Jan 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How a Trump win could smoke or stoke Iowa's second-place finisher

Animated illustration of the state of Iowa with gears turning inside it, over a red background.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Iowa caucuses' coveted top three spots have historically provided presidential campaign boosts. But if former President Trump's margin matches his current lead in polls, even the second-place spot might not matter much this year.

Why it matters: Trump's margin of victory during the pivotal first-in-nation contest could make or break the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.

State of play: A majority of polls show the former president leading his nearest Republican rival in the caucuses by more than 30 percentage points.

  • If that margin holds on Monday, it'll signal that other campaigns aren't viable, David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, told Axios.

"I'd like to think it's going to be competitive but it's going to be tough," Will Rogers, a longtime Republican Des Moines operative and Nikki Haley supporter, confirms to Axios.

Yes, but: If the margin between Trump and another candidate falls below 15 percentage points, that could stoke the campaign of his nearest rival and affirm the past power of a second place in Iowa, both Redlawsk and Rodgers confirmed.

Flashback: Then-former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and first-time candidate Trump in 2016 are among candidates who finished in second place in Iowa GOP caucuses and went on to capture the party's nomination.

  • Ron Paul and Marco Rubio experienced campaign momentum following third-place finishes in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

What we're watching: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is under the most pressure to perform well Monday since he has invested much of his presidential efforts in Iowa, according to Sabato's Crystal Ball, one of the nation's most prominent political prognosticators.

Meanwhile: Results in Des Moines' suburbs and counties with major universities could show Trump's electoral weakness, "to the extent" he shows any, Sabato authors wrote.

Go deeper