2016 Republicans, Iowa, Trump

Forecasting Iowa: Update One (Can Carson Destroy The Donald?)

September 29, 2015

Welcome to our first installment of Forecasting Iowa.  Though the impact of the first voting contest of Primary Season is sometimes overstated, Iowa almost always matters, sometimes well ahead of the actual voting.

Tim Pawlenty (2011) and Scott Walker likely pulled the plug more because of single-digit polling numbers in the Hawkeye State than microscopic national numbers.

Every other contest is influenced by voting that has already occurred.  Though Forecasting New Hampshire will debut soon, this is the only truly clean speculative canvas.  On the Democratic side, drawing any firm conclusions before Joe Biden opts in or out of the October 13 debate is pointless.  However, the GOP crystal ball for Iowa is beginning to de-fog. 

In order to get the best possible view of the current signals, a historical review is helpful.  Republicans have contested Iowa in each open nomination contest since 1980, a total of 6 data points.

This is definitely a case of small sample size, but if we notice something happens in virtually every contest, it’s a good indication we’ll see it again.  As it happens, at least to my eyes, the results are remarkably consistent.

The three things people most frequently mention when trying to make the case 2016 is unique are probably not evidence of a new dynamic.

First, we hear about the unusual role of outsiders, candidates who have not held public office, but are showing surprising strength.  For several weeks, adding the poll numbers of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina will get you to or even past 50% of total support.

This is presented as unprecedented and many question if voters will stay similarly bold when it’s time to vote.  We hear these upstart campaigns will have a hard time actually getting their supporters to caucus on a frosty Tuesday night in the dead of winter.

Sounds plausible, but don’t start passing those voters to Jeb just yet.  In 2000, George W. Bush, front runner and upcoming two term president was on the ballot.  He was joined by John McCain, the future 2008 nominee and 2000 New Hampshire primary winner.

Somehow, the immortal trio of Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer combined for 53% of the vote.  Not late September 1999 polling support.  Actual marching through the snow to caucus vote.  None had elected office experience.

The difference is this trio is potentially far stronger and more credible as an actual nomination threat.  Whether this holds or not remains to be seen, but do not expect their Iowa support to evaporate.

Two, the size and quality of the field matters less than you would logically think.  How could this not matter? Wouldn’t 8 to 10 credible candidates distribute votes differently than 4 or 5?  Shouldn’t it matter if there’s a clear and strong front runner?

You’d think so, but no.  Three GOP candidates have won the presidency since 1980.  Each were indisputably the front runner in the fall before their Iowa caucuses.

Ronald Reagan finished second in 1980.  George H.W. Bush finished third in 1988.  W managed to win in 2000, but only managed to beat Forbes by a 4 to 3 margin.

Some consider the 1980 group, which included 3 future nominees (Reagan, Bush 41, Bob Dole) the strongest GOP field ever.  The top 2 combined for 61% of the vote, top 4 for 85%.  Dole finished 8th, right behind uncommitted.

Dole’s 13 point margin in 1988 (his best caucus result in 3 tries) is a record, the average winner finishes 6 points ahead.  It’s never a total blowout and often very close.  This is not true in other states, New Hampshire included.

In 2000, the two top contenders combined for 70%, a record.  On the other side, in both 1996 and 2012, years with relatively large fields, but weak front runners (Dole, Mitt Romney), the top two were just under 50%.

Winners range from 25% to 41%, with a fairly even spread along that range.  It’s very unlikely anyone wins with much less than 25% this time, something backed up by current polling.  Given the size and depth of the field, and lack of a strong front runner, anything much over 30% would be a surprise.

Even in 1996, the most spread-out result, the top 4 secured almost 80% of the vote.  In 2000, the most top-heavy year, it was a little over 90%.  Whatever is left over generally winds up with the 5th place contestant.  No 7th place finisher has ever collected even 4%.

The reason is people don’t want to waste their votes on someone who is unlikely to continue.  Polls are frequent and well-publicized in the days leading up to the election.  Without good totals or good momentum you can’t keep your supporters.

