December 21, 2015
Ted Cruz is noticeably ahead in Iowa. You can look at this from almost any angle and reach that conclusion. The Real Clear Politics average has him 4 points up on Donald Trump.
That’s a good start, but averages are sometimes misleading. Some candidates have widely divergent polling. Over on the Democratic side, a new CBS/YouGov poll has Bernie Sanders trailing Hillary Clinton by 5 points in Iowa. A recent Loras College poll has Bernie trailing by 32.
The average margin of those two is 18.5, close to the RCP average of 14.9, but that average consists of a bunch of polls which disagree. The most common divergence this season involves method of polling and sample.
Polls range from live voter (actually speaking to someone on cell or landline) with tight restrictions on likely voters (paying attention to previous primary voting), to Internet polls which survey all voters without regard for likelihood they will turn out.
Candidates like Trump and Sanders usually do better the looser the restrictions. We won’t know until caucus day how big the turnout is and how many are first time or occasional voters, but the more weighted that way, the better for them.
Cruz doesn’t need to worry about this at the moment. The CBS/YouGov poll just gave him 40% and a 9 point lead on Trump. This is consistently a large turnout/outsider friendly poll, one that has given Trump some of his best numbers.
Loras, as mentioned above, goes the other way. Cruz leads here too, ahead of Trump 30/23. In the scenario where The Donald has trouble bringing his voters to caucus and winds up near his floor, Cruz is ahead. In the other, where he’s close to his ceiling, Cruz is ahead.
Ann Selzer is by acclimation the most respected pollster who covers Iowa. She recently published her results for Bloomberg/Des Moines Register and found Cruz 10 points up on Trump 31/21.
Though Trump is ahead by slim margins in recent polling from PPP and Quinnipiac and trails by 2 according to Fox, most scenarios favor Cruz. The best indication of this is Trump himself.
No candidate in the history of mankind has spent more time talking about polls than Trump. When Ben Carson surged ahead in Iowa in October, taking a bigger lead than Cruz has now, he dismissed it. Trump said the polls were wrong.
They may not have been wrong, but within a couple weeks Trump looked right as he moved past Carson. The Donald is not dismissing Cruz. When Ted first led in a poll, Trump made his Muslim exclusion policy announcement.
Now that Cruz often leads, Trump claims to lead the polls in almost every state. He does not guarantee victory in Iowa. He does not say the polls showing Cruz ahead are wrong (Trump did preemptively attack the Register before theirs was released but is otherwise avoiding comment).
Structurally, Cruz has cleared the field. Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal are out. All three were attempting to consolidate conservatives and evangelicals.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are asterisks. Not only are they previous Iowa caucus winners, but a year ago were polling in double digits.
Ron Paul got 21% of the vote in 2012. Rand Paul consistently polled in double digits in the spring of 2015. Now Rand is a polling afterthought.
Many of these candidates made mistakes, others are being cast aside for something newer. Nonetheless, the majority of those opponents were taken more seriously than Cruz this time last year.
A few of the vanquished have specifically focused on Iowa. While Cruz has spent his share of time there, he’s running as a national candidate, and is currently on a 12-day trip through the South. Impressed yet?
But wait, there’s more. Cruz has the most valuable Iowa endorsements, winning the support of Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, an influential social conservative organization, and conservative congressman Steve King.
Vander Plaats was the Iowa state chair for Huckabee’s 2008 win and was a key endorser of Santorum in 2012. With the possible exception of Joni Ernst, popular senate freshman (who has not endorsed anyone) King is the most useful elected official endorsement for conservative Iowans.
Cruz has the full support of many of the big voices of conservative talk radio. Rush Limbaugh, while mostly supportive of Trump, clearly favors Cruz, boxing The Donald’s ears in when he said Ted was a maniac. Perhaps uncoincidentally, Trump pulled back in the debate.
Other luminaries from Mark Levin to Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have backed him up, particularly over the past week as Marco Rubio has repeatedly and vocally questioned Cruz on his position during the immigration debate.
As a rule, these influential talkers are mostly supportive of Trump, and like Carson very much on a personal level but don’t think he can go the distance. They are not against Rubio and would readily support him against Hillary, but prefer Cruz.
Even if they don’t endorse him directly, it’s obvious to any listener he’s at the top of their approved list. While ads and TV appearances are tremendously useful, this helps Ted keep a high floor. Many caucus voters listen to one or more of these hosts on a regular basis.
Cruz is doing well in national and other early state polling. While Trump leads him everywhere outside of Iowa, Ted’s numbers are plenty good enough for supporters to believe in him. The most recent Florida poll has him leading Rubio (20/15) in his home state.
While Sanders leaners might question his ability to go the distance against Hillary, Cruz is a consensus finalist with plenty of money to compete down the road. Anti-Trump conservatives can view him as a Donald-stopper. Anti-establishment voters can view him as someone who can defeat Rubio.
