AMES, Iowa — As Ron McFarland walked up to his precinct site at Iowa State University to caucus for Donald Trump, Nikki Haley volunteer Mindy Ellmer made one final plea.
Eyeing the 69-year-old retired coach’s red letterman jacket, she told McFarland that she, a Texas resident, hoped he would throw his support behind the former U.N. ambassador because polling shows she is the most likely to beat President Biden in a general election.
“Why wouldn’t you put your best quarterback in?” she asked him.
But McFarland was resolved, as record-breaking weather swept the early nominating state.
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The state’s most devoted Republican caucus-goers were undeterred, defying snowy driveways, icy roads and speculation of lower turnout to show up and throw their support behind the former president. In total, Edison Research estimated turnout at 115,000 on Monday night — down from 186,657 in 2016 and lower than 2012′s 121,503 and 2008′s 119,207. Of those Iowans who bundled up in layers, donned their warmest coats and gave little thought to staying home, and with roughly 96 percent of the expected votes tallied, 51 percent of caucus-goers selected Trump, 21 percent picked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and 19 percent backed Haley, a revealing glimpse at Republican voters’ choices in this first contest.
In Johnston, Iowa, first-time caucus-goers Katelyn Nielsen, 21, and Mark Sharp, 65, were among the first to arrive at their Polk County caucus site in Lawson Elementary School’s cafeteria, wanting to exceed the high expectations set for the clear front-runner in polling. Nielsen, wearing a Trump T-shirt, and Sharp, sporting a red Trump 2024 hat, both laughed at the notion that the weather would have ever deterred them from coming out to back Trump.
“I would’ve army-crawled across ice to get here,” Sharp said as Nielsen nodded.
Sharp, a custodian at the local high school, who supported Trump in the 2016 and 2020 general elections, said he was determined to caucus for the first time because he felt Trump was the only candidate up to the task to help improve America’s economy, border security and standing in the world. He summed up his dislike for Haley and DeSantis succinctly: “To me, Haley is the swamp and DeSantis is disloyal.”
He elaborated that he was turned off by DeSantis’s willingness to attack Trump after having so heavily relied on the former president’s support in his 2018 governor’s bid.
Nielsen, a heavy-equipment operator, added that she was backing Trump because she felt the country needed a businessman in the White House and not another politician.
“You don’t want a politician. You want a businessman to be in office,” she said.
“Trump’s by far the best option that we have that’ll actually bring change and make a difference because he’s already done a lot of good,” she added, pointing to the economy under Trump and his border policy as examples of what she liked in his administration.
In the snowbanks outside the school, more than two dozen Trump lawn signs and a handful of Haley ones were planted as voters walked inside. The parking lot had been cleared of snow, and many Iowans said they found the roads drivable. Despite concerns that the record-breaking, once-in-a-decade snowstorm that had hit the previous week would impact the caucus operation, only a couple of precincts here reported changed locations due to weather. Temperatures dipped to a low of about minus-15 here Monday night, but the caucus-goers and organizers said they were accustomed to it.
“We had a fabulous turnout, and the weather I don’t think affected this at all,” said Gary Nystrom, chair of the Boone County Republican Party. “People were excited to be out. Iowa people take this really serious.”
He added: “People may think we’re crazy but we’re used to cold weather.”
More than 130 residents turned out at the same precinct as Sharp and Nielsen, some sporting candidate-branded apparel. Of the 131 attendees present, 58 voted for Trump, 31 for Haley, 29 for DeSantis and 13 for Ramaswamy. The room erupted in applause as it was declared that Trump had come in first place.
At a caucus location just west of Des Moines, where Trump, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy spoke, the room was packed and brimming with excitement. At a precinct location at Iowa State University, organizers ran out of pencils and pens to hand out.
Some Republican strategists had speculated that turnout could have been lower because of the weather, with the largest uncertainty around how it could impact each campaign. Trump backers argued that his base was the most enthusiastic, pointing to how Iowans stood in long lines to get a chance to hear him at rallies. Meanwhile, others said DeSantis and Haley could benefit if Trump supporters assumed his win was a done deal and stayed home.
At the student union on the Iowa State campus in Story County, caucus-goers signed in and took their seats in their respective precinct rooms without having to wait outside.
Some talked with their neighbors, sharing reasons for why they were choosing their candidate.
Most of the speakers backing candidates other than Trump focused on comparing their candidate with the expected winner. They said it was time for the Republican Party to move on.
Even Iowa State University senior Armaan Gupta, speaking on Trump’s behalf, acknowledged frustration in the room. Sure, Trump had baggage, but look at what he had accomplished.
“I don’t believe Trump’s story is over yet,” he said. “And I know there’s probably fatigue in your hearts seeing the news and seeing what’s happening. I understand.”
That argument wasn’t as convincing to everyone else. Ultimately, the precinct here was split: Haley won 25 votes, while Ramaswamy came in second with 14. DeSantis and Trump each tied with 10.
Jim Olberding, a veteran, said he had tired of Trump’s incendiary language, pointing to how he had dissed former presidential hopeful John McCain, a Vietnam War hero. “I have no time for Trump,” the Haley supporter declared.
For Barb and James Kelley, 76 and 81, there wasn’t a question they would participate in this caucus. They don’t typically stay in Iowa during the winter, preferring to vacation in Arizona, but this time they stuck it out in frigid temperatures. They also had known whom they were going to pick all along: Trump.
“I never seriously considered anyone else,” she said.