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A look at Trump's hold on Iowa

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump hopes for a commanding victory in Monday's Iowa caucuses. He's favored to win the first contest in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. A big enough margin of victory in Iowa for Trump could end the primary process early. Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters reports that Iowa Republican voters have warmed to Trump since he first ran for president.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Think back eight years ago, when a reality TV star was running for president.

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DONALD TRUMP: I love Iowa. We are having such an amazing time, and the relationships are so good.

MASTERS: This is Donald Trump in the small town of Ottumwa, bemoaning his then-close race against the eventual winner of the 2016 Republican caucuses, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

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TRUMP: And the polls are essentially tied. I don't get it.

MASTERS: Trump would go on to snag second place in the caucuses that year. Many of the Iowans I talked to eight years ago would tell me it was their first time caucusing. They say things like, he's one of us - that he's not a politician. They liked that he's not politically correct. And in the general election, he flips this state that voted twice for Barack Obama.

MEGAN GOLDBERG: When we make America great again - right? - we're sort of, like, restoring this, like, racial hierarchy.

MASTERS: This is Megan Goldberg. She's a political science professor at Cornell College just outside Cedar Rapids.

GOLDBERG: I think, in Iowa, that plays really well, especially because it also, I think, meshes with, like, this rural identity that a lot of Iowans have - especially Republican rural Iowans.

MASTERS: 2016 saw record turnout for Republicans, and Trump's support has only grown here. You can hear it from people like small-business owner Cyndi Diercks (ph). At an event in Maquoketa this fall, she tells me she caucused for Rand Paul eight years ago but is now all-in for the former president.

CYNDI DIERCKS: Trump is one of us, and he loves America. I love watching him put his hand on his heart and sing the national anthem. And I know he loves America. I know he loves us. We love him right back. So I - yeah, I wasn't always a Trump supporter.

MASTERS: Farmer Arnold Kundel was at the same event. He caucused for Trump in 2016. He says the two-party system isn't working, and Trump is his last hope.

ARNOLD KUNDEL: Trump's the only one that's taken on these people. And everybody agrees with him, but nothing ever happened. So it's all a joke. But if it doesn't happen this time, I'm done voting. I'm just - you guys can have your government. You can have whatever you want.

MASTERS: Polls have shown Trump consistently dominating the field. His campaign events have started showing videos about how to caucus so there's no confusion. David Kochel is a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa who advised Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. He says Trump's ongoing legal battles only make his supporters more motivated.

DAVID KOCHEL: His whole grievance argument, his whole victimhood - you know, the Justice Department is unfairly targeting me; Biden is going after his political opponent to subvert the election - that argument is ringing true with a lot of voters.

MASTERS: Kochel says those battling it out for second place - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley - are in a much different situation than past candidates, with a runaway front-runner.

KOCHEL: The goal for them is to try to get one of them out of the way so that, you know, they can take him on one-on-one. Trump will beat the field every time.

MASTERS: Monday night will be a new test for Trump's support among Republicans here as they head out to caucus. We'll see how eight years of warming support among Republicans holds up as temperatures plummet into the double digits below zero.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.