A brutally cold night in Iowa made for a low-turnout caucus. What's next for a shrinking Republican field?

a flag waves in a snowy day
Snow falls at the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 9 as a winter snow storm hits the state. As frigid temperatures scour the Midwest, Monday marked the official start to the Republican presidential nominating contest with the Iowa caucuses.
Andrew Harnik | AP

The presidential nomination race is shifting ahead to New Hampshire after former President Donald Trump’s convincing caucus win in Iowa Monday night. The Republican field continues to shrink.

Minnesota voters will soon have their turn but there could be very few candidates still standing by the time Minnesota ballots get counted.

MPR News senior politics reporter Clay Masters has his eyes on the race and was in Iowa as the caucus results rolled in Monday night. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer live from Des Moines.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The presidential nomination race is now shifting to New Hampshire after former President Trump's big win in Iowa last night. The Republican field lost a contender when Vivek Ramaswamy ended his campaign after a fourth place finish. Minnesota voters will soon have their turn to tell the nation what they think of the candidates, but there could be very few contenders still standing by the time ballots here get counted.

MPR News reporter Clay Masters has his eyes on the race, and was in Iowa as the results rolled in last night. He is live from Des Moines. Hey, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS: Good afternoon, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Well, it was really cold last night in Iowa. And the turnout was kind of meh. What did you make of all of it?

CLAY MASTERS: Well, you're right. Republican leaders in Iowa had hoped to shatter the previous turnout record-- that's 186,000 voters in 2016. That didn't happen. Edison Research shows it's around 115,000. That's a pretty small percentage of Republicans in Iowa. It's under 15% of registered Republicans.

Maybe it was the cold that kept people from coming out, but there was a pretty consistent poll coming out of Iowa State University in civics that showed a lot of complacency among voters. Why bother paying attention and showing up if Donald Trump has it in the bag?

And every four years, there are questions from the rest of the country as to why Iowa should be first. There could be questions about this again when turnout is so low. This is the lowest since 2000.

CATHY WURZER: So what message do you think Iowa voters were sending as the GOP contest gets underway?

CLAY MASTERS: Well, the people that showed up-- again, this is a very small percentage-- they don't care about January 6, the indictments, the 91 criminal charges for the former President. In fact, that only made him stronger. I talked to people throughout the course of this cycle that were at caucus rallies for Donald Trump who said that it made them more motivated to show up for him. So DeSantis came in a distant second, left Iowa and went straight to South Carolina.

He's not skipping New Hampshire, but, Cathy, it's a signal he really has to do well in South Carolina, which is Haley's home state. And Donald Trump has been polling better, if you can believe the polls, in that state. She's favored to outperform DeSantis in New Hampshire.

Haley has said she's not doing any debates after Iowa unless Trump or President Biden are going to be on the stage. So it's going to take kind of an interesting route here as the field gets smaller.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. And the field, as I mentioned, got a little smaller last night when Ramaswamy dropped out, endorsed former President Trump. No surprise there. Any other departures to talk about?

CLAY MASTERS: Yeah, this morning, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson suspended his campaign. Somebody that doesn't get talked about a lot, but he'd been, along with former Vice President who ended his campaign a while ago, they were the two loudest anti-Trump candidates that were campaigning in Iowa. Asa Hutchinson clearly wasn't getting the same kind of press that the former Vice President was since he served in the Trump administration, obviously.

So, remember, Chris Christie didn't set foot in Iowa. He was focused on New Hampshire before he dropped out. But Christie, I think, got a couple votes still. So the field has definitely shrunk since this small percentage of registered Republicans turned out in Iowa last night.

CATHY WURZER: So you were busy last night. You were at the DeSantis headquarters. Let's look at how he fared compared with expectations.

CLAY MASTERS: Well, I was doing live updates last night from the DeSantis watch party at a hotel in west Des Moines, and I was surprised when NPR played their "we have results" music at 7:31 Central time last night. There was actually no one in the room aside from staffers for DeSantis and press. Because, remember, caucuses, everyone has to be in the room at 7:00 PM. You don't show up to vote whenever.

So people were still caucusing. The DeSantis campaign was pretty frustrated by this. Some of his surrogates, including Texas Representative Chip Roy, was there questioning the fact that the AP called it when it did. And remember, DeSantis did the traditional Iowa caucus model that has rewarded candidates for spending a lot of time and money here, hitting all of the state's 99 counties, putting in the face time, going to the town halls, and taking questions.

So the room once people started filling in ranged from frustrated to complacency. A group of voters kind of shrugged off the Trump win to me, saying they weren't really that surprised. In the end, it wasn't enough, the DeSantis finish, to get anywhere near Trump. Remember, Trump wasn't here nearly as much as his rivals. But DeSantis was saying, hey, I got a second ticket punched out of Iowa.

