Iowa Predictions (Republican Edition)

Now that you know what a caucus is, it’s time to talk about who will win the important first one. ONE DAY until the Iowa caucuses!

I must admit that I’m torn on both races for the Hawkeye State. You know when this last happened? Never. The last time both caucuses were up for grabs was 1988, when I was but a wee five-year-old with a Dukakis-voting father teaching me how to lose like a man. Now, my own child, just past one year of age, is almost surely about to see his old man swing and miss twice on his Iowa predictions. If he was old enough to go to school, the other kids would laugh at him.

If you can’t tell, this primary has destroyed me. In July I picked Jeb Bush as the most likely nominee. Second most likely was Scott Walker — you know, the guy who dropped out a couple months later. Trump was ranked 11th. Eleventh! Behind Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry. On the Democratic side, while I acknowledged Sanders’s ability to win Iowa and New Hampshire, I didn’t think we’d ever perceive Clinton as vulnerable. Now I’m not so sure.

What we’re left with is an almost totally emasculated Presidential Politics for America. While I’m writing this, I have zero confidence in predicting Iowa and the eventual nominees.

And yet I must try. Iowa today. The nominees tomorrow. I might be emasculated, but I’m also desperate for redemption. I have 20 windows open on my computer, I haven’t shaved in weeks, and a toddler is demanding my attention.

Let’s do this.

The Republican Iowa Caucuses

On the Republican side, there are three races to keep an eye on tomorrow. The battle for first between Trump and Cruz, the battle for third between Rubio and Carson, and the battle for a top five finish between nearly everyone else. Let’s take these in reverse order.

The battle for fifth is relevant only insofar as it can earn some momentum heading into New Hampshire, which means better news coverage, more fundraising, and rejuvenated stump speeches between now and next Tuesday’s primary. A half-dozen candidates seeking this edge are tightly packed in Iowa polling. Take a look at these seven Real Clear Politics averages in Iowa, including the six most recent poll results that determined them, listed from most recent to earliest:


Santorum, despite his 2012 Iowa victory, can be ruled out. The other six are too close to call, however, and the work done on the ground to get loyal people to caucus and stand their ground will probably make the difference. Bush has the edge in poll numbers, but I have a lot of faith in Rand Paul’s ground game after what I’ve read and what his father was able to put together when finishing a close third last time around. I’ll give the edge to Rand Paul for fifth place. (The order of the rest is unimportant and won’t really affect New Hampshire. Huckabee and Santorum will drop out barring that top five finish, though.)

Before I predict the crucial order of the top four, let’s first look at the stakes (calling up the Republican Primary Schedule is recommended):

  • If Trump wins Iowa, he’s probably winning New Hampshire, where he leads big already. If he wins both, he’s probably winning South Carolina, where he also leads big already. No candidate of either party to ever start with such a sweep has ever NOT been the nominee. (Only one — Democrat Ed Muskie in 1972 — didn’t win the nomination after victories in the first two states. He went on to lose the nomination to George McGovern, runner up in both.) Meanwhile, if Cruz finishes second in Iowa, which would be a disappointment after all the work put into it, he would suffer in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. His home state of Texas could only do so much for him on Super Tuesday while he loses the rest of the south to Trump and withdraws fairly soon thereafter.
  • If Cruz wins Iowa, Trump suffers in New Hampshire and either loses it to a rising establishment candidate or wins it by a narrow margin. In either case, he could well lose South Carolina, where Cruz would climb after an Iowa win. The South on Super Tuesday then breaks more evenly between Trump and Cruz while an establishment candidates does well everywhere else. In fact, thanks to Texas, Cruz probably wins the day. Trump’s support steadily fades with these losses.
  • For third place, if Carson wins, his campaign can stay on life support through South Carolina. Moreover, Rubio, kept out of the top three, would find it very difficult to surge in New Hampshire and South Carolina to remain competitive with the Iowa winner.
  • But if Rubio takes the bronze, he’ll gain a lot of New Hampshire support, probably finishing #2 in the state (or #1 if Trump loses), which gives the perception of a rising candidate (third place finish followed by a second place finish). Other establishment candidates will feel compelled to drop out by South Carolina. Rubio could win Nevada and Super Tuesday states under this scenario, and I do think the party would round the wagons and see him through to the nomination. (Worth noting is that finishing relatively close to the top two in Iowa would expedite this process. That’s something to keep an eye on.)

Those are pretty enormous ramifications to this top four order, right? Worthy of our time. To help us predict, let’s first take a look at the latest Iowa polling trends from the last two weeks, which include ten polls from ten different pollsters, with the highly respected Des Moines Register poll to the far right as the most recent survey:


Uh oh. Trump is slowly fading, but so is Cruz! Interestingly, both Rubio and Carson are slowly trending up, though it looks impossible that they can catch the leaders by tomorrow.

Troubling for Cruz fans, Trump has led 11 of the last 12 Iowa polls, including the last nine in a row. His RCP average lead is up to a solid 6.3. Again, it’s not that Trump is pulling away; it’s that Cruz is declining a bit faster. Cruz has been as busy trying to hold off Rubio for second as he is trying to catch back up with Trump for third. He had a rough debate, and then the controversial mailer he sent out to Iowans to guilt them into voting has turned into another negative headline. It’s been a rough stretch.

Back in October I expected the impressive Cruz surge, but once it happened in December, I worried that he had peaked too early. I think we’re seeing the evidence of that now. Can he still win Iowa with this downward momentum and growing deficit? Can Mr. Antiestablishment save the establishment from Trump domination?

Yes, I think he can. I’m guessing that Trump skipping the Iowa debate did not sit well with the many Iowa undecideds. (Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus group agreed.) You know how many of these recent Iowa polls were at least partially conducted after Trump refused to debate? Only the Des Moines Register‘s, and it had Trump down to 28 points. He had been floating between 30 and 39 in the previous eight straight polls.

Cruz might be fading, too, but his ground game is second to none, not just in this cycle, but perhaps in the history of the caucus. One Iowa insider called it “one of the most sophisticated, if not the most sophisticated, organizational efforts this state has ever seen.” His network will get people out to the caucuses. Check out this graphic from the Washington Post, citing the latest Monmouth poll. What percentage of Iowans had personally been contacted by the campaigns?

That is a dominant Cruz bar! And note Rubio in a clear second. Trump is a conspicuous third (and barely) for someone who’s leading the overall polls.

Another factor we should look to is if Trump really brings out new voters; for that, we look to voter registration. The New York Times writes that there is nothing unusual in that area. After all the hubbub about Trump and whether his voters will actually vote, it appears we’re headed toward the same kind of voters that chose Santorum and Huckabee — evangelical conservatives. Ted Cruz country.

With the ground game being considerably important for caucuses and little evidence that Trump is actually turning out new voters, I’m giving the edge to those who can turn out caucus-goers. In the third place battle, Carson has a prepared ground game, but Rubio is not only competitive in that category, he’s also rising faster in the polls. Moreover, I can see many undecided mainstream Republican voters aligning behind the strongest establishment candidate’s group in these caucuses, which is clearly Rubio, while the supporters of Carson’s supporters might join Cruz in order to ensure a true conservative evangelical wins Iowa over Trump the flipflopping panderer who says “Two Corinthians.”

Iowa top four:
4. Carson
3. Rubio
2. Trump
1. Cruz

Check back for Democrats later today!


11 thoughts on “Iowa Predictions (Republican Edition)”

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