There is just one week to go until the Iowa caucuses — and there’s a lot we’re watching.
It’s the first concrete test of former President Donald Trump’s momentum in the GOP presidential primary. He’s widely expected to win, but next week’s results could give us a clearer picture of how the rest of the primary will go: Will it be a Trump blowout, or could he face some serious competition?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — once seen as Trump’s most formidable opponent — and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been rising in the polls, are fighting to chip away at some of the former president’s support in the race for second place. Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy has crossed every county in the state — twice — but is still struggling to overcome the rest of his opponents. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, isn’t even putting energy into Iowa, and is instead focusing on New Hampshire’s contest later this month.
We asked six POLITICO campaign reporters what they’re keeping an eye on in the key final stretch before the Iowa caucuses.
What are you watching throughout the week?
Meridith McGraw: What’s so strange about this next week is that Trump will be spending two days — Tuesday and Thursday — sitting in courtrooms rather than out on the campaign trail. He was in Iowa over the weekend, and has plans to do a Fox News town hall and a rally blitz next weekend. But the split screen of a leading candidate in court and on the trail will be unprecedented and weird.
Natalie Allison: Does Haley have massive crowds trying to see her in Iowa this week? And I don’t mean “Did her advance staff successfully fill a 200-person room to capacity?” because they’ve done a great job of that in Iowa for nearly a year now. But with a few other candidates also fighting for voters’ attention this week across the state, I’m interested in whether droves of Iowans will turn up to see her.
Kimberly Leonard: I’m interested to hear how well DeSantis is resonating. On paper, DeSantis did everything he was supposed to do to win Iowa by having a strong conservative policy record, visiting all 99 counties and getting the most coveted endorsements. For voters who aren’t convinced by his candidacy: What’s missing?
Adam Wren: I’m watching whether Ramaswamy turns out a non-traditional caucus-goer that maybe hasn’t caucused before, including college students. His argument is that these supporters aren’t registering in the polls, which show him in fourth.
Lisa Kashinsky: Christie means it when he says he’s staking his campaign on New Hampshire. While everyone else is camping out in Iowa this week, Christie is returning to the Granite State on Tuesday for a multi-day swing and is in the midst of a seven-figure advertising blitz there. His allied super PAC is also up on the airwaves in the Granite State. Christie’s campaign says it doesn’t have anyone on the ground in Iowa and has no plans to go there.
Steve Shepard: Momentum, momentum, momentum. In the last two Republican caucuses, the candidate leading in the polls a week out didn’t win. In 2016, Trump led Ted Cruz a week before the caucuses by 6 points. In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was sixth — you read that right, sixth — in the RealClearPolitics polling average a week before the caucuses but rapidly gained steam in the run-up to the vote. That’s not to suggest a similar comeback is likely this year, given that the leads for Trump and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), respectively, were in the single digits. But don’t forget that caucuses aren’t primaries. They’re a collective event held all at the same time, and voters want to be on the side with Big Mo’.
What’s one thing you’ll be watching on the night of the caucus?
Meridith: I’ll be paying attention to the Northwest corner of the state. The four counties in the corner of the state are ruby red, having the highest concentration of Republicans and predominantly evangelical Christian populations. It will be interesting to see where their support goes, and what strength Trump has there versus his rivals.
Adam: Do Iowa’s Evangelicals stick with Trump, or does the Bob Vander Plaats machine crank to life and deliver Ron DeSantis a surprise victory?
Kimberly: Trump is poised to take Iowa. But it’s still possible that DeSantis will exceed expectations. I’ll be watching how his campaign frames the results. If he does worse than expected: Who will be blamed?
Natalie: Beyond curious to find out by what margin Trump (likely) wins. Is it an unprecedented walloping like his current polling shows, or is it actually close?
Steve: I’ll be watching to see whether we get a result at all. We all remember Democrats’ meltdown four years ago. But Republicans’ record here isn’t unblemished either. Back in the 2012 caucuses, it appeared then-former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won. Then, two weeks later, the state GOP said, no, Santorum (R-Pa.) actually won. Then the next day, it said it was too close to call. Finally, in a statement in the middle of the night some 17 days after the caucuses, the state party officially declared Santorum the winner.
What would count as a good night for the candidate you’re covering?
Meridith: I was reminded by a Trump staffer that no candidate has ever won Iowa by more than 12 points. The Trump campaign is looking to win by an even greater margin than that, and so I’ll be looking to see if his dominance in the polls is reflected in Monday’s results.
Natalie: By Haley’s top surrogate Chris Sununu’s measure, it’s coming in second in Iowa. He announced recently that she would, so hard to say anything less than that (even a close third) can count as a win there for her now.
Kimberly: DeSantis needs at a minimum to come in as a close second place, otherwise there will be a widespread sense that his campaign is effectively over. That kind of showing would give some credence to the idea that he has a shot against Trump and also give him momentum heading into other early primary states. It would also help vindicate his all-in-on-Iowa strategy.
Lisa: A good night for Christie would be if Haley finishes in third place or worse. She’s surged into second place in New Hampshire polls while Christie trails in third place, on average. So Christie and his team have to be hoping she has a bad night in Iowa that could blunt her momentum as the presidential contest heads east.
Adam: Ramaswamy has to finish a very close fourth to have even a husk of an argument to move beyond Iowa.
A version of this story first appeared in POLITICO Pro’s Morning Score newsletter. Sign up for POLITICO Pro.