December 8, 2015
Which of the following is more accurate?
The first is where CNN/ORC has things in Iowa, less than 60 days before voters caucus. The second is Monmouth’s take on the very same race. Both were released yesterday. CNN polled from the day after Thanksgiving through Sunday, 12/6. Monmouth concentrated on the 12/3-12/6 period right after San Bernardino.
While there may be a little additional post-terror impact in the Monmouth poll, the surveys do overlap. In addition, if the prevailing idea that terror helps Donald Trump is true, the gap between the polls would widen not shrink.
If you believe in scenario one, it leads to the following thoughts and conclusions:
Trump is still top of the heap in Iowa. While Ted Cruz has made considerable progress, there’s a big gap. Even if he manages to pull the majority of Ben Carson’s remaining supporters, Cruz could still fall short.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is a pretty distant fourth at only 11%. With 66% of surveyed Iowans preferring one of the three main outsider candidates, it’s questionable if Rubio can go the distance as the main establishment alternative.
Perhaps Chris Christie, doing fairly well in New Hampshire and a good tonal substitute for Trump’s moderate supporters would actually have a better chance. While Rubio is the most widely accepted candidate, it may take another approach to defeat Trump and Cruz.
A Trump victory in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire and South Carolina, could leave Cruz as the only hope to stop him, a revolting scenario for many insiders. The clock is ticking.
But then there’s scenario two:
Cruz is already ahead in Iowa, the numbers matching what operatives on the ground were saying over the past couple weeks. Carson is fading quickly. While 13% is still respectable, that’s down from 32% in the previous Monmouth survey. If anything, Cruz will consolidate even further going forward.
Trump is very vulnerable. Though Iowa is a tougher fit for him than most other states, losing would kill his winner’s momentum. While finishing second would qualify as a setback, Rubio only trails Trump by two, meaning third place is a distinct possibility.
With many Trump voters not traditional caucus attendees, a full Rubio blitz could win him a strong second, perhaps getting close to Cruz on turf more favorable to the Texan. The race would quickly become a two-way contest between the two senators.
Instead of Christie setting himself up as a legit establishment alternative by finishing ahead of the shaky Rubio in New Hampshire, Rubio could ride the momentum to a Granite State win, finishing off Trump, who has little prospect if he can’t win either of the first two states.
South Carolina would set up as the first in a series of contests between Rubio and Cruz, a battle that would capture the attention of Republicans for several months.
The main difference in methodology is how the pollsters are handling voter turnout. Monmouth is paying more attention to traditional caucus participation numbers and whether a particular voter has caucused in the past.
CNN is contacting anyone who will pick up the phone and then asking them if they are planning to vote. The challenge with their numbers is if respondents actually do what they say, it would result in a historically high turnout.
It is possible Republican primaries and caucuses will set records this year. Analysts have found a link between debate viewership and turnout, and we know ratings are high. The bigger the crowd, the better for Trump, as his voters are less likely partisan Republicans with a habit of participation.
Trump voters are distinctly less educated. This is a huge indicator of voting turnout. In the 2012 election, 76% of registered college-educated whites voted. Only 57% of non-college whites did. A similar gap usually exists in primaries and caucuses.
If The Donald can get these voters to the polls, it will both give him a real shot to get nominated and provide a way next fall to make up for the very real chance of having Hillary Clinton pick up 75% of the Hispanic vote against him.
The argument for Rubio is the inverse. If the 2016 electorate looks like the 2012 group, the only difference being a further shift toward non-white voters, having a GOP candidate who can appeal to educated moderates and Hispanics is a mathematical necessity.
Think of Cruz as splitting the difference. More linked to the Tea Party than Rubio, less likely to completely alienate Hispanics than Trump, he’s a way for Republican voters to hope to get the best of both worlds. In a two-way contest against either, he would stand an excellent chance. In a three-way race, he might find himself squeezed out.
Each scenario is possible. While Monmouth is likely at least slightly underestimating the potential for a massive turnout of Iowa voters, the odds of participation on the order of CNN’s sample is similarly unlikely. We shouldn’t just split the difference. Depending on the tenor of things over the next several weeks, one or the other will become more feasible.