Conversely, if it seems a certain candidate is a likely winner, there’s an opportunity to vote for another candidate you like in the hopes they can continue for a while.  This is part of what creates strong second or third place finishers, even when a decade or two later you can’t imagine how they got that much support.

So while you can assume votes will be toward the more distributed part of the range, any scenario with a winner under 20% or a 7th place finisher pushing double-digits is unrealistic.

A New Hampshire-type candidate looking for momentum from a better-than-expected Iowa finish, needs to place 5th or higher, likely 4th to really make any impact.

Third, while it’s possible this year’s batch of Iowa voters is somehow more conservative, or outsider-friendly there’s no evidence of that in the polling numbers.

From 1988 forward, you can divide the Iowa GOP caucus electorate in to four parts:

1. Social Conservative/Values Voters

2. Strong Economic/Foreign Policy Conservatives

3. Establishment-Friendly Voters

4. Wild Card Supporters

For 1980, it’s not as clean, the values voter block wasn’t in clear existence, but the other three were.  For the past five contests, it’s very consistent.

A voter can lean toward more than one group.  There are plenty of Evangelical Christians who also like a strong, hawkish foreign policy.  Just because you like establishment candidates doesn’t mean you aren’t conservative.

However, it would appear each voter prioritizes one of these 4 things above all.  Each group represents approximately a quarter of the electorate, though some are probably closer to 30% while others are more like 20%.

Any candidate who can monopolize a group, especially the values voters, is an immediate contender to win Iowa.  Someone who can do that plus add parts of another group or two is a definite winner.

While in the LASIK world hindsight is now 20/10, a backward walk in time will illustrate what I mean.


Rick Santorum 24.6% (values voters)

Mitt Romney 24.5% (establishment)

Ron Paul 21.4% (wild card)

Newt Gingrich 13.3% (conservatives, wild card)

Rick Perry 10.3% (conservatives, values)

Michele Bachmann 5.0% (values, conservatives)

You might have slight disagreements with how I allocated the groups, but most analysts would think this is pretty close.  Each of the three leading candidates locked down most of their base, but none could really add to it.

Conservatives wound up being fragmented.  As you’ll see, no one voter type always does or does not congeal.  This is the part that creates the uncertainty each cycle.


Mike Huckabee 34.4% (values, wild card)

Mitt Romney 25.2% (establishment, conservatives)

Fred Thompson 13.4% (conservatives)

John McCain 13.0% (establishment, wild card)

Ron Paul 9.9% (wild card)

Rudy Giuliani 3.4% (establishment)

Huckabee’s win was rightly credited to values voters.  Unlike Santorum who got a large majority, Huckabee got virtually all of them.  He also had great momentum down the stretch and got some wild card support as a non-traditional candidate.  That’s how he won with a much larger than average margin.

Fred Thompson’s campaign was generally seen as a disaster.  He was listless, non-energetic (the real version of what Trump says Jeb is) and not particularly organized.  By South Carolina he was done.  I’ve always thought of his candidacy as a footnote, but there’s a lesson.

From what I can tell, he pulled about half of the conservative vote, leaving most of the rest for Romney.  As a result, Mitt almost doubled Thompson’s vote, dropping him into a virtual tie with McCain.

Had he entered the race just a few weeks earlier, campaigned with 25% more energy and focused more directly on Iowa, it’s easy to see him pulling 20% instead of 13.  Virtually all of these votes would subtract from Romney, putting him (barely) into second.

Romney’s total collapse rather than Thompson’s bad result becomes the story and the rest of the narrative changes.  I’ll spare the entire counterfactual history, but Romney isn’t the runner up/2012 front runner, while Thompson could have won the nomination.

That thin line is why Iowa is such a big deal.

Meanwhile, McCain’s surprisingly strong 4th place finish is the goal of this year’s New Hampshire batch (Jeb, Kasich, Christie), while Giuliani’s weak 6th is the cautionary tale.  This is how Iowa will make decisions for New Hampshire, especially among the candidates ostensibly focused elsewhere.


