Trump’s advantage is increasing five weeks until the Iowa caucuses

Happening this Monday: President Biden meets this week with Ukraine’s Zelenskyy, as White House pushes Congress for Ukraine aid… Donald Trump reverses himself and won’t testify at civil fraud trial in New York… And Mitt Romney talks Trump, Biden and his next steps in “Meet the Press” interview.

But FIRST… We are now exactly five weeks out until the 2024 Iowa caucuses, and former President Donald Trump’s lead is growing — not declining — in the Hawkeye State, according to the latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll. 

Trump is now ahead of his nearest competition by 32 points among likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers: Trump at 51%, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 19%, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at 16%. 

In October, Trump’s lead was 27 points, and his first-choice support was below 50%: Trump 43%, DeSantis 16%, Haley 16%. 

What’s more, the intensity of Trump’s support has grown, with 70% of his backers saying their minds are made up — an increase from the 63% who said in this October. 

(By contrast, just 30% of DeSantis’ supporters and 34% of Haley’s say their minds are made up.)

“With all the other candidates, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they say, it doesn’t matter what they do. Because automatically, my vote is going to Trump no matter what,” said poll respondent Timothy Blackerby, 67, of Missouri Valley, Iowa.

“They can promise me a million dollars,” Blackerby added. “I tell them to keep it. And I would still vote for Trump.”

And the share of likely GOP caucusgoers who believe Trump can defeat President Joe Biden despite the former president’s legal challenges has gone up from 65% in October’s poll to 73% now.  

“I think a ham sandwich could probably win a general election against Joe Biden. And it’s all Biden’s fault,” said poll respondent Aaron Mann, 30, of Fort Madison, Iowa, who says he’s caucusing for Trump.

Now there is some positive news for DeSantis and Haley in the poll: Sizable numbers of likely caucusgoers say they’re actively considering both candidates. 

And Iowa has been known to carry plenty of surprises. 

But with five weeks to go until the caucuses, Trump is looking stronger, not weaker, in Iowa.

Headline of the dayThe number of the day is … 72%

That’s the share of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa who have a favorable view of former President Donald Trump, per a new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

Trump has the highest favorability rating of the 2024 GOP presidential primary candidates, the poll finds. Two-thirds of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers have a favorable view of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, followed by 59% who say the same about former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. 

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy trails Haley, with 46% of poll respondents saying they have a favorable view of him. Just 20% of likely GOP caucusgoers have a positive view of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 19% say the same about former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Christie, a vocal Trump critic, has the highest unfavorability rating by far of the GOP candidates, with 68% of likely caucusgoers saying they have unfavorable views of the former governor. 

The figure who notched the highest favorability rating among likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers is not a 2024 presidential contender — but rather Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed have a favorable view of the governor.

Eyes on 2024: Romney talks Trump, Biden and his next steps

Retiring Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, joined “Meet the Press” on Sunday for a wide-ranging interview that included his thoughts on abortion policy, U.S. support for Ukraine, and addressing antisemitism and Islamophobia. And he also weighed in on Trump, Biden and the 2024 race.

On Trump’s ‘dictator’ comments: “Donald Trump is kind of a human gumball machine, which is a thought or a notion comes in, and it comes out of his mouth. There’s not a lot of filter that goes on … He just says whatever. I don’t attach an enormous amount of impact to the particular words that come out and trying to evaluate each one of them.”

More: “I do think you can look at his record as president, and particularly in the last months of his presidency, and say, ‘This is a dangerous approach. It’s an authoritarian approach.’ That gives me far more concern than — than him playing to the crowd as he did … There’s no question he has authoritarian rulings, and interests, and notions which he will try and impose. That’s dangerous for the country.”

On staying out of the GOP primary: “If I endorse someone, it would be the kiss of death … Look, Chris Christie has done a terrific job so far. I think his being in the race has kept Donald Trump from coming to — to the debates, because I think Donald Trump recognized if he went to the debate with Chris Christie, Chris Christie would reveal him for what he was, and — and Trump would be badly hurt, so he stayed out. But Nikki Haley, she’s rising. Right now, I think she’s the only one that has a shot at becoming the nominee other than President Trump.”

On consolidating the GOP primary: “I hope it continues to consolidate and it becomes, at some point, a two-person race. But even then, I think Donald Trump is the prohibitive favorite.”

On supporting Biden: “The Joe I would like to vote for is Joe Manchin. And I’m not going to tell you right now who I’m going to vote for. Fortunately for me, I’m in a state that’s not a swing state.” (Romney added that he did not think Manchin would run.)

Not ruling out voting for Biden: “I’m not going to describe who I’ll rule out, other than President Trump. I just, you have a setting where you have someone who’s too old and someone else who’s a little too nutty. And where are you going to vote on that basis? And, by the way, in my view, bad policy we can overcome as a country.”

On his next steps: “I will continue to work to keep America the hope of the earth and the hope of the people in this country. And whether that’s by lecturing in universities, or going around the country and speaking, or writing another book or two, or maybe just getting behind some of Ann’s ambitions these days. My wife is leading an extraordinary center for neurologic research.” 

In other campaign news … 

On the ground: Haley’s recent endorsement from Americans for Prosperity could boost her in Iowa, with AFP Action launching canvassing and digital ad campaign in the Hawkeye State, per NBC’s Natasha Korecki, who writes that Haley’s campaign “was missing the organizational strength of some of her competitors in Iowa.” 

On the airwaves: Haley’s campaign launched its second TV ad late last week, which focused on foreign policy and featured her husband, who is currently deployed with the South Carolina Army National Guard. 

She’s with him: Hillary Clinton “is stepping into a role as one of the most prominent and influential surrogates in Biden’s re-election effort,” write NBC’s Jonathan Allen, Peter Nicholas and Megan Lebowitz.

Out west: Biden traveled to Los Angeles over the weekend, where he and first Lady Jill Biden attended six fundraising events and meetings to boost his re-election bid. 

Battleground worries: Politico reports that Democrats are concerned that Biden’s campaign has been slow to hire staff in key battlegrounds, relying instead on the national and state parties and focusing its early spending on TV ads. 

Phillips’ ramped-up rhetoric: Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., has ramped up his criticisms of Biden in recent days, suggesting the president is a threat to democracy as two state parties bar Phillips from the primary ballot, per the Washington Post. 

Christie heads back to college: Chris Christie is urging college students in the Granite State to register and vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary, telling them, “Don’t count on Joe Biden to stop Donald Trump. Let’s stop Donald Trump now,” NBC’s Emma Barnett reports.

Shifting their stance: GOP Senate candidates in five battleground races have softened their stances on abortion since 2022, NBC’s Adam Edelman reports 

A helping hand: Former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., plans to spend 2024 focusing on one goal — helping Democrats take back the House majority, the Washington Post reports. 

Headed to City Hall: Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, will be Houston’s next mayor after he bested Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a mayoral runoff election on Saturday.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

Several Democratic Latino and Hispanic members of Congress are concerned that President Joe Biden may strike an “unacceptable” deal with congressional Republicans on immigration to pass military aid for Ukraine and Israel, NBC’s Julie Tsirkin, Julia Ainsley, Sahil Kapur and Monica Alba report. 

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned over the weekend following backlash about her congressional testimony regarding antisemitism on college campuses.

NBC’s Shannon Pettypiece examines why so many Americans are going hungry, despite economic indicators pointing to a stronger economy and historically low unemployment rates.