Was Donald Trump buying or leasing the Republican Party when he walked down that escalator in 2015?
At the time, many long-time Republicans tried to argue that Trump was not a conservative, but a Republican. In 2015, nearly every major figure in the party viewed him as an interventionist, certainly not the avatar the GOP would become then or later.
But eight years later, after Trump’s decisive victory in the caucuses, it is clear that he is no longer an outsider. He is not a GOP “gypsy”; he does Republican Party. And, to the chagrin of many small-government conservatives in my orbit, he also redefined the word “conservative” in the modern political vocabulary.
How Ronald Reagan defined a conservative is very different from how Trump defines it. The phrase “limited government” isn’t something Trump thinks much about unless it has something to do with government taxation or regulation of real estate developers.
Aside from his own parochial interests in keeping the government out of his business, Trump is actually an advocate of big and “strong” government that intervenes when he decides to. This isn’t small government, and it isn’t just “any” government—it’s its way, its era.
These conclusions are easy to draw when we delve into the polls we conducted in Iowa before Trump first ran for president — the 2016 caucuses he lost, as well as the 2024 election he narrowly won on Monday. .
While it looks like 2016 is the GOP and 2024 is the GOP, it’s amazing how much the party has changed since Trump took office.
The clearest example of this evolution is one of the candidate quality questions we consistently ask voters in our exit and entry surveys—how important voters think it is to have a candidate who “shares my values.”
Of the four candidate qualities we tested, “sharing my values” was the most important to Iowa voters in both 2016 and 2024. But even if that doesn’t change, Iowa Republicans certainly have an idea of who shares their values.
In our 2016 entry poll, only 5% of Iowans said Trump shared their values. Five of Trump’s rivals did better than him in this quality of candidate: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Rand Paul.
Fast forward to Monday evening, and Trump, who has the highest “share my values” score among Republican presidential candidates, is ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with 31% and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley with 13%. %.
Defining “values” is highly subjective, but it does suggest that the 2016 GOP is skeptical of Trump’s character, which explains his underperformance. Did Trump change from 2016 to 2024, or did the voters?
Or, rather, has Trump simply changed the party with his image? He seems to have changed the party.
Let’s go back to all the ways the 2024 Iowa GOP electorate is different from the 2016 electorate.
In 2016, the gender gap in the Iowa GOP electorate was just 4 points – 52% male, 48% female. Now? 12 points – 56% men, 44% women.
What is the age of the electorate? This is another massive change. In reporting our survey work, we divided voters into four age groups: 17-29, 30-44, 45-64 and over 65. In 2016, the largest group of Iowa GOP voters fell into the 45-64 subgroup (46%). Those 65 and older were the next largest group at 27%.
Eight years later, the median age of the GOP electorate has risen. In 2024, the largest share of voters in Iowa was 41%, with 35% in the 45-64 category.
Another big change with this electorate: self-described ideology. In 2016, only 40% of Iowans described themselves as “very conservative” and 45% as “somewhat conservative.” More than half of the group’s participants this year, 52%, called themselves “very conservative,” and 37% called themselves “somewhat conservative.”
Like the word “values,” the word “conservative” turns out to be an “eye of the beholder” descriptor — because among 52% of “very conservative” Iowa Republicans, Trump was the dominant candidate with 61% of the vote. of those voices. That’s a 40-point improvement among self-described “very conservative” voters, who supported him at just 21% in 2016.
The number of participating evangelical voters is also noteworthy. In both years, a majority of Iowa Republicans identified as evangelical or born-again Christian, but in 2016 the number was 64%. Monday night it was 55%.
So, to summarize, the Iowa GOP of 2024 was more male, older, less evangelical, and more conservative. Also note my thesis that Trump has become the definition of what “conservative” is for most Republicans and you see how he is bending the will of the GOP in his direction.
