In school gyms, libraries and community centres across Iowa on Monday night, the Republican Party found itself at a fork in the road.
It chose the path of Donald Trump.
The former president began his political comeback with a historic landslide in Iowa on Monday, cementing his frontrunner status for Republican nominee.
He won by an unprecedented margin over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, while former UN ambassador Nikki Haley finished third, and Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out to endorse Trump.
For all the complaints about Iowa's caucuses – they're low-turnout, time-consuming, an inefficient way to vote – they offer a glimpse at democracy as a public pageant.
At hundreds of locations, someone grabs a microphone to speak on behalf of each candidate; then friends and neighbours line up and drop hand-filled ballots in paper bags.
The remaining Republicans opposed to Trump pleaded with their fellow partisans to choose a different path.
In Van Meter, Iowa, local councillor Joel Akers spoke to his community, where people filled the stands in a high-school gym.
He said he'd voted twice for Trump. But something snapped that day a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol to keep Trump in office.
"He didn't do a whole lot to stop it," Akers said. "The fact that he was so disrespectful of the peaceful transfer of power for our country … respected across the entire world, it was extremely disappointing to me.
"From that point on, I don't want to have him in there anymore. I've moved on."
At a high-school gym in Van Meter, Iowa, Joel Akers tells fellow Republicans why he can no longer support Trump and is endorsing Nikki Haley. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)
Akers endorsed Haley as someone his daughter could look up to, someone who treats others with respect and brings people together.
A speaker on behalf of DeSantis, Jackie Abram, warned that Trump would be too distracted by criminal trials this year to fight the general election.
She warned that Trump also turned off swing voters and that could cost victory in the election against President Joe Biden.
Those arguments were resoundingly crushed.
Here's a piece of critical context: this county was an island of moderation in the state where the Haley-type candidate prevailed: in 2016 Marco Rubio, and in 2012 Mitt Romney, won Dallas County, an exurb of Des Moines.
It didn't happen this time.
After tallying up the votes in Van Meter on this sheet, party officials read the results to the room. Trump won here, as he did almost everywhere in the state. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)
Unprecedented Iowa margin for Trump
In 2024, Trump appeared to win this county and came within a whisker of winning all 99 counties in the state, an unprecedented victory for a contested Republican caucus.
At this high school gym, in what might have been Haley country, the vote results were Trump 85, DeSantis 79, Haley 64, Ramaswamy 21.
This is three years after Trump appeared politically dead: he'd lost the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and his supporters had tried interrupting the transfer of power for the first time in the 232-year history of U.S. elections, the Civil War notwithstanding.
Trump has been described as a menace by two of his chiefs of staff, two of his secretaries of defence, two national-security advisers and numerous other former aides including in books and public hearings.
Now his career is very much alive.
After they voted, Trump supporters brushed off the warnings they'd heard, like the one from Akers. In what was a triumphant moment, several even expressed anger.
Anger about inflation, migration, and the lack of a border wall with Mexico. But also anger about the 2020 election, their views countering the prevailing mainstream recollection of that year's events.
When asked about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump supporter Dan Edwards says: 'I don't give a damn.' He doesn't believe the official stories about what happened that day in 2021. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)
Trump supporters: 'People are pissed'
They insist the election was stolen from Trump; they dismiss Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot as an inside job led by the FBI, or by left-wing anarchists, or both; and no amount of media stories to the contrary will make a difference because they don't trust the media either.
"People are pissed," said an older woman who declined to be named, a real-estate agent angry about interest rates.
"They're done with this crap. And they're going to get more in people's faces. … We're done with it. People are done with it."
Donald Trump's political career seemed finished three years ago, after the 2021 sacking of the U.S. Capitol, following Republican election losses for the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. He's now begun his political comeback with a big win in the Iowa caucuses. (John Minchillo/AP)
Interviews like these gave human voice to entrance polls at Iowa caucus sites.
The numbers reveal a fault line in the Republican Party – on one side, a mere 10 per cent of Trump supporters say Biden was legitimately elected; most supporters of other candidates agreed Biden won.
Among Trump supporters, nearly three-quarters said he should keep running for office even if he's found guilty of a crime; anti-Trump Republicans disagreed.
And there's no doubt who's running the show now in this party.
"I personally feel he's still our president. I believe it was taken away from him," said retiree Dan Edwards.
Edwards always hated politics and took an interest because of Trump. He saw Trump as the first politician willing to fight for a nationalist agenda – like putting tariffs on foreign goods, and, again, pushing for the wall with Mexico.
Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses with just over 50 percent of the vote, an unprecedented margin in a year where there is serious competition. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
He grew angry while discussing the criminal charges against Trump, which he derided as anti-American forces trying to sideline him.
"It's all bullcrap," he said. "All the charges, all the election interference is what it is. And it's bad people from all over the world interfering in our elections. A lot of bad people."
Don Grunwold says, after voting in Van Meter, Iowa, that Trump got 'ripped off' in 2020 and should still be president. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)
Jan 6? 'I don't give a damn'
When asked about Jan. 6 he said: "I don't give a damn." He referred to anarchists, and the FBI, and said the official stories about the Capitol ransacking are lies.
"I'm not stupid. And neither are anybody else," he said. "What's going on in this country right now, we have to stop it. And if we don't stop it, it's going to get bad. Real bad."
Another woman who didn't provide her name brushed off Jan. 6: "That stupid riot?" She said what people care about is lower interest rates and cheaper food.
Another retiree said he felt like he was voting for the legitimate incumbent president: Trump.
"I think he got ripped off," Don Grunwold said.
"There's too many Democrats trying to chase him out of office. Before he was supposed to leave."
Apoorva Tewari looks on as her husband, Vivek Ramaswamy, drops out following a fourth-place finish. Ramaswamy immediately endorsed Trump. (Sergio Flores/Reuters)
In politics, success breeds success. Trump is now piling up endorsements from high-level Republicans, as people want to join the perceived winner.
It was reflected in the fact that other candidates had local community members speaking on their behalf in Van Meter; taking the microphone for Trump, however, was a U.S. congressman, Jason Smith, who came up from Missouri.
Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio just joined the pile endorsing Trump, a bitter break for someone who endorsed Rubio in 2016: Haley.
Late Monday, pressure mounted on other candidates to leave the race. On Fox News, one personality appeared to hint that Haley should quit now, while she still has a chance to be Trump's running mate.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley dropped into a Des Moines diner on caucus day Monday. She finished a disappointing third, but says she'll keep campaigning as she's polling second in New Hampshire. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
They made their choice in Iowa.
And barring a miracle turnaround, starting in New Hampshire, Donald Trump's comeback will be ratified by the entire Republican Party.