It’s caucus day in Iowa, and all signs point to a decisive win for Donald Trump.
The former president has been a consistent frontrunner in surveys.
But even if Trump takes home a first place trophy, the contest will make news. With so few candidates left in the field, the person who comes in second might be the only one with a chance at competing with Trump.
From left: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former President Donald Trump. (Getty Images)
IOWA VOTERS PREPARE TO HEAD TO POLLS AMID BITTER COLD AS FIRST GOP CAUCUSES NEAR
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are the best positioned to take home that silver medal. And given that those candidates are only separated by a few points in recent surveys, we could be in for a long night.
So, for an early look into the statewide result, watch the returns from these counties. They will tell us something about the shape of the overall race.
The rural counties where Trump is expected to win big
Donald Trump has a strong bond with voters across the Hawkeye State, but it’s rural voters who like Trump most.
Low income, non-college educated, and/or evangelical voters are also more likely to live in rural areas, and these groups are critical elements of Trump’s base.
The good news for Trump is that Iowa is home to dozens of sparsely populated rural zones. 48 of the state’s 99 counties have fewer than 15,000 residents.
Donald Trump arrives on stage during a campaign event at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, US, on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Collectively, they add up to a powerful voting bloc.
Trump will look to run up the margins as much as possible across all 48 of those counties, and beyond.
He has the most work to do in deeply rural counties like the ones below, where Trump had some of his lowest vote shares in 2016:
- Winnebago County, in the north (18.6%)
- Hancock County, also in the north (18.8%)
- Montgomery County, in the southwest (20.7%)
- Grundy County, in central Iowa (20.9%)
- Delaware County, near the eastern border (22.2%)
(He had similarly low vote shares in the most evangelical rural counties, as we’ll discuss later.)
Trump is poised to do much better in these counties than he did eight years ago. The higher the margin, the tougher it will be for both of the leading alternatives, especially DeSantis, to break through.
TRUMP, HALEY AND DESANTIS HAVE PLENTY ON THE LINE AS IOWA CAUCUSES KICK OFF THE GOP PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Counties with the most populated cities
Nikki Haley is running a different campaign to Donald Trump’s. Her record and policies, particularly on foreign policy and spending, are more appealing to non-Trump and/or pro-establishment GOP voters.
As a result, Haley over-performs with urban and suburban voters.
For her to do well on caucus night, she will need to collect as many raw votes as possible in the highest-populated cities.
Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event at The James Theater in Iowa City, Iowa, US, on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An ideal night for Haley would look similar to Marco Rubio’s performance in 2016. He captured 23% of the overall statewide vote, mostly on the back of strong performances in the urban counties.
Here are those counties, along with Rubio’s share:
- Polk County, home to Des Moines (26.9%)
- Scott County, home to Davenport (26.2%)
- Johnson County, home to Iowa City and the University of Iowa (30.5%)
Despite her second place finish in both the Des Moines Register/NBC News and Suffolk surveys this week, Haley also has an enthusiasm problem: a majority of her voters say they are only mildly or less enthusiastic about her.
So look for Haley’s vote share and overall turnout in the places where she’s expected to do best.
The ‘evangelical square’ in northwest Iowa
By talking about his record on issues like abortion and transgender surgery, Ron DeSantis has been trying to persuade voters that he is the most socially conservative candidate in the field.
His goal is to win over White evangelical voters. They have historically been the driving force behind caucus winners, including Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event at The Grass Wagon on January 13, 2024, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
The effort has not been very successful: 51% of evangelicals say Trump is their first choice in the DMR survey.
DeSantis is the next best, with 22% of the evangelical vote. That’s six points higher than his overall performance in the state.
To see how DeSantis performs with that group on caucus night, watch these four counties in the northwestern corner of the state, all home to a very high percentage of White Christian populations:
- Lyon County (87%)
- Osceola County (83%)
- O’Brien County (82%)
- Sioux County (81%)
There are others scattered throughout the state. Watch returns in Shelby County (83%), Pocahontas (83%) and Monroe (82%).
A blizzard slams into Iowa just ahead of the state’s highly anticipated GOP presidential caucuses. (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)
To be clear, DeSantis will need to do a lot more than outperform in these counties. They only have small populations; the Florida governor would need to do well with evangelicals statewide for a strong second place finish.
But an outperformance for DeSantis tomorrow starts with strong evangelical margins. The northwest will show us whether that strategy is working.
Calhoun County could provide hints at the statewide result
Finally, keep an eye on Calhoun County. This rural county near the eastern part of the state is home to just 9,725 people, but its voters closely matched the preferences of the entire state in 2016.
In Calhoun, Cruz won 28.6% of the vote. Statewide, he got 27.6%.
Trump received 24.4% of the vote in Calhoun, just 0.1 percentage points away from his statewide total of 24.3%.
Even Rubio’s share was about the same: 21.7% in Calhoun, 23.1% overall.
No other county got this close to the overall result.
That could make Calhoun a useful indicator of the statewide result this time around. And with so few people, its results should come in quickly.
We’ll know whether Calhoun is still a leading indicator – and how useful all of these counties are to the overall vote – when results start coming in tonight.
Stay tuned to Fox News Channel
Fox team coverage continues throughout caucus day. Our reporters are following the campaigns as they make their last-minute pitches to voters.
Caucuses convene at 8PM ET (7PM in Iowa). Since these are meetings that begin with speeches from the campaigns, among other formalities, expect to wait before the first results become available.
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Throughout the evening, stay tuned for exclusive insights from the Fox News Voter Analysis and the Fox News Decision Desk, which will call the race.
At 10PM ET, special coverage begins with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.