Who will get a ticket punched out of Iowa? Here’s what each GOP candidate has to do.

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Presidential campaigns have lived and died by their success in Iowa.

Former President Donald Trump is viewed as the heavy favorite to win Iowa in the Jan. 15 caucuses — something many of his competitors are even quietly predicting.

But even if he does, it doesn’t mean that the Republican primary is over. Instead, it looks like the caucuses may produce multiple paths to New Hampshire.

Interviews with more than two dozen strategists, campaign officials, neutral Republicans and potential caucusgoers highlighted how there are two, and possibly three, tickets that can get punched out of Iowa with meaningful momentum.

But success for each campaign is measured differently. For instance, a third-place showing could be catastrophic to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign. But former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley could likely get away with coming in a strong third, according to interviews.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you spin the game,” said David Yepsen, who for decades served as The Des Moines Register’s political reporter and dean of the Iowa press corps.

So much of early-state presidential politics is built on expectations, and that’s largely dictated by not just a media narrative, but also by how much each candidate has invested in the state compared to the outcome and what investments they’ve made in subsequent early states. So Trump won’t clear the field with an expected win, but if his win is commanding, he may seriously hamper the main goal of his competitors to emerge as the clear No. 2 option.

“The only thing better for President Trump than a win on caucus night, which he’s almost assured of, is the field continuing to be fractured going into New Hampshire,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa Republican strategist who is neutral in the race. “So if the difference between second and third places isn’t 7 points or more, in my opinion, Donald Trump’s gonna get two wins on caucus night.”

Here’s what success in Iowa means for the field.

Donald Trump

Success: He needs to crack 50%.

Iowa ad spending: $13 million since May by the Trump campaign and MAGA Inc., according to AdImpact.

Time in Iowa: 27 events since May, according to an NBC News tally.

If Trump wins Iowa, that doesn’t end the 2024 primaries. But if he blows the field out of the water with 75% or 80% support, that will cast serious doubt on the ability of the rest of the field to challenge him in New Hampshire and beyond. And he’s setting high expectations for himself.

Trump’s strength coming out of Iowa will depend on whether he can amass at least 50% of the caucus support and create a sizable distance between himself and second place.

“That margin of victory is so, so powerful,” Trump said in Iowa on Wednesday.

Though he hasn’t dedicated a lot of time to the state relative to some of the other candidates, the numbers show that reaching 50% is possible. In the latest NBC/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, Trump broke the 50% threshold, growing his support from 43% in October to 51% in December.

“Keeping Trump under 50% in Iowa would show a majority of caucusgoers want someone else,” said Matt Gorman, vice president of Targeted Victory and a former campaign official to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who dropped out of the contest in November. “That would be a key part of any rationale moving forward. Survive and advance — just like they say during March Madness.”

Some analysts say Trump needs to run up that percentage even more if he’s to be viewed as dominant heading into New Hampshire.

“Trump is the former president. He should be winning and running away with this with well over 80% support,” said Matt Bartlett, a New Hampshire Republican strategist. “He is nowhere near that. He’s close to 50%. That is an opportunity for others to potentially build momentum and capture the flag in New Hampshire.”

Of the top-tier candidates, the former president has held the fewest events in Iowa, and still he’s grown his voter share. But most agree he must win decisively.

“He’s got to win Iowa or he’s done,” David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist, said. “There will be problems because he’s got such a commanding lead now, he hit 50 in the latest Iowa poll. If he’s under 40%, that spells real trouble.”

Ron DeSantis

Success: He needs a strong top-two showing.

Iowa ad spending: $21 million since May from the DeSantis campaign and the pro-DeSantis PACs Never Back Down and Fight Right, according to AdImpact.

Time in Iowa: 125 events since May, according to an NBC News tally.

The Florida governor doesn’t have to win the state. But he does need a decisive top-two finish to remain viable in New Hampshire, where he has spent less time campaigning, numerous strategists and neutral Iowa Republicans said.

“Based on past history, I think if Ron DeSantis comes in third, or worse, I would expect him to drop out of the race,” Brian Andersen, GOP chair in Grundy County, said.

Yepsen doesn’t see how DeSantis can survive a third-place finish.

“How does he spin that?” Yepsen said. “That kind of showing — his money would dry up.”

That’s because there are big expectations here for DeSantis, set in large part by the candidate himself. He has been bullish on Iowa, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “We’re going to win the caucus.” And DeSantis has banked his campaign strategy on the state, having already moved a portion of his staff here and visited all 99 counties.

“For DeSantis, a second-place finish would allow him to survive and advance until South Carolina — as long as he doesn’t collapse in New Hampshire,” Gorman said.

The DeSantis-Iowa narrative was driven by Never Back Down, the pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC that has poured $100 million into DeSantis’ election, with part of that investment building a massive ground operation in Iowa. That includes deploying an army it says knocked on 750,000 doors. The super PAC, however, has been beset with turmoil in recent weeks, including the departure of its top operative on Saturday.

“I think there’s only upside for Nikki Haley in Iowa, but it’s boom or bust for Ron DeSantis,” says Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina GOP. “She’s set no expectations there, while DeSantis has gone all in. If she is able to finish above Ron DeSantis, it makes the case for voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina that it truly is a two-person race.”