George W. Bush 41% (establishment, conservatives, values)

Steve Forbes 30% (wild card, conservatives)

Alan Keyes 14% (values, conservatives, wild card)

Gary Bauer 9% (values)

John McCain 5% (wild card)

This was the Year of the Wild Card, even more than 2016 might be.  Bush was the only really traditional candidate.  McCain ran as an insurgent and the other three were outsiders.

A sixth candidate, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah existed too, but he didn’t register, earning 1%.  Lindsey Graham isn’t the first long-time senator who failed to connect.

Bush took advantage, adding some conservatives and a few values voters to virtually all of the establishment folks.  Forbes took advantage of the vacuum to round up economic conservatives and act as the lead wild card.

This year, several candidates are competing for what W had to himself.  It’s no surprise they are struggling to pull large numbers.  If Walker and Perry were still in the race, they would fight Rubio, Jeb, Kasich, Christie and possibly Fiorina for approximately 40% of the vote.

None of the survivors for this space need to win Iowa.  For most, a 3rd place finish would be great, a strong 4th pretty darn good.  Perry and especially Walker needed to win.

As you’ll see as we continue, it was a mathematical impossibility.  They did the right thing by exiting.  It also had nothing to do with Trump, but there is another candidate who did harm them.


Bob Dole 26% (establishment)

Pat Buchanan 23% (values, wild card)

Lamar Alexander 17.6% (wild card)

Steve Forbes 10.1% (conservatives, wild card)

Phil Gramm 9.3% (conservatives)

Alan Keyes 7.4% (values, conservatives)

Richard Lugar 3.7% (establishment)

Though the 2016 field is a little stronger, there are some important parallels to the 1996 grouping.  In both cases, there is some real overlap in various lanes, leading to candidates seemingly underperforming.

One of my first truly terrible political predictions was Phil Gramm.  In late 1994, early/mid 1995, I was absolutely convinced he was the next GOP nominee.  As you can see above, he never got close.

At the time, people concluded he was a poor campaigner, that the academic Gramm just couldn’t connect.  Maybe so, but from a 20-year distance it looks like something else was up too.

Remember, the winning candidate generally controls one area and then adds on from somewhere else.  In 2012 and 2008 it was values voters.  2000 and 1996 establishment voters.  In 1988 Dole got at least half of both establishment and conservative voters.

The only candidate to truly control a majority of the conservative vote was Reagan in 1980.  His task was much easier as he’s the one responsible for completing the GOP conversion to being a conservative party.

Following Reagan, most GOP candidates have presented themselves as conservative, the difference is matter of degree.  While Santorum won with values only and Paul got damn close as a wild card, if your primary pool is conservatives, you need a lot of something else, like Dole in ’88.

Gramm was not going to pull values candidates, especially with Buchanan and Keyes around.  Dole blocked the establishment angle.  His only other option was as a bit of a wild card.

With different competitors, this was plausible.  Gramm was a pretty innovative thinker, someone who could have gotten the type of Iowans who are all over the place from one election to the next to look at him.

The problem is Forbes and Alexander were crowding him.  For people who care about economics first, some are worried about deficits, others taxes.  Gramm got the deficit people, but Forbes got the tax voters.

Alexander was also running as an idea guy.  With Gramm around, he couldn’t do the full conservative approach.  Dole blocked him on the establishment side too.  That left wild card, which blocked Gramm.

All of this worked out great for Dole, who won several early states with lower than normal vote totals.  With Alexander out of the way in 2000, all of a sudden Forbes was relevant, picking up the wild card votes.

The cautionary tale applies to Rubio and Fiorina this time.  Each would have a really good chance of winning Iowa if the other didn’t exist.  You’ll notice both will try to limit expectations, something that was less of an option for Gramm.


Bob Dole 37.4% (conservatives, establishment)

Pat Robertson 24.6% (values)

George H.W. Bush 18.6% (conservatives, establishment)

Jack Kemp 11.1% (wild card)

Pete DuPont 7.3% (wild card)

Iowa can only discover you once.  Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are discovering this now.  Previous candidates have won Iowa and tried again.

