Where Iowa Republicans stand on the issues ahead of the caucuses

Polls say they're very conservative and don't care about Trump's legal troubles.

January 12, 2024, 6:43 PM

Former President Donald Trump is likely to win Iowa. A few days out from the state’s caucuses, he has his biggest lead yet in our Iowa polling average, with a majority of Republican voters in the state (52 percent as of Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern) saying they’re inclined to caucus for him. But we’ve long known how GOP primary voters feel about their presidential candidates — they’ve supported Trump by a big margin throughout the race, both in Iowa and nationally. So what else can polls in Iowa tell us about the race?

At 538, we’ve been collecting polls that ask questions beyond the horse race. They reveal that some issues particularly resonate with Iowans, as well as how voters in that state feel about matters of national importance that could play a key role in the primary and general election contests, like immigration, abortion and Trump’s indictments.

When Republican caucusgoers choose their nominee, they’ll also be signaling which candidate they believe has the best chance of realizing their policy preferences once in the White House. And while Iowa is pro-Trump, it is not his strongest state (his average national support is even higher: 60 percent), so looking at how voters differ from or align with him there can hint at where some battle lines may lie in both the GOP primary and in the November general election.

Trump’s controversies and legal problems don’t bother Iowa Republicans

When it comes to questions about Trump’s legal problems, most likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers align with the national party: They don’t think Trump has done anything wrong, nor do they let the various legal challenges pending against him shake their willingness to vote for him.

In a Civiqs/Iowa State University poll from Oct. 6-10, a plurality (49 percent) of registered voters in Iowa said Trump had "committed serious federal crimes," but that included only 12 percent of Republicans. Instead, 60 percent of Republicans said "Trump did not do anything wrong." Similarly, when asked specifically about Trump’s culpability for the Jan. 6 insurrection, 58 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers in a Beacon Research/Shaw & Co./Fox Business poll from Dec. 14-18 said Trump hadn’t done anything seriously wrong.

That poll also suggested that electability is only growing more important to voters, with 76 percent saying it was extremely important that a GOP candidate be able to defeat President Joe Biden, up from 66 percent in July. While Trump’s primary opponents have tried to attack the former president on electability, they clearly haven’t found a strategy that sticks, and it doesn’t look like Trump’s legal woes are likely to help their case. In addition to most Republicans’ belief that he’s innocent, 65 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers in a Selzer & Co./Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll from Oct. 22-26 said they thought Trump could defeat Biden regardless of his legal challenges. Republicans nationwide are similarly unworried about his legal woes: 68 percent thought Trump was definitely or probably innocent of defrauding the U.S. in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll from Dec. 14-18, and 67 percent said his actions on Jan. 6 had no bearing on his fitness for the presidency.

Another Selzer & Co./Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll conducted Dec. 2-7 showed just how unshakable likely caucusgoers are in their support of Trump — or perhaps how strongly his often-controversial rhetoric and stances resonate with them. When asked how recent statements from Trump impacted their support for him as a candidate, a plurality (43 percent) said his statement that "the radical left thugs that live like vermin" in the U.S. need to be rooted out made them more likely to support him. A plurality (42 percent) said the same of his statement that immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally are "poisoning the blood" of America.

The only statements in the poll that did not make caucusgoers significantly more likely to vote for him were Trump’s statements that he’d be justified in terminating parts of the Constitution — 47 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him — and that he would have "no choice" but to lock up his political opponents if reelected — 43 percent said that did not matter to them, while 35 percent said it made them less likely to support him. It’s possible these ideas were a step too far for these Iowa Republicans, but those who felt this way were more likely to support candidates other than Trump. Ultimately, there have not been enough voters driven off by Trump’s polarizing rhetoric to diminish his commanding lead.

Iowa caucusgoers are concerned about immigration and conservative on abortion

Iowa Republicans, like national Republican primary voters, have strongly conservative stances on two major issues that will likely play a key role in the 2024 election: immigration and abortion. To woo them, Republican candidates have echoed some of Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley promising to seal the border and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposing lethal force at the border. On abortion, all the GOP candidates support limiting abortion access, although Trump and Haley may have turned off some voters with more moderate statements on the issue.

