It's crunch time in Iowa and New Hampshire

Who leads polls of the presidential race in the first two GOP primary states?

January 2, 2024, 12:00 PM

I hope all you political observers and election junkies out there had a restful holiday break — because things are about to get crazy.

After a long, mostly uneventful invisible primary, the actual voting will finally get underway in the Republican presidential primary in less than two weeks.* The Iowa Republican caucuses will take place on Monday, Jan. 15, while the New Hampshire primary is on Tuesday, Jan. 23. That means, by the end of the month, the presidential race could look extremely different: Some candidates are likely to drop out after a poor showing, while others could suddenly become serious threats to win if they exceed expectations. And most importantly, we'll have actual hard data about whom Republican voters want to be president, so we'll be a lot closer to knowing whether former President Donald Trump really is on a glide path to the GOP nomination.

If you're just tuning into the primary after a week (or a year — no judgment) unplugged from politics, Trump is the clear favorite to win both Iowa and New Hampshire — although one of those states looks like a much better bet for him than the other. As of Tuesday morning, Trump was at 50 percent in 538's average of Iowa polls — 32 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor.

PHOTO: 538's average of the Republican primary race in Iowa.
538's average of the Republican primary race in Iowa.
538 photo illustration

Since 2008, no presidential candidate has seen their polls shift in Iowa by more than 12 points in the final month before the caucuses, so it would be pretty surprising if Trump lost Iowa with these kinds of numbers. The race to watch in the Hawkeye State is probably the one for second place.

Right now, that looks like a fight between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who's polling at 18 percent on average, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who's polling at 16 percent. According to media-tracking firm AdImpact, as of Dec. 11, DeSantis and his supporters had outspent Haley and her supporters on advertising in the state, $25 million to $21 million, helping to explain that small lead. But as of Dec. 22, Haley supporters had $2 million more in future ad reservations booked in the state, suggesting she may be able to close that spending gap.

DeSantis, though, has the endorsements of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, and he has been campaigning more actively in Iowa than Haley has. Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, he held 49 campaign events in the state, while Haley held only 35, according to tracking by 538 and ABC News.

As for the other contenders: Despite his whopping 192 campaign events in Iowa, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy is currently averaging just 6 percent in the polls, putting him on track for a fourth-place finish. Finally, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seem like they will be nonfactors in the Hawkeye State; Christie did not hold a single campaign event there in all of 2023, and Hutchinson has not raised enough money to run a viable campaign.

By contrast, in New Hampshire, Trump's 18-point lead in the polls is somewhat less commanding: An upset win by Haley, who has recently moved within striking distance of him, isn't out of the question. According to 538's New Hampshire polling average as of Tuesday morning, Trump was at 44 percent and Haley was at 26 percent.

PHOTO: 538's average of the Republican presidential primary race in New Hampshire.
538's average of the Republican presidential primary race in New Hampshire.
538 photo illustration

Recently, Haley has gotten a spate of good news out of New Hampshire. On Dec. 12, she got the coveted endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. As of that day, according to AdImpact, Haley and pro-Haley outside groups had spent $18 million on advertising in New Hampshire — more than supporters of every other candidate combined — and as of Dec. 22, she was planning to spend another $4 million, more than any other candidate. By contrast, DeSantis — who is currently polling at just 8 percent in New Hampshire — had no future ad spending lined up there.

Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, Haley also held twice as many campaign events in New Hampshire as DeSantis did — and almost five times as many as Trump, who has been a relative stranger in the state. In December alone, Haley held eight campaign events, while DeSantis held two and Trump held just one.

All of these developments seem to have boosted Haley in the polls, as she was averaging just 19 percent support in the state as recently as Dec. 19.

But Haley also has a problem in Christie, who is currently polling in third place in New Hampshire with 11 percent support, and who has staked his entire campaign on the Granite State. Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, he held 39 campaign events in New Hampshire, second only to the ubiquitous Ramaswamy (who's polling at 6 percent there).

Christie appeals to many of the same independent, less Trumpy voters who support Haley, and his presence in the race could be the difference between Haley finishing a strong second in New Hampshire and her actually winning it. Back in November, 58 percent of Christie supporters in New Hampshire told the University of New Hampshire that Haley was their second choice. Christie dropping out of the race would suddenly make New Hampshire very interesting — but so far, he has resisted calls to withdraw to consolidate the anti-Trump vote.

The result in Iowa is also a big wild card for New Hampshire. Candidates who win or exceed expectations in Iowa have historically enjoyed a subsequent bump in the polls, so if Haley edges out DeSantis for second place in Iowa, it's possible that could push her over the top in New Hampshire. But on the other hand, a third-place finish for DeSantis in Iowa — a state he insisted, less than a month ago, that he would win outright — could push him to drop out of the race completely. And according to the UNH poll, that would probably help Trump, who was the second choice of half of DeSantis voters in New Hampshire.

Ultimately, the result in New Hampshire will probably set the tone for the rest of the primary. Currently, 538 has active polling averages of the GOP primary in 14 states that vote in February or later (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin). Trump leads in all of them by more than his 18-point lead in New Hampshire. If Haley manages to beat Trump in the Granite State, it could give her major momentum and perhaps make the Republican primary a real race, one in which Trump and Haley trade barbs and wins for months. But if Trump beats Haley, Trump's opponents will have missed probably their best chance to defeat him, and Trump will be well on the way to a clean sweep of all 56 states and territories.


*Actually, voting technically got underway in early December, when the first absentee ballots were sent out to New Hampshire voters.