Bush the Elder lost 13 points and fell from first to third between 1980 and 1988.  Dole lost 11 points and barely held on between 1988 and 1996.

Not only were Huck and Rick due to drop, but they also have to fight each other, as they are both in the values space.  That already meant both were likely looking at a bigger drop than their predecessors.

Worse, there’s a new, really good values candidate, Ben Carson, plus a values/conservative hybrid in Ted Cruz.  Why Bobby Jindal decided to play in this approximate space still eludes me.

Pat Robertson invented the Iowa values candidate.  Since his shocking second place finish, a successor has finished first or second in each round except 2000.

None have gone the distance.  They’ve suffered from a lack of range, lack of money/organization or both.  Carson may break the mold.

To begin with, he’s either grabbing the vast majority of values voters with the most competitive field ever in this space, or he’s drawing support from a solid majority while also pulling conservative and wild card support.

If you figure Huckabee and Santorum combine for about 6% and some Cruz and Jindal voters are values first, Carson is both swamping the rest and getting outside support.

Values + is a really good way to win Iowa.  Not only does it add up pretty well, but also gives room for growth and sustenance in later states.  Unlike Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012, Carson is getting attention early.  He doesn’t need to wait to win Iowa to get free media.

He also has a much larger fundraising apparatus.  He may not win Iowa, and could fade soon after a win, but neither will result from a money or exposure shortage.  If he proves a good candidate, he’ll have a real chance to win the nomination.

By the way, Carson, not Trump, is partially responsible for killing the Walker and Perry campaigns.  They each planned on adding a few values voters to some conservatives, not having Carson lock down values voters and go marauding for others.


George H.W. Bush 31.6% (establishment, wild card)

Ronald Reagan 29.5% (conservatives, values)

Howard Baker 15.3% (establishment)

John Connally 9.3% (none)

Phil Crane 6.7% (conservatives)

John Anderson 4.3% (wild card)

Bob Dole 1.5% (establishment)

You might ask how it’s possible to draw establishment and wild card votes at the same time.  Establishment voters care about reasonably moderate, general election-friendly, mainstream candidates.  Bush qualified by that standard.

Wild card voters are looking for something different.  This can be style and tone (Trump 2016), ideology (Paul, 2008 and 2012), or different ideas (Kemp 1988, Forbes 1996 and 2000).

Sometimes it’s a campaign approach, and when Bush effectively moved to Iowa in 1979, it was unprecedented on the GOP side.  He mirrored what Jimmy Carter did in 1975, and at the time it was new and fresh.  Since their success, someone always does this now, so you can’t get wild card points.

Reagan likely got some values votes in addition to the conservatives.  The conservative-first group is only so big and Phil Crane stole some of those.  The remainder came from somewhere.  Though Robertson was the first to really focus on them, it’s not like values voters didn’t exist before.

Crane had no chance of winning, but his existence cost Reagan Iowa.  Bush narrowly won, creating momentum and pushing the Reagan campaign to the brink in New Hampshire.

He was frustrated enough to fire campaign manager John Sears the night of the New Hampshire primary.  While Sears was justifiably criticized for the campaign’s strategy, no Crane, likely no issue.

Also no Iowa win means no Vice President Bush, President Bush 41, President Bush 43 or Candidate Jeb.  All because the poor man’s Ted Cruz of his day didn’t want to step aside for the Gipper.

It’s quite possible a second or third tier candidate is the difference between someone winning Iowa or finishing a tantalizingly close second in 2016.


Front Runner: Ben Carson

He’s the clear front runner, even if Trump is still a little ahead in the polls and Fiorina is nipping at his heels.  The lead values candidate usually over performs.  Carson has a chance at conservative voters and wild card voters.

He has a large volunteer organization to drag people to the caucuses and plenty of money for January advertising.  His debate performance can only improve.

