Andrew Harnik/AP
People walk across the street in downtown Des Moines on January 13, 2024.
CNN  — 

Iowa Republicans who are willing to brave record-low temperatures are set to kick off the party’s 2024 presidential nominating process with Monday night’s caucuses.

The Arctic cold largely froze the field in the race’s final days, with former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and others shortening their lists of scheduled events.

Now, Iowa voters will render the first verdict of the 2024 election, weighing in on which Republican should take on President Joe Biden in November.

Here are five things to watch in the Iowa caucuses:

Will Trump top 50%?

The big question about Trump’s performance isn’t just whether he will win — but whether he will do so in a fashion that demonstrates the GOP electorate has no appetite for a Trump alternative.

The final Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll, released Saturday, found Trump with 48% support — well ahead of Haley’s 20% and DeSantis’ 16%, and close to breaking through the 50% threshold.

Trump remains the clear favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination for a third consecutive election. What’s less clear is whether the road to the nomination will get more difficult after Iowa. Haley and DeSantis are still jockeying to see who’s left standing to take a one-on-one shot at Trump — but major donors and party officials who’d be interested in backing the winner of that race for second place will also be watching to gauge whether Trump is vulnerable at all.

If more than half the party’s electorate shows up on the coldest caucus night ever to vote against Trump, it could signal some weakness.

“It’s not going to be that many people in the grand scheme of things that are going to participate in this, and it may be significantly less than what happened last time,” DeSantis said Sunday in Dubuque. “So, your vote matters.”

However, Trump’s base of die-hard supporters has shown no signs of abandoning him — no matter the weather. And the former president used his rally in Indianola on Sunday to try to leave them with a sense of urgency.

“You can’t sit home. If you’re sick as a dog, you say, ‘Darling, I gotta make it.’ Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it,” Trump said.

The race for second place

The most important question Monday night might be who finishes second — and whether that candidate does so in decisive fashion.

National polls of likely Republican primary voters show Trump with the same commanding lead he’s held for months.

But, even if it’s a long shot, a path for Haley to seriously challenge Trump has emerged in recent weeks: a win in New Hampshire, where a recent CNN poll showed her within single digits of the former president, followed by another strong performance in her home state of South Carolina, setting up a one-on-one race by March — in time for the Super Tuesday contests, in which huge shares of delegates will be awarded.

That road to a one-on-one shot at Trump would get easier with a clear second-place finish, ahead of DeSantis, on Monday. But Haley’s numerical lead over him in the Des Moines Register poll was within the margin of error, and her supporters in that poll were much less enthusiastic than either his or Trump’s.

“Iowa sets the tone for where the country goes when it comes to these elections. There are no foregone conclusions. But we have an opportunity to really get our country back on track,” Haley said on a tele-town hall Sunday.

The Florida governor, meanwhile, has finally found his stride in recent weeks — dropping his frequent references to culture wars, showing his affability in interviews with mainstream news outlets he ignored for most of the race and homing in on a closing message. “Donald Trump’s running for his issues; Nikki Haley’s running for her donors’ issues,” he says frequently. “I’m running for your issues.”

However, in contrast with Haley, Iowa looks likely to be DeSantis’ best shot at an early-state win — and there isn’t another contest where he looks poised to compete for a win on the immediate horizon. DeSantis will need to assure Republican voters and donors who are looking for the strongest alternative to Trump that there is still a reason to consider him.

For his part, Trump sounds likely he’s now squarely focused on Haley. He escalated his attacks on Haley, who was the US ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s presidency, on Sunday during his final rally before the Iowa caucuses, calling her “not tough enough” to be president and claiming she’s “not much of a Republican.”

Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that Trump’s comments don’t bother her.

“He’s saying this because now he knows he’s in trouble,” she said.

Does Iowa narrow the field?

The Iowa caucuses have a history of paring down both parties’ fields of presidential contenders.

In 2012, former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann dropped out after finishing sixth. In 2016, two former Iowa winners — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — exited after disappointing performances, as did Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

What about 2024?

