Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump takes the stage at a caucus night party in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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DES MOINES, Iowa — Former President Donald Trump scored a record-setting win in the Iowa caucuses on Monday with his rivals languishing far behind, a victory that affirmed his grip on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

In what was the lowest-turnout caucus in a quarter-century, participants endured life-threatening cold and dangerous driving conditions to meet in hundreds of schools, churches and community centers across the state. But those who ventured out delivered a roughly 30-point win for Trump that smashed the record for a contested Iowa Republican caucus with a margin of victory exceeding Bob Dole’s nearly 13-percentage-point victory in 1988.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finished a distant second, just ahead of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The results left Trump with a tighter grip on the GOP nomination, though it could take several more months for anyone to formally become the party’s standard bearer. The magnitude of Trump’s victory, however, posed significant questions for both DeSantis and Haley. Neither candidate appeared poised to exit the race, though they leave Iowa struggling to claim making much progress in trying to become Trump’s strongest challenger.

Having repeatedly vowed vengeance against his political opponents in recent months, Trump offered a message of unity in his victory speech.

“We want to come together, whether it’s Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative,” he said. “We’re going to come together. It’s going to happen soon.”

The GOP contest moves swiftly to New Hampshire, which will hold the first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 23. A shrinking field will compete there after conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy suspended his campaign after a disappointing fourth place finish and endorsed Trump.

DeSantis first heads to South Carolina on Tuesday, a conservative stronghold where the Feb. 24 contest could prove pivotal. He will head later in the day New Hampshire.

“Because of your support, in spite of all of what they threw at us, we got our ticket punched out of Iowa,” DeSantis told supporters.

Haley plans to compete vigorously in New Hampshire, where she hopes to be more successful with the state’s independent voters.

“When you look at how well we’re doing in New Hampshire and in South Carolina and beyond, I can safely say tonight Iowa made this Republican primary a two-person race,” she said.

In a preview of a remarkable balancing act Trump may have to manage in the months ahead, he was expected to be in court in New York on Tuesday. A jury is poised to consider whether he should pay additional damages to a columnist who last year won a $5 million jury award against Trump for sex abuse and defamation. It’s just one of multiple legal challenges facing the former president.

After visiting the court, Trump will fly to New Hampshire to hold a rally Tuesday evening.

Trump has made courtroom visits a part of his campaign — heading to court voluntarily twice last week while his opponents campaigned in Iowa — in a strategy designed to portray him as a victim of a politicized legal system. Among Republican voters, at least, the approach is working.

The Associated Press declared Trump the winner at 7:31 p.m. CST based on an analysis of early returns as well as results of AP VoteCast, of more than 1,500 voters who said they planned to take part in the caucuses. Both showed Trump with an insurmountable lead.

Initial results from eight counties showed Trump with far more than half of the total votes counted as of 7:31 p.m., with the rest of the field trailing far behind. These counties included rural areas that are demographically and politically similar to a large number of counties that had yet to report.

The Associated Press determined at 11:17 p.m. CST that DeSantis finished a distant second to Trump. With an estimated 10% of ballots remaining to be counted, DeSantis led Haley by approximately 2,300 votes, or about 2 percentage points. With votes reported in all but one of Iowa’s 99 counties, Haley wasn’t doing well enough anywhere to catch DeSantis, based on the number of outstanding votes.

Trump showed significant strength among Iowa’s urban, small-town and rural communities, according to AP VoteCast. He also performed well with evangelical Christians and those without a college degree. And a majority of caucus goers said they identify with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

One relative weakness for Trump comes in the suburbs, where only about 4 in 10 supported him.

Iowa has been an uneven predictor of who will ultimately lead Republicans into the general election. George W. Bush’s 2000 victory was the last time a Republican candidate won in Iowa and went on to become the party’s nominee.

But Trump’s success tells a remarkable story of a Republican Party unwilling or unable to move on from a flawed front-runner. He lost to Biden in 2020 after fueling near-constant chaos while in the White House, culminating with his supporters carrying out a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. In total, he faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether states have the ability to block Trump from the ballot for his role in sparking the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. And he’s facing criminal trials in Washington and Atlanta for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump has increasingly echoed authoritarian leaders and framed his campaign as one of retribution. He has spoken openly about using the power of government to pursue his political enemies. He has repeatedly harnessed rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.” And he recently shared a word cloud last week to his social media account highlighting “revenge,” “power” and “dictatorship.”

Trump’s legal challenges appear to have done little damage to his reputation. Many of his supporters view the charges through a political lens.

About three-quarters of Iowans responding to AP VoteCast said the charges against Trump are political attempts to undermine him, rather than legitimate attempts to investigate important issues.

“God called us to do that to support Trump,” said 64-year-old David Lage, donning a captain’s hat at Trump’s victory party.

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By Steve Peoples, Thomas Beaumont, and Hannah Fingerthut. Writers  Jill Colvin in Des Moines, Iowa, Meg Kinnard in Clive, Iowa, Adriana Gomez Licon in Des Moines, Iowa, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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