Iowa’s Silver Lining
Amid lots of bad news about the Republican primaries, there’s a sliver of good news about the general election.
NO QUESTION THAT A 30-POINT VICTORY for Trump was not the ideal outcome of the Iowa caucuses. Voters have only two opportunities to prevent the return to power of a Putin-besotted, antisemite-praising, Constitution-terminating, multiple felony indictee—the primaries and the general.
It would have been better if Trump had been rebuked early and hard by Republican voters. But that was not to be. Once the first indictment was handed down in New York in the hush money for porn star case, the die was cast. The party faithful—partly because the Bragg indictment was legally shaky and pretty easily dismissed as politically motivated—rallied round their prosecuted, persecuted hero. I said partly because it wasn’t just that the indictment was a stretch, it was also that MAGA Republicans so dearly want the accusations to be false. To admit otherwise opens the door to considering that he may really have obstructed justice and blithely endangered national security in the classified documents case, lied about and attempted to steal an election, and looked on with depraved satisfaction as his minions searched for Mike Pence—to commit murder. (Even now, despite everything we’ve witnessed, I still cannot believe I must write those words.)
We’ll never know if things would have been different absent the Bragg indictment. Would the rally-round-the-mob-boss effect have been as pronounced if the classified documents in the bathroom case had gone first? Or if Ron De Santis hadn’t proved such a doofus candidate? Or if all of the GOP candidates in the race had run as Christie did? We cannot know.
A word about Chris Christie: He based his whole campaign on speaking the truth, and he did until the very end. Maybe it had an effect, maybe it didn’t. But it was the right thing to do. Here at The Bulwark, we have a similar mantra: We tell you what we really think—without calculating the angles or maneuvering for partisan advantage. Help us grow by becoming a Bulwark+ member.
And while one can always hope for a miracle like Haley defeating Trump in New Hampshire, prompting South Carolina voters to rediscover their affection for their former governor, which would in turn upend the entire race—the chances of that are about as good as winning the lottery, which in South Carolina are about 1 in 293 million.
So one cannot bank on most Republicans to save us from a second Trump term. Still, lurking in the pre-caucus polling is some reassuring news. We cannot count on most Republicans, but what about the skeptics? What about a few Republicans like Kenan Judge, a lifelong Republican who left the party over Trump? Or Loring Miller, who voted for Trump twice but explained that “January 6 did it for me. A true leader would’ve put an end to that.” Though 48 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in the final Des Moines Register/NBC poll listed Trump as their first choice, 11 percent said that if Trump were the nominee, they would vote for Biden. Among the 20 percent who said Haley was their first choice, fully 43 percent said they would vote for Biden in the general if Trump is nominated.
This is in Iowa, a state in which “94 of 99 counties moved toward Republicans between 2012 and 2020.” And this was a poll of likely caucus-goers, who are presumably the most avid Republicans. Most voters don’t show up for primaries and even fewer for caucuses. According to the Washington Post, in 2016, the year that broke turnout records, only 15.7 percent of voters showed up. This year, the brutal weather favored the fervid. In 2016, 187,000 turned out. Last night, only about 110,000 made it. We are evaluating results from one of the whitest, most Evangelical, most rural states in the nation.
The Des Moines Register pre-caucus poll also found that among these gung-ho Republicans, six percent would support Robert F. Kennedy Jr. rather than Trump, and eight percent would seek another third party choice. Bottom line: At least 25 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers say they will not vote for Trump in the general.
That’s significant. Our elections are decided by a few thousand votes in five swing states. Admittedly, Iowa is not one of those swing states, but if large numbers of Republicans in ruby-red Iowa are saying they will not vote for Trump in the general election, what does that suggest about Republicans in places like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia?
Eleven percent of Republicans in Iowa tell a pollster that they will vote for Biden. Biden, the guy everyone says even Democrats are having trouble working up enthusiasm for. Whatever those misgivings may be, I very much doubt that 25 percent of Democratic primary voters would say they’re thinking of voting for Trump or a third party.
The interest in third parties remains a serious challenge, but if we’re indulging in hope, we can see the work ahead. Independents are even more determined to prevent Trump from gaining another term than the minority of Republicans who have drawn a line against him. Some, perhaps many, independents have not yet processed that we really will be facing another Trump/Biden choice in November. Once Trump is in front of their faces again, they will remember why he’s unacceptable—just as the January 6 hearings in the summer of 2022 may have driven down Trump’s approval.
The undimmed Trump support among the most ensorcelled bloc of Republicans shouldn’t blind us to the other news from Iowa—there’s a saving remnant out there, and we need to buttress them before November.