His Iowa ground game is considered best among the GOP. While there is a range of opinion on Trump’s infrastructure, some question about Carson’s and Rubio’s team is mostly invisible, everyone agrees Cruz is ready for caucus day.
If the vote were today, Cruz would win. The only question is the margin. He’s doing surprisingly well in New Hampshire. A normal post-Iowa bump could give him a shot at winning there. At a minimum he’d finish in the top 3.
Do well enough there, especially if Trump and Rubio stumble, and Cruz could become a huge favorite with a win in South Carolina (where he’s within 10 points of Trump and ahead of Rubio in recent polling).
As of today, Ted Cruz is a strong favorite in Iowa and the most likely (though he has a ton of work left) nominee. However, presidential politics is an expectation game, and his are now sky high.
A month ago, I argued Cruz needed to finish third in Iowa and should be happy with a close second to Trump. He just needed to avoid losing to Rubio or having Carson win. Anything else was a good starting point.
Not now. After you hit 40% in a decently respected poll and get the best endorsements, third or even a close second doesn’t cut it. Now he needs to win.
If Trump beats him, Cruz failed in his best opportunity. It only gets tougher from there. If Rubio somehow finishes ahead of him, game over. While Iowa isn’t a bad place for Marco, it favors Ted. Like with Trump, if he can’t take him there it’s only worse later.
If Carson wins, it’s an enormous comeback, on the order of Dick Gephardt in 1988 (Dem side). After leading a couple months earlier, Gephardt, a Missouri congressman who had moved to Iowa for the campaign, slipped to 6% in a mid-December poll.
On the back of the “$48,000 Hyundai” ad (highlighting the tariffs South Korea placed on American cars) Gephardt recovered and won. In doing so, Senator Paul Simon was a casualty, leaving Michael Dukakis in great shape.
Cruz has picked up most of his recent support from Carson. If you add their totals together, the total is only marginally higher than in October. It’s the distribution that’s different.
Carson is showing no signs of recovery. His numbers are continuing to trend down. Nobody seemed too impressed with his last debate and he cancelled his trip for next week to Israel and Africa.
It’s unlikely he pulls a Gephardt, but if he does, it’s at Ted’s expense. There is only so much combined support for the two. Cruz would finish third at best. Unlike now, when he has all the momentum in the world, he would find himself fading just as the voting is happening.
So he has to win, or at absolute worst lose to Trump by the couple of votes that separated Santorum and Mitt Romney in 2012. Really he needs to win. Who can stop him?
Nobody by themselves, but several candidates in concert. Paul is beginning to make a push. He has his pitch down and sounds like he should have from the beginning. It won’t get him nominated, but he can pull back some votes from Cruz.
If it’s a fairly high turnout caucus (a very likely outcome given debate ratings, wide general interest, etc.), Trump can fairly easily wind up in the 23-26% range. Anything much higher is pushing it. Trump only finishes over 30% in the widest of polling.
Beyond that, there’s only so much available space in Iowa for a non-evangelical, non-establishment candidate. Stopping Cruz is more a matter of calculating Ted down to 25% than Trump up to 30%.
Right now, Cruz is in the low 30s on average. He may have a little more upward room, but we’re looking for his floor. If Paul continues to attack Cruz and make his full case, 2 or 3 points move.
Rubio has committed to attacking Cruz, but has not committed to Iowa. He hasn’t spent much time or money there. He should. Unlike his establishment competitors, Marco does overlap with Ted among some voters.
The best way for Rubio to separate himself from Chris Christie and his other New Hampshire competitors is to finish way ahead of them in Iowa, preferably as close to Cruz and Trump as possible.
Most of Cruz’s support is from evangelicals and/or strong conservatives, but about 3-5 points are available to Rubio. Most importantly, few voters agree with both Marco and Rand on foreign policy. If they each attack him from opposite sides, he either moves away from more or less interventionist voters.
If he straddles the two, he’s prey to continuing criticism from both Rubio and Paul that he’s less than devout in his positions and wrongly claiming ideological courage.
This potentially keeps wavering Carson voters in place and pushes a few back to him from Cruz. If Trump begins hitting him more regularly with first place in sight, a cut here and a cut there and all of a sudden Cruz is at 22%.
This is why holding a lead for the final 6 weeks in Iowa is so difficult. I would argue that Ted Cruz has done as well or better in the year leading up to primary season as any candidate since the modern process began in 1972.
None of the previous heroes of the process, Jimmy Carter (1975), George H.W. Bush (1979), Gary Hart (1983), George W. Bush (1999), Barack Obama (2007) faced the obstacles and odds Cruz did.
At worst, they were fighting anonymity, not seven candidates in the same lane(s). Just getting here was an amazing feat. He’s not home yet. The next six weeks are when Cruz truly enters the cauldron. If he survives and wins the Hawkeye State, Hillary Clinton should not welcome him as an opponent. This is one good politician.