On Monday night, Iowans slipped and slid over icy roads to give Donald Trump a 51% victory in the first Republican caucus. On Tuesday morning, the media seemed saturated with stories about Trump’s “landslide win.” The truth is the Iowa results can’t be seen as anything other than a weak candidate in a divided party.
That’s because for the first time since 1892, when comeback Democrat Grover Cleveland beat incumbent Republican Benjamin Harrison, this is an election with essentially two incumbents. Trump is the leader of his party. He’s running against candidates who have repeatedly thanked him for his assistance in winning races, declared him the “best president of the 21st century,” and largely promised to fulfill Trump’s policies—only more so.
With all that going for him, half the Republican Party still said no to Trump.
CBS, and CNN, and The Washington Post, and The Financial Times, and of course, Fox News are all running headlines this morning swooning over Trump’s “landslide” win. The question shouldn’t be why Trump scraped out a bare majority of Republican voters, but why he didn’t win bigger.
Does anyone believe that if President Joe Biden took just over 50% in any state, the press wouldn’t be screaming, “Biden is in big trouble!”
Trump’s opponents are so frightened of displeasing his rabid base that they have barely dared to raise their voices against anything he’s said and refused to go after him even when he demeaned them. Instead, they’ve devoted their time to tearing into each other in a race for second place that seems far more about raising visibility for 2028 or securing the spot for the next guy Trump approves of than it is about getting behind the Resolute Desk.
Trump barely got half the vote in a cakewalk against opponents who couldn’t stop genuflecting in his direction and who devoted their time and money to sniping at each other. That he defeated this crew by 1% is not something to brag about. It’s a signal that even in his own party, many voters are looking for an alternative.
This isn’t the first time a president has mounted a try for another term after being defeated. Millard Fillmore tried it. Ulysses S. Grant tried it. Teddy Roosevelt tried it as a third-party candidate. Martin Van Buren tried it twice.
The only person who did it successfully was Cleveland, and there’s something that his races against Harrison share with Trump’s 2016 and 2020 runs. In 1888, Republican candidate Harrison lost the popular vote but managed to snag a win in the electoral college. In 1892, Harrison lost the popular vote again, as a comeback Cleveland took a wide margin in both popular and electoral votes.
Trump isn’t Cleveland. He’s Harrison. Only Harrison had the good sense not to run again after twice losing the popular vote.
Donald Trump barely cleared the hurdle of getting more votes in Iowa than Ted Cruz did in 2016. No one should be proclaiming Trump’s landslide victory for snagging half of those who came out on a bitterly cold night. They should be wondering why Trump isn’t getting far more. They should be wondering why candidates, and Republican backers, are plowing millions into running against him while nothing like that is happening in the Democratic Party.
If anything good happened for Trump, it was probably Ron DeSantis edging out Nikki Haley. With Haley well ahead of DeSantis and nipping at Trump’s heels in New Hampshire polls going into last night, DeSantis’ second-place finish likely means that the Florida governor devotes even more time to going after Trump’s former UN ambassador while Trump is free to sit back, pull strings, and laugh. And wait for the media to declare his next landslide win.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the years of Benjamin Harrison's elections. The years are 1888 and 1892, not 1890 and 1894.