Last week I was writing if I passed Rep. Liz Cheney should try to reform the GOP from within or give up and start a new “Conservative Party”. If what we saw in Iowa Monday night is what the GOP electorate will look like nationally in 2024 (and I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary), then the answer is clear. The Republican Party is the party of Trump, and any challenge to him must come from the new party on the outside, not from within.
As long as Trump leads the GOP, there’s little appetite to go the other way — especially if the non-Trump candidates don’t want to participate in the debate.
There’s a part of me that still wonders if Haley or DeSantis would have argued more about Trump’s direction if Haley or DeSantis had spoken out against Trump’s direction, not just his character. Regardless, this current iteration of the GOP shows no interest in a different direction.
And I emphasize “current iteration” because another way to look at the change in Iowa from 2016 to 2024 is to see who left the party. While Trump has increased the GOP’s appeal to men, the elderly and the very conservative, he has alienated enough women, young people and moderates that they have left the party altogether — so Haley and DeSantis weren’t all that close. In Iowa.
In 2016, some of these voters were still Republicans, trying to rally around candidates like Rubio and John Kasich. Cruz even appealed to these people near the end of his campaign.
In 2024, that pool of non-Trump GOP voters has dwindled, and now Haley’s (or DeSantis if she chooses to run in New Hampshire) only chance is to hope for New Hampshire’s open primary system and its unique political system. A culture that invites more Democrats and independents to presidential elections than other states will give him a chance to beat Trump.
And make no mistake, all the pressure is on Haley and DeSantis to win. Somewhere. Everywhere. There’s no second place to fight because we’re already in the Ricky Bobby phase of this campaign: If you’re not first, you’re last. If Haley can’t beat Trump in New Hampshire, then where will she? The same question can already be asked of DeSantis, because if he can’t beat Trump in Iowa, where he has more insider advantages, including more money on the ground and the support of a popular governor, then where does he go? winner? Neither can beat Trump if the other is still active in the race.
New Hampshire has defied conventional wisdom before and stopped coronations in the past — see the 2008 Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton defied polls that showed Barack Obama sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire. The result almost sent the preseason into overtime.
While anything is possible, it’s hard to imagine a similar result next Tuesday. But then again, who were both the Packers and the Lions and the Cowboys and the Eagles in the second week of the playoffs?
Iowa’s general elections are warning signs for Trump
Trump’s victory in the caucuses — and his transformation of the GOP as a whole — had some red flags that could point to eventual electoral trouble for him in the Iowa caucuses.
While many anti-Trump doomsayers want to break the two-thirds of Iowa Republicans who say they won’t change their minds about Trump’s fitness to serve as president, it’s remarkable that nearly a third of Iowa Republicans did. indicate that a conviction would be an issue — and 82% of them supported Haley or DeSantis.
While Democrats regularly wring their hands about President Joe Biden being unpopular with a significant portion of the people who voted for him in 2020, it’s not as if Trump doesn’t have the same problem. For both Biden and Trump, “swallow it” voters are perhaps the most important segments of the entire electorate. (I call them that because it’s the message the Biden/Trump partisans use to line up party members.)
Both campaigns will have to figure out how many of these reluctant voters they need to rally to win because — make no mistake — both candidates have motivation problems.
Early state lineup
Should Iowa and New Hampshire start worrying about their standing within the GOP? In 2020, Biden missed the top three in both early states, and none are now officially recognized as official “early state contests” by the Democratic National Committee, with South Carolina and Nevada (Democrats hope) being edged out. Michigan and Georgia.
While Trump may have won both early states, what worries GOP power brokers who have profited handsomely from the presidential run in both states is that he is doing so without the help of a GOP governor in either state.
In fact, both Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (for DeSantis) and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (for Haley) have endorsed Trump, and both have actively campaigned for their picks. We all know how operative Trump can be. Don’t be surprised if some other state GOP leaders decide to use Reynolds and Sununu’s decisions as ammunition to convince Trump to punish those state parties and give him the first contest of the next election cycle.
Knowing how easily Trump can influence something like this, I wouldn’t rule out any Trump club state, even a big one like Florida or New York.