CATHY WURZER: So you, of course, have covered the Iowa caucuses for a number of years. Can you compare and contrast the Trump operation this time around versus what you saw, say, in 2016?

CLAY MASTERS: First off, Trump's campaign was night and day compared to his 2016 caucus campaign operation. Early on in 2015 when he first announced, he was kind of just still being covered as a celebrity. There was a lot of entertainment outlets that were out here covering his campaign.

This time around, much more staffed. The education was better. There were videos that played before his commit to caucus events that were explaining to people how to actually caucus, because, as I say time and time again, these are different than primary elections, which so many of us are used to in states like Minnesota. And I'd expect that to continue through the next few states where his ground game, or his operation, at least, is much more stronger, obviously, since he served a term in the White House.

CATHY WURZER: Some big name Democrats were in Iowa trying to keep the focus on President Biden. US Senator Tina Smith was down there. You spoke with Governor Tim Walz when he was in Iowa over the weekend. What did the governor say about Donald Trump if he's the Republican nominee again?

CLAY MASTERS: Well, Governor Walz was there, as you said, to counter-program the Republican messages. We've got a clip here. Here's what he told me Sunday about Trump being on the ballot in November, if he's the nominee.

TIM WALZ: Look, people talk about polls and things like that. Nobody runs a campaign to win a poll in January. You win in November. And I think the American public, we've seen it time and time again-- when Donald Trump is on the ballot, we all win. Donald Trump tries to come into Minnesota in the 2022 gubernatorial election for me, he helps me.

I encourage him to endorse my opponents, because you're going to see, especially in the swing states like Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Minnesota-- it's not working. And so to have Donald Trump on the ballot, he is going to be a drag all the way down the ticket.

CLAY MASTERS: But he was also quick to say DeSantis and Haley were both no better than Trump. We'll just throw that out there.

CATHY WURZER: So Democrats have kind of pushed Iowa back in the pack when it comes to their nominating contests. Do we know if the Republican caucus, given what we've seen here since last night, will have staying power after this year? What do you think?

CLAY MASTERS: Well, the RNC has seemed much more content, obviously, than the DNC in keeping things status quo for this cycle. So too early to tell there. But, of course, the DNC did kick Iowa from the early window. South Carolina is the first state for Democrats this time around. But what this really shows is that there are ways to totally upend the traditional Iowa caucus strategy that folks like DeSantis put into place. And, again, the turnout levels just don't look that great for 2024.

CATHY WURZER: So as I mentioned in the lead that the race moves next to New Hampshire. Minnesota's Dean Phillips has been in New Hampshire now, gosh, how many weeks or months, actually, since he said he's in the race to try to beat Joe Biden. What is his play?

CLAY MASTERS: Well, Phillips has spent more time there than anywhere else since entering the race in October. He's trying to tap into that state's famed independent streak and really playing to the political middle. In New Hampshire, as you're aware, you can vote in whatever party primary you choose.

And there are many unaffiliated voters for the taking. So one problem for Phillips, those moderates and independents are the profile of voter that Nikki Haley is going hard after in her race against Donald Trump. Democrats aren't using New Hampshire's results for delegate purposes due to a reordering of the party calendar we just talked about. So Joe Biden has decided not to have his name go on the ballot, but there is a big write-in effort on his behalf.

CATHY WURZER: And I know that Phillips has a web site urging voters not to write in Biden.

CLAY MASTERS: Yeah. That's right. He does have that.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Say, final question here-- presidential primary early voting starts this week in Minnesota. So will the field be reshaped, in a sense, before Minnesotans get to vote on March the 5th?

CLAY MASTERS: Yeah. Very possible. Once votes are cast, we get a better idea of which candidates are resonating with voters of their party and which are not. That matters because donors watch that. Other officials deciding who to endorse watch the results.

If you're a candidate who isn't faring well or up to expectations, the money and support just kind of dries up. On the Republican side, it's effectively down to Trump, Haley, and DeSantis. And we all know Trump is well stocked and not the quitting kind.

For Democrats, President Joe Biden has a significant institutional and financial edge, of course. Someone like Dean Phillips could hang around because he's shown he's willing to put personal money into his campaign. But the rationale, Cathy, for running wanes if the votes just aren't following him.

CATHY WURZER: Right. Coming back here to Minnesota to cover the session, right?

CLAY MASTERS: That's right. So I'm looking forward to setting foot in Minnesota more and getting to know the players there.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Clay, thank you so much. Good work.

CLAY MASTERS: My pleasure. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: That was MPR's Senior Politics Reporter Clay Masters live from Des Moines, Iowa.

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