former US President Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks as he visits a caucus site at Horizon Event Center in Clive, Iowa, on January 15, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

Washington: Donald Trump tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination after Iowa voters delivered him a victory in Monday's caucuses and moved him one step closer to returning to the White House.

Voters braved below-zero temperatures to hand Trump a commanding win that left chief rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley with little chance of successfully challenging the former president's lead.

If he wins in other early-voting states, as polls suggest, Trump will be on track to quickly wrap up the primary and turn his attention to a general-election rematch with President Joe Biden.

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Iowa marked the first votes cast in a 2024 presidential race that will test America's democracy, with consequences for the nation's role in the world and its system of government at home. A Trump victory in November could result in sweeping changes for US policies on trade, overseas conflicts, taxes and civil rights.

Given persistent voter concerns about Biden's age and stewardship of the economy, that possibility grew even more real after Monday's result. Trump faces 91 criminal charges in four separate cases, including some over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But so far the legal jeopardy has only energized his Republican supporters.

"If the election were held today, I think Donald Trump would beat Joe Biden," pollster Frank Luntz said on Bloomberg Television's "Balance of Power."

To be sure, Trump's win does not portend a glide path to victory in November. Despite his lead over Biden in national polls, he remains deeply unpopular with large swaths of the electorate outside his Republican base.

But in deep-red Iowa, the former president won with 51% of the vote, according to the Iowa Republican Party, more than doubling the widest margin of victory in the caucuses' history. The outcome seemed preordained for months, as the frontrunner never lost his polling lead and rivals spent millions of dollars only to destroy each other.

"I really think this is time now everybody "- our country "- to come together," Trump said, striking a triumphant tone that suggested he was setting his sights on the general election. He then launched into a lengthy, grievance-filled address that decried the migration crisis and repeated his false claims about election fraud.

About a quarter of Iowa Republican voters ranked immigration as the top issue facing the US, while a third picked the economy, according to AP VoteCast. Voters at caucus sites said they were two of the top issues.

News organisations called the race for Trump just half an hour after the caucuses began. At some sites, that news came before ballots were distributed and candidates' advocates started speaking.

Ramaswamy drops out

The main outside group backing Trump's campaign called on rivals to leave the race. One of his opponents, Vivek Ramaswamy, took that advice and dropped out after a fourth-place finish and endorsed Trump.

DeSantis, who took second place, still has a slim chance of competing. His campaign believes his Iowa result can keep the Florida governor afloat through Super Tuesday in March.

"We've got our ticket punched out of Iowa," DeSantis told his supporters late Monday.

Haley is banking on a strong-showing next week in independent-minded New Hampshire after suffering a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa. But those scenarios are a long shot, at best.

A day before before the caucus, Trump's team seemed confident. Some staffers watched NFL playoff football at a restaurant on Sunday afternoon after a rally.

Though they hold outsize importance in the Republican nominating contest, Iowa's caucuses only represent a tiny fraction of the state's electorate "- let alone the nation's. The record GOP caucus turnout set in 2016 was around 180,000 out of the state's roughly 2 million voters.

A dramatic turnaround

Monday's win is the culmination of a dramatic turnaround for Trump, whose political prospects seemed in doubt a year ago after the Republicans' disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections.

But the steady drumbeat of criminal charges against Trump through the summer energized his supporters, who shared his view the prosecutions were political. In Iowa, polls showed a majority of supporters would vote for him even if he were convicted.

DeSantis, who'd entered the race as the clear alternative to Trump who shared his views but not his baggage, struggled to get traction with voters. Haley directed much of her efforts in Iowa to weakening DeSantis in a bid for a second-place finish that could boost her momentum going into New Hampshire.

In Iowa, a weekend blizzard and deep freeze threatened to keep voters at home. Turnout was around 100,000, according to the Iowa GOP, the lowest in more than a decade.

Trump exhorted supporters to get out to express their support.

"Even if you vote and pass away it's worth it," Trump told a rally Sunday.

Trump's team spent months ensuring their supporters would turn out. They offered rides to caucus-goers, appointed hundreds of "precinct captains" to speak on behalf of Trump at each caucus site and handed out how-to-caucus material, including a book and three-minute video played before recent rallies.

"The clear message coming out of Iowa is that grassroots organizing matters," said Nicole Schlinger, a veteran Republican operative. "The Trump campaign did not take his monumental support from Iowans for granted."