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SINGAPORE — On Monday (Jan 15), former United States president Donald Trump scored an overwhelming victory in the Iowa caucus – the first contest as the Republican party chooses its nominee for the 2024 presidential election. 

Mr Trump, who wants to contest the Nov 5 election after losing in 2020, won 98 of Iowa state’s 99 counties, narrowly losing Johnson county to rival Nikki Haley by just one vote.

Overall, Mr Trump garnered 51 per cent of the state’s votes in the caucus, while Republican rivals Ron DeSantis and Ms Haley secured 21 and 19 per cent of votes respectively.

Mr Trump, 77, is aiming to take on President Joe Biden, 80, at the Nov 5 election in a rematch of the 2020 election which Mr Biden won convincingly.

The caucus system is one of two ways used by political parties to choose their presidential nominees.

A caucus involves supporters of the various candidates giving speeches to try to garner support before a vote is held.

The second method is through holding presidential primaries which simply involve a secret ballot for the candidates.

Parties hold their primaries and caucuses from January to June of the election year across US states, to determine their presidential nominee.

Between July and early September, the parties then hold nominating conventions to formally name their candidates. The Republican convention is set to commence on July 15. 

After the Nov 5 presidential election, the US’ next president is set to be inaugurated on Jan 20, 2025.

TODAY spoke to political watchers about the significance of Mr Trump’s Iowa win, why he continues to enjoy immense popularity despite facing four criminal indictments, and what Monday’s results could mean for the November election.

HOW SIGNIFICANT IS TRUMP’S IOWA WIN?

Political watchers told TODAY that Mr Trump garnering more than half of the Iowa votes was significant, because it demonstrated the “stranglehold” he had over Republican primary voters. 

Mr Erin Caddell, group director and president of Global Counsel USA, said: “Iowa is a big win for Trump. As the first state to hold an official vote in the presidential cycle, Iowa has been seen as a bellwether of presidential voter sentiment for decades.”

He added: “The fact that Trump won more than 50 per cent of the vote … and all but one county in the state, shows the depth of his support within today’s Republican party.”

And while Mr Trump’s Iowa win was just “one context in one state”, it is indicative of the “stranglehold” he has over Republican primary voters, said Mr Steven Okun, chief executive officer of Apac Advisors and senior advisor to geostrategic consultancy McLarty Associates.

Beyond Mr Trump’s own thumping victory, Mr DeSantis’ and Ms Haley’s second and third-place finishes could also prove crucial to his campaign. The second-place win could motivate Mr DeSantis to stay in the running, which would help to split the votes between Mr Trump’s Republican rivals.

Mr Caddell noted earlier speculation that Mr DeSantis would finish third to Ms Haley, and drop out of the race.

“DeSantis will now likely stick around at least through the New Hampshire primary next week and South Carolina in February, drawing support away from Haley.”

Still, the Iowa caucus is but the first in a series of caucuses and primaries leading up to the 2024 presidential election on Nov 5.

And Mr Caddell notes that Iowa – being a small and rural state – was “not representative of America as a whole, in many ways”.

Just over 100,000 Americans cast their votes in Monday’s caucus, a tiny fraction of the more than 150 million citizens who voted in the 2020 presidential election. Iowa’s population is also 90 per cent white, compared to 60 per cent in the US overall.

Also, the state has a strong base of Christian fundamentalist voters, who have remained loyal to Mr Trump in part because of his appointment of three anti-abortion US Supreme Court justices, said Mr Caddell.

“The state’s demographics line up well for conservative Republicans, but may not translate nationally,” he added.

For this reason, the winners of the Iowa caucus over the years have failed to win both the Republican and Democratic parties’ nomination on a number of occasions.

Mr Trump himself had lost the Iowa caucus to Senator Ted Cruz in 2016, before going on to win the election and becoming the 45th US president.

WHY TRUMP STILL TRUMPS

Mr Trump has faced tough criticism for his brash personality and isolationist policies, among other things.

He also currently faces four indictments involving dozens of criminal charges – including some related to his alleged role in inciting the Jan 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

Others relate to his alleged payment of hush money to a porn actress before the 2016 presidential election.

Yet, Mr Trump’s landslide victory in the Iowa caucus on Monday showed that support for the former president has hardly waned.

Political experts attributed Mr Trump’s continued popularity in part to his persona.

Mr Caddell said Mr Trump’s persona “dominates the American media in a way that no one ever has before, and no one ever may again”.

“(Mr Trump) loves the spotlight, spends most of his many waking hours drawing attention to himself, and has a unique talent for providing constant affirmation for those who love him, and driving those who hate him crazy,” he said. 

“Many in the mainstream media surely loathe Trump and would never vote for him, but love the ratings he drives to their employers and the book deals they are able to sign to write about him.”

In today’s media-driven world, that constant presence means a lot, said Mr Caddell.

A Jan 16 New York Times report noted the unique dynamic that the former president had carved out between himself and his supporters.

“Mr Trump has spent years tending to his voters — taking aim at their shared enemies and anticipating their grievances,” it said.

This intentional rallying at a time when voter anger at political institutions remained sky-high inevitably led to “nothing short of a political magic act”, where Mr Trump “the billionaire son of a multimillionaire has become the voice for working-class Americans”.

Political watchers also note the popularity of Mr Trump’s bold policies, in areas such as immigration and trade protection, which may appeal to voters in an increasingly protectionist US.

Mr Caddell said: “Many of Trump’s policies are more popular in the US than many acknowledge, particularly those abroad who have come to know the interventionist, globalist America of the post-World War II era.

“Given the calamity at our southern border, Republicans and even many Democrats are supportive of stricter immigration policy,” he said.

“America has become a more protectionist, isolationist country, reluctant to engage in ‘forever wars’ and more focused on protecting its own citizens than in promoting democracy around the world. Trump captures that spirit maddeningly, annoyingly and worryingly, but brilliantly.”

Besides appealing to Republican primary voters who favour his policies, Mr Okun also noted that still others may support Mr Trump because they “believe his lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and that the federal government has been weaponised against him”.

WHAT NEXT?

Mr Trump’s continuing popularity does not mean that some voters are not swayed by the controversies and criminal charges or deterred by Mr Trump’s persona and policies.

The political watchers said the former president will have to overcome these hurdles before he can be voted in as the Republican nominee for the 2024 election.

“Trump’s legal situation puts him in a situation in which no other US presidential candidate has ever found himself,” said Mr Caddell.

“The indictments haven’t dented Trump’s support as of yet, but even a couple of our Trump-supporting contacts have told us they may think twice about voting for a convicted felon.”

Mr Caddell also noted rulings in Colorado and Maine states to remove Mr Trump from their presidential ballots in November – because of his alleged role in inciting the Jan 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

However, these rulings, based on a Constitutional provision, may be overturned when the cases go before the US Supreme Court.

Mr Okun said Mr Trump could also be denied the Republican nomination if Ms Haley pulls a win at the next primary in New Hampshire and then in her home state of South Carolina, which could lead to a “surge of support” for her.

Should the three-person contest narrow to a two-person race, Republicans opposed to Trump could coalesce behind one candidate, said Mr Okun, though he added that this was unlikely as Mr Trump appears to be backed by a majority.

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