Iowa caucuses, it can no longer be said that he does so in spite of the multiple felony charges he faces, his disdain for democratic processes or his overt racism. Rather, it is because of all these factors that he has maintained the loyalty of a substantial, noisy and mobilised majority of the Republican base.
Some commentators hold out the forlorn hope that a Trump revival can still be averted. On current polling and performance, however, it is clear none of the other primary challengers are in a reasonable position to defeat him in the race for the nomination. Their only hope is that Trump may be tripped up by one of the multiple legal processes he is currently snared in. Though not impossible, nothing that has happened so far suggests this is likely.
But the size and extent of Trump’s victory in Iowa does not tell the whole story. Each of his challengers has defined their pitch for power largely in deference to Trump and have studiously avoided taking him on directly.
Haley, for instance, continues to pay obeisance to Trump’s accomplishments. Her recent refusal to name slavery as a fundamental cause of the US Civil War was not an act of historical ignorance. It was a signal sent to the Republican base that despite her previous positions on issues such as the Confederate flag, she is now willing to perpetuate and pander to the same racialised worldview as Trump.
DeSantis has frequently sought to position himself as the most activist anti-“woke” contender – a better Trump than Trump. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has sought to present himself (with little success) as a sleeker, next-generation Trump.
What does Iowa portend for democracy itself?
The positioning around Iowa, and the result, consolidate dynamics that have been underway for some time. The Republican Party remains in the grip of Trump because he is the most effective avatar of a brand of racial revanchism with deep roots in the United States.
By mobilising against what they perceive as threats to the established social order, Trump’s conservative base has been determined to use the institutions of the American state to consolidate its positions of power. It can then impose its worldview on the entirety of the country. The overturning of Roe v Wade by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court is a good example.
This is an explicitly racialised and anti-democratic movement that intends to impose the will of the minority over the lives of the majority. Every single Republican candidate who polled in Iowa is seeking to be the standard bearer of this movement.
The primary contest still has a long way to run. If there is any lesson from US political history, it is to expect the unexpected.
But this election is not business as usual. The current trajectory is clear, and it is dangerous: dangerous for American democracy, and as a result, dangerous for the world.
This storm is only just beginning.
Emma Shortis, Adjunct Senior Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University and Liam Byrne, Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne
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