Trump maintains dominant lead before caucuses

DES MOINES, Iowa — Boosted by his standing with evangelical Christians, first-time caucusgoers and registered Republicans, former President Donald Trump holds a nearly 30-point lead in the final NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll before Monday’s GOP caucuses.

The poll also finds Trump enjoying the backing of the most enthusiastic and committed likely caucusgoers, which could be crucial as the state grapples with subzero temperatures and even colder wind chills on caucus night.

“I know there’s a lot of controversy on him, but I just feel like he’s the man for the job right now,” said 34-year-old poll respondent Owen Monds of Des Moines, who said he’s caucusing for Trump. “You know, I don’t feel like anybody else who’s running is really qualified like he is.”

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The poll shows former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley narrowly edging past Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place, although the gap is within the poll’s margin of error.

Yet while Haley’s first-choice support has ticked up, just 9% of her supporters say they’re extremely enthusiastic about her candidacy — substantially lower than the enthusiasm for Trump and even DeSantis.

“There is underlying weakness here,” pollster J. Ann Selzer said of Haley’s standing. “If turnout is low, it seems to me that a disproportionate share of her supporters might stay at home.”

According to the Iowa poll, which Selzer has been conducting over the last three decades, Trump gets first-choice support from 48% of likely Republican caucusgoers — followed by Haley at 20% support, DeSantis at 16% and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 8%.

Trump’s 28-point lead over his nearest competitor is down, though only slightly, from the 32-point advantage he enjoyed in December’s NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

But if his current lead holds on caucus night, it will be the largest margin of victory for a nonincumbent competing in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses. The current record margin, 13 points, was set by Bob Dole in 1988.

“He is still in a commanding position, but there is slippage,” Selzer said of Trump. “The game appears to be for second place, without a real challenger on the horizon.”

Trump’s strongest groups are evangelical Christians (with 51% of them picking him as their first choice), registered Republicans (54%), first-time caucusgoers (56%) and likely caucusgoers who don’t have college degrees (59%).

Haley’s 20% first-choice support in the poll is up 4 points from December’s poll, and she overperforms among independents (with 33% of them picking her as their first choice) and those with college degrees (27%).

Strikingly, half of Haley’s supporters identify as either independents (39%) or Democrats (11%) — significantly different from the poll’s overall makeup, which stands at 69% Republicans, 23% independents and 5% Democrats among likely GOP caucusgoers.

And DeSantis’ 16% first-choice support is down 3 points from December, when he was in a distant second place to Trump.

The Florida governor overperforms among evangelicals, with 22% of them selecting him as their top candidate.

The poll was ongoing when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suspended his presidential campaign on Jan. 10. But Christie did not set foot in Iowa during his campaign, preferring to focus his resources and attention elsewhere, and the Iowa poll shows almost no change after his exit. (The sliver of caucusgoers who picked Christie as their first choice had their support reallocated to their second choice, barely affecting the overall horse race.)

Donald Trump Jr. On The Campaign Trail In Iowa
A bus supporting former President Donald Trump outside the Machine Shed in Urbandale, Iowa, on Thursday. Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Enthusiasm factor helps Trump, hurts Haley

Beyond Trump’s lead in first-choice support, what stands out in the poll is the enthusiasm from his backers.

While 32% of all likely Republican caucusgoers say they’re “extremely enthusiastic” about their candidate, nearly half of Trump’s supporters — 49% — say that about the former president.

“He’s a proven winner. He knows what to do starting Day 1. There’s no learning curve,” said poll respondent Joel Shaw, 65, of Batavia, Iowa, who said he’s caucusing for Trump.

By contrast, 23% of DeSantis’ supporters say they’re extremely enthusiastic about the Florida governor. And just 9% of Haley’s backers say they’re extremely enthusiastic about her — down from 21% who said that about her in December.

“Not very enthusiastic,” said poll respondent Ryan Knapp, a 34-year-old independent from Cedar Rapids, of his support for Haley. “Mainly picking [Haley] because … she seems like the only sane one, and I’m down to do anything to make sure that Trump doesn’t ever get another opportunity ever again.”

More than two-thirds of caucusgoers say their minds are made up

The poll also finds that more than two-thirds of likely Republican caucusgoers — 68% — say that their minds are made up, an increase from 49% who said this in December.

That’s compared with 25% who say they could still be persuaded, which is down from 46% last month. The remaining voters are still undecided.

As with the enthusiasm factor, Trump holds an advantage over his rivals among the caucusgoers who say their minds are made up.

Eighty-two percent of Trump’s supporters say their minds are made up, versus 64% of DeSantis’ supporters and 63% of Haley’s backers.

“I will swing my vote for either one of them in order to beat Trump,” said poll respondent Nicole Woodley, 43, of Clarion, Iowa, who is still deciding between DeSantis and Haley and who voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.

A campaign placard in the snow Saturday outside Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, on Saturday. The Iowa caucuses, the first vote of the presidential race, are scheduled for Monday.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

Other findings in the poll

Trump holds the highest net favorable/unfavorable rating among the GOP candidates at 69% favorable, 29% unfavorable (+40). He’s followed by DeSantis at 58% favorable, 36% unfavorable (+22); Ramaswamy at 52% favorable, 36% unfavorable (+16); and Haley at 48% favorable, 46% unfavorable (+2).

Haley’s mark is down considerably from her 59% favorable, 31% unfavorable rating in December (+28), after facing a wave of TV attack ads over the last month.

When it comes to second choice, 20% of likely caucusgoers pick DeSantis as their backup option, 18% select Ramaswamy, 14% choose Haley and 12% pick Trump.

And Trump enjoys the most committed caucusgoers — with 87% of Trump’s supporters saying they always supported him as their first choice. That compares with 67% of DeSantis supporters and 46% of Haley backers who said they always supported those candidates as their first choice.

The NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa was conducted Jan. 7-12 of 705 likely Republican caucusgoers, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.7 percentage points.