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This Monday, former president Donald Trump took the first concrete step toward winning the Republican Party’s nomination for the the 2024 election. To few people’s surprise, Trump handily beat competitors Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, winning 50% of Iowa’s voters. CNN called it a “stunning show of strength.” The Associated Press called it a “record victory.” But there’s another side to the story—a counter-narrative that categorizes Trump as having just barely squeaked by.

In a tweet that’s been seen over 370,000 times, political activist Victor Shi asked: “Can the media please stop saying tonight was a ‘win’ for Donald Trump? Trump’s margin of victory was the smallest of any Republican candidate in American history, half of caucus goers voted against him.”

To further flesh out the argument: Trump received 57,000 votes, only about 7% of the total Republican party in Iowa. “Where’s the enthusiasm?” people are asking.

Sadly (depending on your views) the mainstream media’s read seems much closer to reality. I’m not sure how Shi got the idea that Trump’s margin is the smallest in history. The opposite is actually true: Trump’s Iowa win was the largest percentage victory in the history of Republican primaries. Whether the turnout portends trouble for Trump requires divining voter’s views and motivations based on little evidence, but there is a hazy, non-number factor that (probably) helps explain the low turnout in Iowa: It was really freakin’ cold.

Weather: decider of elections

It was extremely cold and snowy in Iowa on the night of the caucus, and inclement weather always lowers voter turnout. We can’t know which candidates’ supporters would have been more likely to have avoided the caucus for snow reasons, but I’d put my money on Trump’s. In a race where all the polls have indicated that Trump would win in a walk for literally years, it seems reasonable that his supporters would skip the caucuses: He’s a shoo-in, after all. Rabid Ron DeSantis fans or Nikki Haley-heads, on the other hand, seem more likely to be motivated to get out there to support their underdog candidate.

A total of 110,000 voters turned out in Iowa in 2024, compared to 187,000 GOP voters in 2016. These were the least attended primary caucuses in a decade. Whether this is evidence of an overall “enthusiasm gap” can’t be determined, but I think it’s safer to think Republicans are secure that Trump is going to take the nomination so didn’t bother freezing themselves.

Election wishcasting

The alternative take on Trump’s victory looks a lot like wishcasting: “The act of interpreting information or a situation in a way that casts it as favorable or desired, despite the fact that there is no evidence for such a conclusion.” Expect to see a lot more of this as the election approaches.

The silver lining, if you don’t like Trump, is that Iowa is a tiny state, and whom it chooses for the Republican (or Democratic) nomination doesn’t actually matter in the general election. Pete Buttigieg’s victory in Iowa in 2020 didn’t catapult him to the nomination. It went to the fourth place finisher instead.

Unlike Mayor Pete, Trump is almost certain to win the overall nomination in 2024. But his popularity in Iowa doesn’t say much about how he’ll do against Biden. Around 90% of Iowa’s 3.18M residents are white, compared to about 70% in the nation as a whole. Iowans are also older than Americans in general, more religious, and more rural than in the rest of the country too, so the most concrete lesson we can learn from the caucuses is that old, white, rural Republicans tend to vote for Donald Trump, which shouldn’t shock anyone.

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