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Iowa Caucuses: What to Watch as Voters Weigh in on the Republican Campaign's First Contest of 2024

A man walks across the street below a sign for the Iowa Caucuses in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 13, 2024.
A man walks across the street below a sign for the Iowa Caucuses in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 13, 2024.

As frigid temperatures scour the Midwest, the Republican presidential nominating process will officially start Monday with Iowa's caucuses.

The quadrennial contest has been unusually quiet this year, a mark of former President Donald Trump's commanding lead in the race. An arctic blast dropping the state into subzero temperatures and dumping snow during the final days of the runup didn't help, either.

But there's plenty to consider heading into the caucuses, and after years of speculation and maneuvering over who will face President Joe Biden this November, we'll finally have the first votes tallied.

Here are some things to watch.

Who wins second

Iowa appears to be a battle for second place given Trump's dominance. The real question is whether either of the two Republicans who lead the pack of very distant also-rans can make it a two-person race in the long run.

To do that, they probably need to at least come out of Iowa with a silver medal.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis once talked of winning the state, but he's lowered expectations to simply having a good showing. With his campaign apparatus in turmoil and funds drying up, he needs a strong finish in a state where its movement conservatives would normally be his natural audience.

FILE - Snow falls at the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 9, 2024, as a winter snow storm hits the state.
FILE - Snow falls at the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 9, 2024, as a winter snow storm hits the state.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's technocratic and consensus-building pitch doesn't seem tailor-made for Iowa, but the caucuses come just as she gained increased attention and financial support. Her strongest state may be the next one up, New Hampshire, and a second-place finish in Iowa could put her in a strong position as attention shifts to New England.

Rarely has so much ridden on a second-place finish in the first nominating state.

Who braves the cold?

Heading into the caucuses, much of the focus has been on Trump's strong standing. The surprise may ultimately be more about the turnout and who would benefit from the brutal winter storm limiting participation.

After all, the caucus isn't built for convenience. Those who participate must venture out after dark to one of 1,567 locations, almost always requiring a drive. The roads will be icy, the wind chill will be dozens of degrees below zero. Iowans are a famously hardy stock, but even they may flinch at venturing out in those conditions. The National Weather Service last week warned people not to leave their homes if possible.

On top of all that, people can be less motivated to vote in contests where winners are seen as inevitable.

On the flip side, Trump’s voters are very motivated to support him. DeSantis may benefit from having a deep organization to ferry nervous participants to caucus sites. Overall, conservative voters are excited to get 2024 underway — they’re angry at the state of things, like their candidates and see Biden as easily beaten in November.

The comparison will be 2016 when 186,000 Republicans turned out in the last competitive caucus. That's a small number to have such a huge role in determining the nominee to lead a country of 330 million. Will we see fewer people this time?

What's Trump's margin?

The polls have been impressive but you don't know how a candidate will fare until the votes are counted. Will Trump's polling dominance translate to a big win on Monday? Or will there be a surprise?

Trump has popped into the state in the final days of the contest, but he's also diverted his attention elsewhere in ways that are unusual for a candidate seeking to lock down an Iowa win. He, for instance, spent time last week at an appeals hearing in one of his criminal cases and the end of his fraud trial, hoping that would put him in better stead with Republican voters than crisscrossing Iowa. His rivals have dinged him for being gone, but it's unclear whether it'll hurt him in the state.

The odds of a surprise are always low — that's why they're surprises — but anything can happen in politics, especially with this weather. If Trump underperforms it could shake up a nominating contest that, to date, has been the sleepiest in modern memory.

Ramaswamy's mark

One of the more unexpected side plots in the 2024 Republican primary has been Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old pharmaceutical entrepreneur who wrote a book called “Woke, Inc.” and then decided to run for president. His aggressive, social media-driven approach initially attracted some curiosity from Republican voters but seemed to turn many off after he attacked rivals during the debates.

Ramaswamy's hard-charging style may not exactly be “Iowa nice,” but neither is Trump's and he's far ahead. Ramaswamy has been all over Iowa, hitting the campaign milestone of visiting all 99 counties in the state not once, but twice.

It's not clear what Ramaswamy is competing for — he goes out of his way not to criticize Trump, but flames all other candidates in a potential audition for the frontrunner's administration. Iowa will help determine whether he has a reason to keep running his quixotic campaign.