DES MOINES, Iowa — Voting is set to begin Monday night in icy Iowa as former President Donald Trump eyes a victory that would send a resounding message that neither life-threatening cold nor life-changing legal trouble can slow his march toward the Republican Party's 2024 nomination.
The Iowa caucuses, which are the opening contest in the months-long Republican presidential primary process, begin at 8 p.m. EST. Caucus participants will gather inside more than 1,500 schools, churches and community centers to debate their options, in some cases for hours, before casting secret ballots.
While Trump projects confidence, his onetime chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is fighting for his political survival in a make-or-break race for second place. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the only woman in the race, stands in DeSantis' way. The two have competed aggressively in recent weeks to emerge as the clear alternative to the former president, who has alienated many Americans and could end up being a convicted felon by year's end.
"I absolutely love a lot of the things (Trump) did, but his personality is just kind of getting in his way," said Hans Rudin, a 49-year-old community college adviser from Council Bluffs, Iowa. He said he supported Trump in the past two elections, but will caucus for DeSantis on Monday.
Polls suggest Trump enters the day with a massive lead in Iowa as Haley and DeSantis duel for a distant second. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are also on the ballot, as is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who suspended his campaign last week.
With the coldest temperatures in caucus history expected and dangerous travel conditions in virtually every corner of the rural state, the campaigns are bracing for a low-turnout contest that will test the strength of their support and their organizational muscle. The final result will serve as a powerful signal for the rest of the nomination fight to determine who will face Democratic President Joe Biden in the November general election.
After Iowa, the Republican primary shifts to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina over the coming weeks before moving into the rest of the country this spring. The ultimate nominee won't be confirmed until the party's national convention in July, but with big wins in the opening contests, Trump will be difficult to stop.
Trump's political strength heading into the Iowa caucuses, which come 426 days after he launched his 2024 campaign, tells a remarkable story of a Republican Party unwilling or unable to move on from him. He lost to Biden in 2020 after fueling near-constant chaos while in the White House, culminating with his supporters carrying out a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. In total, he faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases, including two indictments for his efforts to overturn the election and a third indictment for keeping classified documents in his Florida home.
In recent weeks, Trump has increasingly echoed authoritarian leaders and framed his campaign as one of retribution. He has spoken openly about using the power of government to pursue his political enemies. He has repeatedly harnessed rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are "poisoning the blood of our country. And he recently shared a word cloud last week to his social media account highlighting words like "revenge," "power" and "dictatorship."
Republican voters have been undeterred.
"Trump is a Christian. He's trustworthy. He believes in America. And he believes in freedom," said 71-year-old Kathy DeAngelo, a retired hospital administrative employee waiting in subzero weather to see Trump on Sunday. "He's the only one."
The final Des Moines Register/NBC News poll before the caucuses found Trump maintaining a formidable lead, supported by nearly half of likely caucusgoers, compared with 20% for Haley and 16% for DeSantis. Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, and DeSantis, the Florida governor, remain locked in a close battle for second. Trump is also viewed more favorably than the other top contenders by likely caucusgoers, at 69% compared with 58% for DeSantis and just 48% for Haley.
On the eve of the caucuses, Trump predicted he would set a modern-day record for an Iowa Republican caucus with a margin-of-victory exceeding the nearly 13 percentage points that Bob Dole earned in 1988. He also sought to downplay expectations that he would earn as much as 50% of the total vote.
Whether he hits that number or not, his critics note that roughly half of the state's Republican voters will likely vote for someone not named Trump.
"Somebody won by 12 points and that was like a record. Well, we should do that," Trump said Sunday during an appearance at a Des Moines hotel. "If we don't do that, let 'em criticize us, right? But let's see if we can get to 50%."
"Brave the weather and go out and save America," he later added.
The temperature in parts of Iowa on Monday could dip as low as negative 14 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 26 degrees Celsius) while snow drifts from Friday's blizzard still make travel hazardous across the rural state where unpaved roads are common.
Forecasters warned that "dangerously cold wind chills" as low as 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit were possible through noon Tuesday. The conditions, according to the National Weather Service, could lead to "frost bite and hypothermia in a matter of minutes if not properly dressed for the conditions."
Over the weekend, signs positioned on key roadways warned motorists in large flashing orange letters: "TRAVEL NOT ADVISED."
And the winter weather, intimidating even for Iowa, will make an already unrepresentative process even less representative.
Many elderly Iowans, who are the backbone of the caucus, are wondering how they will make it to their sites. And only a tiny portion of the participants will be voters of color, given Iowa's overwhelmingly white population, a fact that helped convince Democrats to shift their opening primary contest to South Carolina this year.
Iowa's caucuses are also playing out on Martin Luther King Day, which is a federal holiday.
Last month, some presidential campaigns were expecting close to 200,000 Republican voters to participate in the caucus. On the eve of the contest, many now wonder whether the 2024 turnout will exceed the 118,411 Republicans who showed up in 2012.
Still, each of the campaigns is claiming a powerful get-out-the-vote operation that will ensure their supporters show up.
Haley rallied a room packed with Iowans and out-of-state volunteers on Sunday in Ames, drawing frequent cheers from the pink necklace and boa-clad "Women for Nikki."
The 51-year-old former South Carolina governor repeated her frequent call for GOP voters to elect her as a "new generational leader that leaves the negativity and the baggage behind and focuses on the solutions of the future."
Nearly 200 miles away in Dubuque, DeSantis dismissed questions about his position in the polls as he courted voters.
"I like being underestimated. I like being the underdog," the Florida governor said. "I think that that's better."
Meanwhile, not all voters were excited about their options.
Jake Hutzell, 28, hasn't participated in a caucus before, and he isn't sure that he will Monday, either. He follows politics, but he said he's part of a generation that's skeptical any of it makes a difference.
"There's never been anyone I feel strongly about," the Dubuque resident said. "If I'm going to throw my name behind who I think should be the president, I would like to very feel very strongly about it."