Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis. Each one is down in the polls and would (currently) lose in a landslide against Donald Trump, both in Iowa and in some imaginary national primary contest combining all 50 states. But in Iowa, these three candidates see a bitter, snowy path forward towards the Republican convention in Milwaukee – however implausible those individual routes may be.
In Urbandale, Iowa, Mr Ramaswamy held the first event of the final day; a packed-to-the-walls town hall meeting at a restaurant known for its farm-to-table commitments. Depending on tonight’s results, it was either a last gasp of his White House bid, or the springboard that will launch him back into relevancy following his drop-off from the debate stage. At the event, Iowans mingled with famous Ramaswamy supporters including Nigel Farage, the Brexit champion turned cheerleader for Maga candidates. Another familiar face spotted with the struggling GOP challenger was Steve King, the former congressman ousted in a 2020 primary amid accusations of being a white nationalist.
Mr Farage spoke to The Independent while the candidate delivered his remarks, and explained his support for the far-right upstart.
“He’s very clear, knows absolutely what he believes in. No confusion about that. It’s quite a radical agenda. But it’s done in a very gentle, very nice, very grown up way,” Mr Farage said.
“I think he represents some of the thinking of the conservative movement for the years to come.”
Also spotted in the crowd was Frank Luntz, the conservative polling guru who perplexingly arrived with a cadre of young men hailing from Radley College, a boys-only boarding school in the UK.
Speaking to the crowd, a fired-up Ramaswamy railed against the “managerial class” and the “Deep State” in DC. At the same time, the reason for Mr Trump’s sudden turning of fire against him became clear, as Mr Ramaswamy made his case that those supposedly sinister forces would never let Mr Trump near the levers of power again.
He exited the event after taking questions from audience members for slightly less than an hour. As he left, he answered a question from The Independent regarding his chances for an upset victory tonight – which in his case would likely mean a third-place finish.
"I’m feeling great, we’re going to shock the world tonight and prove the media wrong,” said Mr Ramaswamy.
The polls, to put it very simply, disagreed with that assessment.
In the final Emerson College survey of Iowa, taken at the end of last week, the entrepreneur and first-time candidate was at 5 per cent, a third of the support registered by his closest rival Ron DeSantis. A poll from Selzer and Co, the Iowa polling specialists, registered him 3 points higher. He has potentially seen a jump in support over the past 30 days; whether that will put him in competition with Ms Haley or Mr DeSantis still seems like an overly hopeful projection, though not an impossibility.
“I think that’s more narrative than anything, you know, given that we did see him have that bump in polling for Iowa, in particular, several months ago… really, he hasn’t moved from those single digits that he’s been in,” said Ashley Koning, who heads up the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling (ECPIP) at Rutgers University.
Most analysts agree: the real question to be answered tonight involves the fates of Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The two rivals are neck-and-neck in the race for second place; few expect or even find it possible that either candidate could bump Donald Trump off of the top spot, but both are hoping to avoid the dreaded third-place loser’s corner. Mr DeSantis in particular is desperate to avoid that label, and has thrown his campaign into full attack mode against Haley while also making increasingly critical remarks about the frontrunner.
Ms Haley, meanwhile, is ascendant in almost every poll.
The former governor is hoping for an “upset” victory over Mr DeSantis in the state which has become less of a surprise and more of an expected result over the past two weeks. Polling now shows her edging out the Florida governor and moving into second place in the contest overall, and with that surge the Haley campaign launched a late-game barnstorm of the state in the hopes of locking down victory. The former ambassador and governor is less concerned with beating Mr Trump in the state – though she would very much like to avoid a blowout – and is more interested in setting up a comfortably positive performance that could eviscerate Mr DeSantis’s national support and propel her into New Hampshire, where she actually is competitive against Mr Trump, with momentum that could finish the job.
“The story [tonight] is, I think, you know, Trump becomes the default winner tonight,” said Ms Koning. “And the story really becomes about whether or not DeSantis is staying in the race. We know that New Hampshire looks bad for him.”
Her campaign spent the last hours of the battle for Iowa doing everything it could to make that happen. She was even slated to attend a tele-town hall scheduled for just two hours before actual caucusing began.
The real winner tonight, unless the polls are wrong in a way they have never been before, will be Donald Trump. But what does an impressive performance look like for a candidate who is, according to some polling, 30 points ahead of his rivals?
Should Mr Trump win by 20 or more points, he will have achieved that messaging victory. But it’s important to remember – Donald Trump has never actually won a hotly-contested Iowa caucus before; his only past victory was in 2020, when he was the incumbent president and faced no serious GOP challengers.
Don’t tell The Donald, though. He spoke briefly to reporters on Monday and erroneously claimed to have won in 2016, before predicting a massive victory in 2024.
Former President Donald Trump, leaving Hotel Fort Des Moines, says he will win the Iowa caucus again: “We’ve won it twice as you know; I think we’re going to have a tremendous night."
He lost the 2016 GOP Iowa caucus, taking second to Sen. Ted Cruz.
— Heartland Signal (@HeartlandSignal) January 15, 2024
The fact remains, though; unless Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis actually register competitive numbers tonight, the former president remains the favourite to win the whole thing. In fact, he remains the wide favourite even if that does happen.
“I do think there’s some little bit of burden of proof on him to not just win, but win by a lot. Again, even if he doesn’t win by a lot, he’s still favored for the nomination. And even if he loses New Hampshire, he’s still the favourite for the nomination,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the UVA Center for Politics.
“Sure, now, if Trump wins by, you know, 10 to 20 in New Hampshire over Haley, [and] wins both Iowa and New Hampshire … there may not be much of a rationale for others to continue.”