Trump’s Show of Force in Iowa Signals Broader Weakness
Plus: Speaker Johnson says dire, urgent immigration crisis should wait until 2025.
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Yesterday’s Iowa caucuses saw Donald Trump handily beat challengers Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and some other guys.
Trump’s victory was apparent from the moment the doors closed on the caucuses. He finished the night with 51 percent of the vote and twenty delegates who will back him at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this July. As expected, DeSantis and Haley trailed far behind, respectively earning 21 percent (nine delegates) and 19 percent (eight delegates).
That’s all quite impressive for Trump, but a broader look at the numbers suggests something Republicans might be nervous about as they look ahead a few months to their presumptive candidate’s upcoming general election campaign. Allow me to explain.
Yesterday’s caucuses saw just over 110,000 Republicans turn out to vote. In 2016, that number was nearly 187,000, around 70 percent higher. Some voters stayed home because of the cold snap, of course—it was 30 degrees below freezing in Iowa last night—notwithstanding Trump’s invitation to them to take their lives into their own hands. But registering only around three votes for every five votes cast the last time there was an “open” primary suggests there could be a real enthusiasm problem among GOP voters. And in addition to this year’s low turnout, consider the fact that Trump, a quasi-incumbent with greater name recognition than anyone alive, earned the votes of just over half of the state’s caucusgoers—the most committed members of Iowa’s GOP.
The Haley campaign is aware of this apparent vulnerability and the risk it poses to the party in a general election1, comparing Trump’s standing to past incumbents—even if he’s not technically one, he’s acting like one—whose weak primary showings anticipated re-election failures. In a memo this morning, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote:
Historically, incumbent presidents who have struggled in New Hampshire have failed to recapture the White House. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson won 48% of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. He withdrew from the race 19 days later. In 1976, President Gerald Ford won 49% of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary. That set the stage for a protracted nominating contest and ultimately Ford’s loss in the general election. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush won 58% of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary. That precipitated an extended nominating contest and ultimately Bush’s loss in the general election.
Currently, Donald Trump’s RCP average vote share in New Hampshire is 43.5%. That is historically bad, trailing far behind Johnson, Ford, and Bush’s final numbers. Trump’s weakness with Independents is well established. But a number in the low forties also indicates significant weakness with New Hampshire Republicans too.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, noted that “almost half of the base of the Republican party showing up for this caucus tonight voted against Donald Trump,” which speaks to Trump’s overall weakness:
Think about that. I mean, this is the most famous Republican. He’s the guy who, you know, basically built the modern Republican party, the MAGA Republican party that Democrats are running against, and half the people in that party didn’t vote for Donald Trump. So I think that is telling. It tells you the weakness of Donald Trump and also the opportunity for Democrats.
The potential enthusiasm gap among normal Republican voters—not the traveling Deadheads who attend as many Trump rallies as they can—is an issue that appears to be evading Trump. Obviously, he hasn’t changed his behavior one bit, nor will he. But remaining heedless could become a problem for his general election prospects. Here are two recent examples of the sorts of mistakes that could produce unexpected consequences for him:
Trump said in Iowa on Sunday, “We have so many votes, we don’t even have to be here today.” Something easily dismissed as hyperbole can actually break through to voters who hang on his every word, as was the case when he told supporters not to vote in 2022, and when he made up claims of mail-in voting fraud during the lead-up to the 2020 election. While the RNC and the various other Republican campaign committees are hammering in the importance and safety of mail-in and early voting, the boss hasn’t been persuaded.
During his town hall on Fox News that competed with the CNN debate last week, Trump openly bragged about his instrumental role in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, telling an attendee, “For fifty-four years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it.” This is arguably the single most important issue that has either tipped elections in favor of Democrats outright or significantly dampened guaranteed victories for Republicans in the past two elections. While the New York Times and others have mused about Trump’s apparent invulnerability on the issue compared with other Republican primary candidates, he simply will not be able to stop himself from bragging about his role in the overturning of Roe, no matter how unpopular it makes his campaign during the general.
Trump is still holding on to several advantages, including widespread negative perceptions of the state of the U.S. economy, even though most economic indicators are trending positive if they’re not already objectively good; Biden’s abysmal poll numbers; potential spoiler candidates; and more. This election remains a tossup, as is every presidential election in our political era.
While some pundits will try to convince you that Trump’s behavior shows he is deliberately trying to lose, consider the possibility that 2016 was an anomaly, and he is simply not very good at this.
Speaker Mike Johnson: The border crisis has to wait
The months-long negotiations in the Senate between both parties and the Biden administration for a workable deal on new immigration restrictions and beefed-up border security in exchange for a foreign aid package to assist Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan has consumed Capitol Hill.
Press Pass readers will recall my reporting that there is widespread speculation that Republicans do not actually want to pass an immigration/border deal. There’s a lot going for this view, including House Republicans’ efforts to impeach the Homeland Security secretary in the middle of negotiations, Senate Republicans’ eagerness to leave town for several weeks over the holidays despite fears of “another 9/11,” and Republicans in both chambers constantly changing their demands.
Well, this view has just received further corroboration. Over the weekend, House Speaker Mike Johnson made clear that what’s occurring on the southern U.S. border is not a crisis demanding action, but a political opportunity that he and his party would like to defer until after the general election—and then, they intend to act on it only if Republicans win.
That’s right. During a call this weekend with members of the House Republican Conference, Johnson said Congress will not be able to address the border issue until his party retakes the White House. That means this “crisis”—the preferred framing of Republicans in campaign mode and conservative media looking to lend them a helping hand—will have to wait at least another year. (Johnson’s position also implicitly requires Republicans to achieve a trifecta by gaining control of both chambers of Congress in addition to the White House, further narrowing the conditions of action that are acceptable to him.)
What a border deal delay also means is that any assistance package to Ukraine and the other countries that need it will have to be reconceived. And when it is introduced again, it is likely to face the same hostilities from the House majority and a significant portion of Senate Republicans that it did before.