Immigration is a salient issue for Iowa voters. In the October Selzer poll, 80 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers said immigration and border security were extremely important to them as they decided which candidate to support. The only issues that were important to a greater share of voters were the economy and inflation. That’s a bit higher than the 72 percent of Republicans nationwide who said immigration was "very important" (the highest category) to them in a November ABC News/Ipsos poll. And when the Fox Business poll asked Iowa Republicans to pick their most important issue, immigration again came in second behind economic issues, with 27 percent naming it as their top issue — up from 15 percent in both July and September.

Half of likely caucusgoers also said they were more likely to vote for Trump when he promised "sweeping raids, giant camps, and mass deportations" as an immigration policy in the Selzer poll from December, showing that even Trump’s most extreme rhetoric on immigration appeals to many Republicans in the state.

Abortion seems to be an issue on which Iowa Republicans are further right than the rest of the party. In a YouGov/CBS News poll conducted Dec. 8-15, 74 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers wanted abortion in Iowa to be illegal in all or most cases, and half said they wanted the 2024 Republican nominee to be someone who would support a national abortion ban. That contrasts with results from a national 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of likely GOP primary voters in December, 56 percent of whom said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases and 57 percent of whom said the issue should be left up to each state, rather than being determined by one federal law.

That could help explain why Trump’s support is lower in Iowa than it is nationally: He’s historically flip-flopped on the issue of abortion bans, and he upset some Republicans in September when he said a six-week abortion ban signed into law by DeSantis in Florida was a "terrible mistake." In the October Selzer poll, 52 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers said they disagreed with that statement. But even though 41 percent of caucusgoers in the same poll said abortion restrictions were "extremely important" in determining their vote, it was still less important to them than issues like the economy, immigration, government spending and the Israel-Hamas war. So while Iowa voters may disagree with some of Trump’s statements on abortion, it may not cost him the state.

Abortion is also a tricky issue for Haley’s chances in the state: She once said she supported a national ban but has since softened her stance and called for compromise, emphasizing that such a ban is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Iowans care a lot about energy

Another key issue with a more local flavor in Iowa is energy. Iowans really want to keep producing ethanol, a renewable fuel added to gasoline. More than half of the corn Iowa grows is used to produce ethanol, making it a critical industry in the state.

Overwhelming majorities of likely Republican caucusgoers believe ethanol production is important to energy independence (91 percent) and to the overall economy (84 percent), according to a Fields of Freedom/Arc Insights survey from Nov. 9-14. Eighty percent thought it was important for a presidential candidate to include ethanol in their energy plan.

This is not just the opinion of Republicans, though. For example, in an Emerson College poll from early October, 56 percent of all Iowans, including a plurality of Democrats, said they’d prefer a car that uses ethanol fuel, while only 23 percent preferred one with an electric battery.

Iowa voters are unlikely to welcome efforts to increase the percentage of electric vehicles on the road, which don’t use ethanol or any other kind of gasoline, in part because they think it would be bad for Iowa’s economy. This may have bigger implications in the general election than in the primary, as Republicans have been fairly unified in criticizing the Biden administration’s push to increase domestic EV production and encourage consumers to buy EVs through tax breaks — a major component of Biden’s signature environmental law, the Inflation Reduction Act. Most Republican candidates have roundly criticized Biden’s EV policies, along with his climate initiatives more broadly. DeSantis rejected federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act in Florida, while Haley has promised to repeal it and Trump reportedly has plans to gut it.

Like many mostly rural states, Iowa has become older and more conservative in the past decade, and a majority of voters in the state have conservative values. Republican caucusgoers are likely to be a good illustration of that. And while the winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t always go on to become the GOP nominee, Iowans are likely to support the eventual Republican candidate in November’s general election. Trump won the state by 9 percentage points in the 2016 general election after losing in the caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz, but this year it appears Iowans may line up behind him sooner.

Mary Radcliffe and Cooper Burton contributed research.