The biggest spotlight will be on DeSantis if he finishes a disappointing third. Unlike Haley, whose support is much stronger in New Hampshire, the Florida governor placed a big bet on Iowa — pouring time (he visited all 99 counties) and money into a state where he hoped early organizing efforts, support from evangelical conservatives and the endorsement of Gov. Kim Reynolds would pay off.

In a move clearly intended to send the message that he is in the race for the long haul, DeSantis’ campaign said that after leaving his Iowa results watch party Monday night, he would travel first to Haley’s home state of South Carolina, which holds its primary on February 24, for a Tuesday morning event before heading to New Hampshire.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who became a late Trump target despite months of praising the former president, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is running as an anti-Trump voice, also remain in the race — though polls show Ramaswamy in the single digits and Hutchinson barely registering any support.

A test of Trump’s evangelical support

Since the 2016 Republican presidential race, Trump’s support among evangelical voters — particularly those without college degrees — has confounded his rivals.

Iowa will once again test whether any other Republican can break Trump’s hold on those voters, who have historically been a crucial bloc in the caucuses. Already, some, such as former Vice President Mike Pence, have tried, and dropped out of the race after doing so proved impossible.

DeSantis, in particular, has courted evangelicals. He has the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Family Leader, an influential voice in the state. He governed in Florida as a culture warrior, particularly on abortion and LGBT issues, and has questioned Trump’s commitment to conservative positions on those issues.

Evangelicals will be an important driver of Monday’s outcome in Iowa. But how that portion of the electorate votes will also be an early sign of what’s to come, with the primary in South Carolina —– where a huge share of the GOP electorate identifies as evangelical — looming as a potential Trump vs. Haley showdown.

How much does organizing matter?

Amid questions about who will turn out to caucus in sub-zero temperatures, both Trump and DeSantis are touting their organizational strength in Iowa.

DeSantis, in particular, has long banked on the ground game built through 2023 by his super PAC Never Back Down to help him deliver a stronger result than polling in the weeks leading up to the caucuses would suggest.

“We built a great army here. Tomorrow is going to be going to be fun for us,” he said Sunday in Dubuque.

Haley, meanwhile, had a much later start in building an Iowa operation — but was aided by the support of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity Action, an influential political group that endorsed her in November.  

The larger question, though, is with presidential races increasingly nationalized, how much does it really matter which candidates’ supporters knocked on more doors or lined up the best network of precinct captains?

Neither Huckabee, the 2008 GOP winner of the Iowa caucuses, nor Santorum, the 2012 winner, could match the organizational might of better-funded rivals.

Trump conceded Sunday that he “really didn’t have a ground game” in 2016, when he finished a close second behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses.

“I think this time we have a really great ground game. But more importantly, I think we have a policy that everybody wants,” Trump told reporters at a Casey’s Gas Station in Waukee on Sunday.

In the months leading up to Iowa’s caucuses in 2020, many Democratic voters seemed to spend more time attempting to game out which candidates had the best chances of defeating Trump than they did deciding who they liked best. (Ultimately, both Iowa and New Hampshire — where President Joe Biden finished fourth and fifth — missed the mark by so much that Democrats later changed their nominating calendar to demote both states.)

Four years later, though the themes are much different in the 2024 Republican race, the dynamic of a race guided more by what’s playing out on national television than which candidate puts in the most shoe leather in the early voting states is similar.

Trump’s legal battles dominated headlines — making it harder for his GOP rivals to break through, while also rallying the party’s base to the former president’s defense. He skipped the party’s presidential primary debates, often holding dueling televised events, which further deprive other Republicans of the oxygen that would have come with taking Trump on toe-to-toe. And he’s been largely protected from scrutiny by conservative media — a reality DeSantis bemoaned while speaking with reporters Saturday after a visit to his Urbandale, Iowa, campaign office.

“He’s got basically a Praetorian Guard of the conservative media, Fox News,” the Florida governor said of Trump, while ignoring his own habit of conducting interviews only with friendly outlets for most of 2023. “They don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers, and they don’t want to have the ratings go down.”

“That’s just the truth. And I’m not complaining about it. I’d rather that not be the case,” he said.