This is good, as Carson has to win Iowa to have a legit chance at the nomination.  If he can beat Trump by at least 5 points, that could finish The Donald off by puncturing the bubble.

If he steals more wild card voters from Trump and conservatives from Cruz than Huckabee and Cruz take from him, Carson will have a great caucus night.

Upside is 28-30% if those pieces fall into place.  Downside is 13-15% if he begins to fade and loses support to Cruz and Fiorina while Huckabee becomes a little more viable.

Contenders: Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio

You’ll notice the forecast bears a striking resemblance to current polling.  Isn’t this too early to get a read on who’s going to win?  No.  Things are getting predictive now.  Usually most of the top few finishers were in good shape on October 1 of the previous year.

Huckabee, Santorum and Bush the Elder made up a lot of ground between now and Caucus Day, but the odds were against them.  Other people had to mess up to create the opportunity.  We have a 2016 vulture too, you’ll see him next.

Trump has a pretty high floor.  It’s hard to picture him grabbing less than 13-15% of the vote.  Carson is the only other candidate who can say that.  He controls a pretty large percentage of the wild card vote.

The problem is the lack of other places to shop for votes.  Trump is not grabbing establishment votes.  He’s not taking values voters.  While some Trump supporters are self-described evangelicals, that doesn’t mean they vote values first.

About 40-50% of GOP caucus voters are evangelicals, but only 25% prioritize values. Some Trump voters are found in the gap between those numbers.

It’s hard to imagine Trump taking many conservative voters either.  Again, many self-described conservatives support Trump, but those who are more interested in ideological consistency aren’t.

This places his likely ceiling in the 22% range. Maybe 24% if everything breaks right.  That could get Trump a win, but it would be a very late night for him.  Anything other than a victory or very close second destroys his image.

Fiorina has almost as high a ceiling as Carson, but her floor is very low.  She is the only candidate who could credibly win votes from each of the four groups.

Her strong stance against Planned Parenthood combined with the mainstream media pushback and attacks from well known liberal/progressive politicians gives her an entry point. Fiorina is also taking a stand against drug abuse, putting it in very personal terms with the loss of her daughter

Of all the candidates, Carly does the best job of covering foreign policy details anytime she gets the opportunity.  Her time as a CEO gives her potential credibility with economic conservatives too.

Having never held public office and being the only female candidate and designated Hillary attacker sets Fiorina up as a wild card.

Finally, if Carson and Trump keep high poll numbers, while Jeb sags and Rubio stays in the game but doesn’t look like a winner, you can see some establishment voters flocking to Fiorina to stop a more dangerous outsider.

5% from values, 5% from establishment, 7% from wild card, 10% from conservatives and all of a sudden you have 27% and a victory heading to New Hampshire where she is polling better right now.  That’s how Carly’s victory train leaves the station.

Unfortunately, Trump leads her with wild cards, Carson with values and she’ll fight Rubio and Cruz with conservatives and Rubio for establishment voters who don’t believe in the governors.  Fiorina could finish under 10% at least as easily as she could win.

Rubio has Fiorina’s situation with a lower ceiling and a higher floor.  He’s not likely to pull values or wild card voters, limiting his upside to 18%, maybe 21-22% if everything breaks absolutely perfectly.

He’s far more likely to finish a really strong third than win.  However, that’s more than good enough for him.  If he finishes ahead of any other establishment-friendly candidate, it counts as a win.  If he finishes 5-7% or more ahead of Jeb, it’s a big win.

Rubio does run the risk of one of the governors seizing a good amount of the establishment vote, while Fiorina, Carson and/or Cruz cut into the conservative vote.  If both happen, he’s at 8% and in real trouble.

With several debates between now and the vote, that’s unlikely, unless Marco unexpectedly slips up or has a previously hidden skeleton.  If he loses conservative or establishment ground and winds up 4th with 12-13%, he’s fine but will need to push in New Hampshire.

The Vulture: Ted Cruz

Cruz is hovering above the values and conservative voting groups.  Many have commented on his attempt to stay close to Trump voters just in case they become available.

