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Donald Trump will win the Iowa caucuses, according to projections from the Associated Press, giving him his first victory in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination.
The call by the AP, which is followed by most major news organisations and political campaigns, came just a half-hour after Iowans across the state began their caucuses and a trickle of results began to come in.
Caucus-goers at an evangelical church in the Des Moines suburb of Clive were taken aback by the AP’s early call, with voters receiving news alerts on their phones even as they were still listening to speeches about the candidates. Several at the caucus began showing each other their phones as one voter gave a speech in support of Haley.
The early declaration of Trump’s victory by the AP drew a rebuke from Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose campaign said it was “outrageous” that media organisations would “participate in election interference by calling the race before tens of thousands of Iowans even had a chance to vote”.
By 8pm in Iowa, just an hour after the caucuses got under way, Trump held 54 per cent of the votes counted, giving him an unassailable lead in the state.
Trump entered the caucuses with a big lead in opinion polls with a shrinking field of Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination.
Trump commanded the support of more than half of Iowa’s likely Republican caucus-goers, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of state polls on the eve of the caucuses — a lead that proved unassailable, even in a state that has thrown up shock results in previous caucuses.
“I think we are going to have a tremendous night tonight,” Trump told reporters as he left his hotel on Monday afternoon. “The people are fantastic, and I have never seen spirit like they have.”
With Trump’s victory, the focus of the night shifted to who will finish in second place — and by what margin. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, came into the evening in second place, on just under 19 per cent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. She was followed by DeSantis on nearly 16 per cent and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy on around 6 per cent.
DeSantis has bet heavily in Iowa, meaning a second-place finish to Haley undermine hit his chances of remaining in the race.
The winner of the Republican primary race, which will unfold over the coming months and culminate at the party’s convention in July, will run against President Joe Biden in the general election in November.
Trump’s rivals criss-crossed the state in recent days in an eleventh-hour bid to cut into his lead.
Haley was pushing for a strong second place finish to solidify her standing heading into New Hampshire, the next big test of the Republican primary season. The polls there show a closer race with the former South Carolina governor gaining support from moderate Republican voters and independents.
DeSantis spent much time and money campaigning in Iowa, and won the backing of some evangelical leaders and the state’s governor. But his campaign has faltered and he has recently pitched himself as the underdog in Monday’s caucuses.
“We know we’re underdogs and we’ve been written off before,” said James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s campaign manager, on CNN on Monday, ahead of the caucuses.
The Trump team was also seeking to manage expectations that he would dominate the caucuses, aware that any failure to meet or beat his polling numbers could sap some momentum ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary.
On Monday the former president lashed out at his competitors on social media, in an apparent push to maximise his Iowa vote.
Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform that Haley could not win because she lacked support from his base and was a “Globalist RINO”, or Republican in name only, while DeSantis was “MAGA-lite”.
“Vivek votes are wasted, and should come to ‘TRUMP’,” he added, referring to the biotech entrepreneur who has repeatedly praised the former president.
Iowa’s weather was expected to play havoc with turnout on Monday. The state is no stranger to harsh winters, but the forecast in Des Moines, the capital, is for a record low of -22C for caucus night.
Trump implored voters to turn up anyway — and tried to make light of the situation at a rally in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday afternoon.
“You can’t sit home. If you’re sick as a dog, you say, ‘Darling, I gotta make it’ . . . Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it, remember,” he said.
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