Voting starts in just ten days. I’ve toyed with shutting the blog down because its viewership has remained embarrassingly bad, but I feel compelled to continue for another couple weeks, as this would be a heck of a time to quit. But if Trump wins this thing and Clinton doesn’t dominate, immolating my longstanding predictions, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard. It’s bad enough to be talking to a mostly empty room, but leading astray you few who have stuck around is even worse.
Heading into this final stretch before the Iowa caucuses, what should we be watching for? A recent post on the Democratic Primary covered Clinton and Sanders, so let’s take a look at the Republican side.
Trump the Triumphant?
From early December to early January, there was a ten-poll stretch in Iowa where Trump only led twice, and those two leads were just 3 and 1. Cruz had dramatically wrested control of Iowa and led its RCP average. One poll had Cruz as much as 10 points up, another at 9. Since then, however, Trump has led six of the last eight Iowa polls, including one by 11 yesterday, regaining momentum in the Hawkeye State.
Now pay attention, because this is important — the Iowa caucuses have never, EVER been this important. Few thought Santorum and Huckabee had much of a chance at the nomination, even with Iowa victories, so we knew winning those caucuses wouldn’t be too meaningful. Before that, George W. Bush was a heavy favorite for the nomination, as was Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. Iowa’s winner was mostly irrelevant in those primaries. Now, however, it seems like we’re limited to two enormously different scenarios that can come out of Iowa, and it all hinges on which of these two guys wins the state.
Scenario A) Trump wins Iowa. His lead in New Hampshire therefore holds and maybe extends. Therefore, his lead in South Carolina does the same. Rubio or Cruz might steal Nevada, but come Super Tuesday, which is dominated by southern states, Trump can run away with the nomination. It will likely be too late for the establishment to get its act together behind a candidate.
Scenario B) Cruz wins Iowa. Trump’s lead in New Hampshire evaporates and he’ll either be caught or win with downward momentum. A wounded Trump does battle with Cruz across the south as they split votes. The establishment candidate that benefited from Trump’s dips in New Hampshire and South Carolina finally emerges. In this scenario, he has plenty of time to make a run at Trump and Cruz.
Cruz the Crux?
Those scenarios demand the question: Does the destiny of Trump, the Republican Party, and the 2016 election really balance on Ted Cruz’s back? The above scenario certainly suggests that to be the case. Not only would a win in Iowa be hugely consequential, but Cruz’s long-term presence in the campaign is hugely beneficial to the establishment because it would limit Trump’s ceiling. It’s extraordinary, really. Ted Cruz, the most hated Republican in the party’s establishment, is its best chance to stop Trump. He can be the savior of the GOP.
Many contenders have had their surge. Trump, Fiorina, Carson, Cruz, Christie’s mini-one in New Hampshire . . . heck, even John Kasich had a big New Hampshire surge last week (more on that below). But Rubio? I don’t know if we can call any part of his campaign a “surge.” Check out Huffington Post’s national polling trends from Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina:
Each of these candidates, except for Rubio, experienced a surge at one point: Trump in July, Cruz in November and December, Carson from September to November, and Fiorina nearly quintupled her support from August to October. But isolate the rolling hills of Rubio’s meandering, purple line, and you can see he has yet to have his moment. Now, that’s not to say his moment is inevitable, but it is to say that it’s better to use up ones surge in February than in the year before the primaries, like Carson and Fiorina did. (Of course, best of all is to have a long, sustained surge like Trump and Cruz do.) Rubio’s impending pop would come at the perfect time. Beating out Carson for a third place showing in Iowa followed by placing second place in New Hampshire — two extremely realistic results — could allow the media and the party to paint him as a candidate on the rise. The establishment field would be pressured to withdraw by Super Tuesday, and Rubio would see a huge pop in money and surrogacy support. It’s therefore by no means over for him, but we’ll need to keep a close eye on his Iowa numbers in the next ten days to see if he can make such a run.
The Christie Comeback, the Kasich Climb, or the Bush Bombshell?
There’s still plenty of time until New Hampshire — 18 days, to be exact. It will break extremely late and can get affected by the Iowa results, but here are some telling trends:
Christie, identified by many, including the hapless PPFA, as a New Hampshire contender, has steadily lost support. With these other Trump wannabes all jockeying for position, it will be extremely difficult to regain his mojo. Meanwhile, the Kasich climb looks extremely impressive. He’s run second to Trump in four of the last five New Hampshire polls. An American Research Group poll released this week had him up to 20 percent, just 7 back of Trump. Could the man so often relegated to the back of the establishment’s main field ultimately be its candidate? And then there’s Jeb Bush, who has has slowed his losses and claims a strong New Hampshire ground game. A better-than-expected showing in the Granite State would nicely set up a run in South Carolina, where he’s trending up and hit double digits in two of the last three polls, including a healthy 13 in the most recent one, which was good enough for third place and just five points behind Cruz in second. If the Bush Campaign finally gets some good breaks, it could start converting its considerable potential energy into something more kinetic.
Who gets the late Iowa surge?
Santorum and Huckabee earned huge pops in the weeks before winning the last two Iowa caucuses. Can someone outside of the top two replicate that? It’s probably impossible to catch Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, but anyone who can show a better-than-expected can build some momentum into New Hampshire and South Carolina. That would mean a strong third from Rubio or Carson, or a top five from Christie, Kasich, or Bush. (A fourth of fifth from anyone else wouldn’t matter, although Rand Paul could be a nice long-shot bet for a fifth place showing.) So as we examine the slew of Iowa polls over the next ten days, let’s watch not only for the Cruz/Trump showdown, but also for the Carson/Rubio bronze match and the Christie/Kasich/Bush quest for fifth.
Are there any surprises left?
It’s possible. Santorum and Huckabee might move into the top half of the field in Iowa, Fiorina might grab a top five in New Hampshire, Gilmore might leave his house, Carson might speak with authority on an issue at some point, etc. I don’t think, however, that any surprises that don’t include Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Christie would ultimately matter. They’re still the top six in some order.