This may well help Cruz later on when the contest moves south.  Those Trump voters could switch to Ted, The Donald’s Iowa followers won’t.  Cruz doesn’t seem to qualify as a wild card.

Right now, his obstacles are Carson, Fiorina and Rubio.  Each of the three seem to have a great idea of who they are and what they need to sound like.  They’ll have to mess up in order to bleed votes to Ted.

If Cruz picks up a little momentum, he could convince Huckabee voters to bet on a horse with more running room, perhaps getting a few more evangelical endorsements.

If at least two of the outsiders fade and Rubio is proven too establishment or cautious, perhaps Cruz cobbles together 17-20% and finishes close to the top.

Not impossible, but Iowa outsiders usually hold up very well.  If anything, they do better in February than the previous September.  Cruz isn’t in great shape and lost a little ground over the summer.

Upside/Downside: John Kasich and Chris Christie

If one of these guys finishes ahead of Jeb and noticeably ahead of the other one, they get a bounce to New Hampshire, especially if they can finish 4th or 5th with 12% or so.

It’s not impossible.  While there isn’t room for both to do well, about 10% of establishment vote is up for grabs (figure some combination of Jeb, Rubio and Fiorina grab the rest).  Kasich or Christie could grab 7-8% of that.

By itself, not much, but there are other places to steal votes.  Remember, McCain snuck his way to 13% in 2008 by combining establishment and wild card voters.

For Christie, the angle is non-Trump beligerence.  If someone wants a brash candidate but prefers one with electoral experience, there’s Christie.  Meanwhile, Kasich is aggressively pragmatic about compromise.  There is a market for trying to make Washington work.

A few points could make all the difference.  Yet another opportunity exists for economic conservatives.  Some voters care about deficits.  If Phil Gramm’s 1996 performance is any indication, that’s about 10% of caucusers.

Jeb, Rubio and Trump have all introduced tax plans.  All are more interested in pushing growth than raising revenue.  Not a problem.  Growth is extremely important, and many Republican voters like tax cuts.  Plus none of these proposals will get implemented without major modifications.

However, these are tax plans, not spending cut plans.  If the country is still running structural deficits and you don’t want to raise revenues, you need to cut spending or change the long-term entitlements picture.

Christie is the candidate who talks most about entitlement reforms, Kasich the one who participated in a balanced budget.  Either could steal a few conservative voters if they play this correctly.

Both have a ceiling of 12-15% and a floor of 1-3%.  The problem is their combined ceiling is 15-18-% while the floor is 3-5%.  There is virtually no chance both hit double-digits.

Danger: Jeb Bush

His floor is higher than Kasich/Christie.  Bush won’t do worse than 5%, probably no worse than 7% by the time he’s done blasting Iowa with ads.  But he’s still one of the worst communicators in the field and has close to the highest negatives.

At one point, his advisors thought he could grab a few values voters.  Don’t see it.  Common Core + immigration hurt him with conservatives.  His stance on illegals is very similar to Rubio and Fiorina but he presents it worse.

No way he gets wild card support.  Best case he gets at least half the establishment support and winds up at 12-15% in 4th or 5th place, ahead of Rubio, Kasich and Christie, while the outsiders take the first 3 or 4 places.

Begrudgingly, mainstream Republicans rally around him after New Hampshire.  I don’t really see it.  More chance he finishes 7th than 4th.

Waiting: Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum

More than 90% of the vote is gone before these guys get to the table.  Carson, Cruz and even Fiorina are blocking Huckabee, Santorum and Jindal.

Trump has destroyed Paul’s path in Iowa.  Combined with Bernie Sanders, he’s blown up New Hampshire for him too.  If Trump slides, Carson and Fiorina are potential backup obstacles.

For now, nobody in this group is a threat to finish in the top 5.  Huckabee could squeak to 6th or 7th.

That’s where we stand at the end of September.  Figure on the next GOP Iowa update in early November, once the next debate results have sorted out.

New Hampshire GOP coming soon, Democrats not until Biden decides.


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