Speaking of tenor, Donald Trump definitely believes this thesis. His new campaign to suggest Muslims should not enter the United States is a clear attempt to make sure his voters actually make it to caucus night.
The biggest disagreement between polls is not about how many voters like Trump, but what they will do about it. When he takes things up yet another level, he sacrifices a small amount of favorability among voters who would otherwise not turn out or choose a competitor.
In exchange, he is hoping to get these voters who have stayed away to decide he’s worth believing in. In Iowa, Independents need to actually change their registration to Republican to participate in the caucus, so firing them up is extra important.
Among evangelical voters who normally participate, Trump is already trailing Cruz by a noticeable amount. If his heightened rhetoric pushes a few voters to the more mellow Carson as a reaction, all the better.
Cruz has a fairly spotless conservative record. Trump, a Democrat for the Bush 43 years, does not. Absent the fireworks, conservative voters are more likely to prefer Cruz, Rubio, or one of the other more ideologically consistent candidates.
Nowhere near most self-described conservatives subscribe to this sort of rhetoric. Dick Cheney loudly denounced Trump yesterday. Contrary to common opinion, The Donald’s support is equally split between conservatives and moderates. But some self-described conservatives do, and this helps keep them in his column.
Where does this leave Rubio? Either way, he should intensify his focus in Iowa. If the Monmouth scenario is more accurate, he has a tremendous opportunity to at least exceed expectations and build momentum.
If the CNN scenario is closer, he needs to protect his downside risk and make sure he at least finishes ahead of Carson in third. His establishment competitors are all focused on New Hampshire, leaving Iowa to him.
Though he needs to finish ahead of them in the Granite State, he can probably best accomplish this by doing relatively well in Iowa. Changing his tone is a non-starter. Rubio has advanced this far, this quickly on the back of how he sounds. He needs to continue riding the rhetorical horse that brought him here.
Having the media attack him always helps, but the louder Trump gets, the less likely the New York Times is to criticize Rubio. Prior to Trump’s latest escalation, that was a reasonable and necessary play. Should an opportunity present itself, he can and will take it, but that’s uncertain at best.
Instead, his window is opened by Cruz. Since the beginning of the summer, Ted has drafted in The Donald’s wake. Not as inflammatory, but also making sure not to rebuke him, Cruz has unapologetically set himself up as an alternative should Trump finally pop.
Educated voters are far more open to Cruz than Trump. He is competing well with Rubio for these active voters. That’s his upside. As long as the voter is conservative enough, Ted is in play, regardless of gender, education, income, etc. His coattail-riding strategy has worked so far.
But, if Trump stays at DEFCON 1 for the next several weeks, Cruz has to make a decision. Either he parts more noticeably from Trump, risking his position as guaranteed fallback, or he remains linked and loses some educated conservatives to Rubio.
The first option does not hurt Cruz as much in Iowa, as there are enough evangelicals to get him a victory without relying on more secular Trumpists. It does put him at a possible disadvantage against Rubio in southern and western states later on. If Cruz can’t rally enough frustrated voters to the primary polls, or Trump remains viable and holds them, Rubio has the edge.
Option two leaves more future opportunity open, but raises the possibility of getting squeezed out in Iowa, as those who are most angry stay with Trump, those who are most educated pick Rubio, and the general angry tenor reinforces Carson’s core support, keeping Cruz from consolidating evangelicals. In this scenario, he could finish behind Rubio, effectively putting his candidacy on life support.
Many of us wondered how Trump would respond to Cruz pulling ahead of him for the first time in Iowa. When Carson threatened, he attacked the Doctor directly. With Trump’s voters liking Cruz quite a bit, that was a bad option. Instead, The Donald has put him in a semi-impossible position.
Cruz is a strong tactician himself and will think of something. In the meantime, I find myself horrified by some of Trump’s rhetoric and incredibly impressed with his strategic acumen. We’ll see if he can make the CNN poll a reality.