Centers said DeSantis has run the Iowa playbook successfully, nabbing two major endorsements with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader. But that’s all the more reason the onus is on him to finish above the pack.

“It’d be really tough to look donors in the eye and say, ‘We put everything we had in Iowa and came in third,’” Centers said.

Nikki Haley

Success: She needs a top-two or top-three showing.

Iowa ad spending: $18 million from Haley, the pro-Haley SFA PAC and Americans for Prosperity since May, according to AdImpact.

Time in Iowa: 33 events since May, according to an NBC News tally. 

The former United Nations ambassador and ex-South Carolina governor could elevate herself into a one-on-one contender with Trump if she leapfrogs DeSantis in Iowa to land in the No. 2 spot.

“For Haley, sneaking into second would be a huge blow for DeSantis — particularly in light of her position in New Hampshire,” Gorman said. “There would be lots of calls for consolidation.”

But to move on, she needs a strong top-three finish, according to interviews.

“She’s got to come in third. Just purely to maintain what momentum she has got at this point,” said Gene Newgaard, Hardin County GOP chair. “If she were to not come in third in Iowa, that would cause people to question the validity of the momentum she’s gotten.”

Haley has spent far less time in Iowa than DeSantis, doesn’t have his army and has not been nearly as bullish on the state. She’s instead split her time between Iowa and New Hampshire, holding close to the same number of events in each (33 in Iowa and 37 in New Hampshire since May).

“The way I look at it is we just need to have a good showing, and I don’t think that means we have to win necessarily,” Haley said at a Dec. 8 event in Sioux City. “But I think that means we have to have a good showing.”

Despite Haley’s lowering of expectations, pro-Haley ad spending in Iowa is not all that far away from DeSantis’, at about $18 million compared to $21 million by pro-DeSantis groups. And she now has the backing of Americans for Prosperity, which has a rich history of a strong ground game.

“The story could be Nikki Haley out of here. This reminds me of 1984 when Walter Mondale is way ahead … Gary Hart shows up second. That was the buzz, that was the chatter, that media energy put him over the top in New Hampshire,” Yepsen said, adding: “If Haley finishes second here, it really starts looking grim for DeSantis.”

Haley is polling well in New Hampshire and just picked up the prized backing of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. The super PAC backing her has by far outspent any other group in the Granite State. Haley is banking on a longer game, which is to hang tough through her home state and make it a two-person race.

“Ultimately, barring an upset first-place finish from DeSantis, Haley is the only person who can claim momentum coming out of Iowa,” Stroman said. “The story of the night will not be about him, but about her.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

Success: He needs a top-three showing.

Iowa ad spending: $3.8 million from the Ramaswamy campaign and supporting PAC American Exceptionalism.

Time spent in Iowa: 162 events since May, according to an NBC News tally.

Ramaswamy’s campaign is expecting a top-three finish in the state, the campaign’s Chief Executive Officer Ben Yoho said.

“That allows us to have momentum going into New Hampshire and, again, be somewhat of a force multiplier towards our performance there,” he said.

Out of the field, Ramaswamy has held the most events here. According to an NBC News tally of events since May, he’s held at least 129 more events in the state than Haley, for example.

But his polling numbers are not moving. In October, he stood at 4% in the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa. In December, that number was at 5% and he was statistically tied with Chris Christie, who has spent no time in Iowa.

“The expectations that the media is setting and pollsters are that we would come in fourth, and we think that we would outperform that,” said Tricia McLaughlin, senior adviser and spokesperson for Ramaswamy. “We’re optimistic that we think that there will be momentum coming out of Iowa. But regardless of place there, I think we believe New Hampshire is a place he can perform well in.”

Howard County GOP Chair Neil Shaffer wasn’t so sure third place would cut it.

“If he really wants to break away from the second-tier candidates, you’re almost going to need a second place,” Shaffer said.

Chris Christie

Success: He has not competed in Iowa.

Iowa ad spending: None.

Time spent in Iowa: 0 events since May.

Christie is banking on New Hampshire, spending his time and resources in the first-in-the-nation primary state. He’s held 46 events in the Granite State since May, second only to Ramaswamy.

In September, NBC News asked Christie why he hadn’t gone to Iowa yet.

“I haven’t gone because I haven’t wanted to. And if I want to, I’ll go sometime later,” he said.

That time has yet to come. Analysts say it’s hard to see a path for Christie to a one-on-one with Trump, and there is a chance that if Haley surprises in Iowa, there may be calls for him to drop out, given the Sununu endorsement.

“The Sununu endorsement does have an effect there, because it could dry up Chris Christie support,” Yepsen said. “[Sununu] has credibility with the same people flirting with Christie.”

A Christie aide said any scenario suggesting he would leave the race before it started in New Hampshire was ridiculous. The aide said that nothing in Iowa will change his strategy, which all along has been to hit New Hampshire hard. The aide pointed to the recent history of Iowa winners not going on to win the nomination.

Others in New Hampshire agree.

“New Hampshire voters are fiercely independent. We think for ourselves and form our own opinions,” said Vikram Mansharamani, a New Hampshire Republican who recently endorsed Haley. “Momentum will be gauged against expectations. And frankly, me, my family and many of my friends in New Hampshire don’t think much about how Iowans think about candidates that we have met in person.”

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