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Iowa's results show Trump is off to a good start to be the GOP presidential nominee

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Let's think through the scenarios for the Republican presidential nominating contest. Donald Trump won Iowa this week. Turnout wasn't high in the caucuses, but he dominated among people who showed up, defeating Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, knocking others out of the race entirely. Trump campaign aide Bruce LaVell spoke with NPR's Scott Detrow on election night and made a prediction.

BRUCE LAVELL: We're going to go in, obviously, and take New Hampshire. We're going to take Nevada and, of course, South Carolina. It'll be a sweep all the way.

INSKEEP: Now, you would expect a campaign aide to say just about that about his boss, no matter which campaign, no matter which aide. But this prediction is in line with current polls. So is there any suspense here, any at all? Political strategist Rina Shah joins us to discuss. She's a Republican and identifies as a Never Trumper, going back to the 2016 convention. Welcome.

RINA SHAH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I was looking up the story. You were tossed out as a delegate - right? - for criticizing Trump and got back in. Is that correct?

SHAH: Indeed. I was the first elected delegate to do so before he became the presumptive nominee that year.

INSKEEP: OK. So you've been a Never Trumper for a very long time. You are still, though, active in the Republican Party, working as a strategist, a consultant. Based on the results that you have seen, is this contest over?

SHAH: Steve, far from that. There's this air of inevitability, if you will. But it doesn't have to be this way. We still have DeSantis and Haley, who've got a very sure shot at this thing. And look, Haley's out there claiming that it's a two-person race from now on. Though she's not accurate, she's not too far off because she and Ron DeSantis are just a few thousand votes of each other in Iowa so far, and they both are within one delegate of each other, DeSantis having earned nine delegates in Iowa and Haley having earned eight, but Trump having earned 20.

INSKEEP: Understand all of that. But when you do look at the polling and you see Trump, over 50% of Republican support and the rest of it divided between a couple of people, doesn't that add up to Trump winning again and again and again?

SHAH: Well, if 2016 taught us anything, it's not to believe these polls. You get a lot of hard-right supporters answering these polls. And back to the delegate math for a moment. What's needed is 1,215 to win the Republican nomination. And essentially what we're looking at is that these primary contests do last for about six months, but more than 70% of all delegates are going to be allocated by the end of March. So I get that that leaves people wondering, well, how is it even possible? But look to Super Tuesday. That's where I'm looking at - at that date, essentially, where we see that slew of contests around the country, March 5. And to me, that's when we can take the real pulse of the Republican electorate writ large.

These early contests so far. I'm not putting too much stock in them, particularly not in Iowa, where we saw a really depressed turnout. 2024 turnout for these caucuses in Iowa were the lowest they were in more than a decade. So to me, Trump, yes, handily won. But in many ways, he fared just fine. If you look at that through the vein of how these campaigns move forward, then you start to see that Trump may need to start to get creative in these other states.

INSKEEP: Let me let me just work through a couple of things that you said there. You said, let's not trust the polls, but I will just recall that in the 2016 campaign, the polls turned out to be roughly correct. People kept saying, Trump is a flash in the pan. He's going to go away. These polls are fake - or not fake, but they're not accurately measuring people's sentiment when they get serious. And it turns out people were serious about nominating Donald Trump. Let me ask another question, if I can. I suppose if Trump faced just one opponent, Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, that opponent would have a better shot, but some of the support of the other person would probably go to Trump. What is the way in which one of those candidates would get to a majority over the next few weeks?

SHAH: Well, these candidates certainly have their work cut out for them. You know, when you're looking at Trump getting 20 of 40 delegates, for example - and again, DeSantis taking eight, Haley taking seven - it leaves some sense that it's not possible for there to be a breakthrough. But you've got to look at, again, how these nominating contests fare for Haley, for example. In South Carolina, her native South Carolina, in the end of February, what you're going to see, there is some sense of who are we going to nominate from here on out? And if it starts to smell like Trump, we're going to get a sense then.

But I would say, also follow the money. There has to be longevity. And I think it's there for these underdog campaigns. Spending in Iowa was record, and we're talking 120 million in ad spending. And for these three campaigns - Trump, Haley and DeSantis - we saw around 84 million of the total ad buys were in support of them. So I'm thinking to myself, well, I'm not so sure that I want to put much stock in these - some of these being very rural states, where we know Trump is going to fare well and where people will be saying what they did in Iowa in some ways. Let's go for the devil we know versus the one we don't, but don't apply conventional wisdom here entirely, Steve. This is a contest in which, again, anything can happen at any time. Let's not forget, Trump has a very complicated schedule of legal matters coming ahead of him.

INSKEEP: Yeah. If I can, very briefly, totally with you on not going with the conventional wisdom, but in about a sentence, is there a hunger in the Republican Party, essentially, for Nikki Haley's case to move on from Donald Trump?

SHAH: I submit to you, there is. There's no way these campaigns would be making it this far or be able to garner any of the support they've gotten so far, whether we're looking at power or money. Nikki Haley has those endorsements, so they wouldn't be alive at this point if there weren't an appetite for somebody new. But again, Trump looms large.

INSKEEP: Rina Shah, political strategist and commentator. Thanks so much.

SHAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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