January 19, 2016
Sarah Palin just endorsed The Donald. As always, Trump’s timing is impeccable. After starting the year going after Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct allegations and moving along to Ted Cruz, Made in Canada, it was time for a new story to devour the national media for a couple of days.
During the recent GOP debate, Trump got plenty of mileage out of pushing back on Cruz’s criticism of New York Values, but it was beginning to look like the exchange might ultimately benefit Ted, at least in Iowa.
During a 1999 interview with Tim Russert, Trump did in fact reel of a list of socially liberal positions, explaining he was from New York and saw things differently than someone in Iowa. While many of his positions have changed, video is video and it gave Cruz the opportunity to move past Trump’s identification with the 9/11 heroes.
Enter Palin. This is where we remember not all insurgent/outsider/Tea Party conservatives are the same. Many voters, particularly in Iowa, self identify as evangelical, Tea Party supporting, socially conservative, and very conservative overall. These are nowhere near mutually exclusive.
Many evangelicals are strongly partial to a candidate who can speak the language, someone like Cruz, son of a Baptist minister. When Trump addressed the students of Liberty University yesterday, and spoke of Two Corinthians, rather than Second, to some ears, he was off pitch.
Those voters weren’t with him anyway. Both Cruz and Ben Carson are a more logical destination for someone who is less comfortable with Trump’s more secular speech pattern, his penchant to lightly swear during stump speeches, three wives, history of infidelity and comfort with Hollywood types.
But there is another category of evangelical. This group is equally devout, but does not expect the same of their candidate. However, they do want respect and do not want to feel condescended to or targeted.
When Trump enthusiastically appears at Liberty, talks about how he does great with the evangelicals, and never passes up an opportunity to support saying Merry Christmas, he’s reaching out to this group.
The Iowans who voted for Focus on the Family boss Gary Bauer in 2000 aren’t choosing Trump. Bauer earned less than 9% of the vote though. When Mike Huckabee grabbed 34% in his 2008 victory, he took the majority of votes from both types of evangelicals.
With far greater appeal to moderately conservative and secular voters, Trump doesn’t need to dominate the evangelical vote, only prevent Cruz from doing so with the segment which would strongly consider The Donald.
Palin is a huge help with the anti-elitist voters who voted for Huckabee, and then Rick Santorum in 2012. Neither have managed to corral their voters for 2016, leaving them available for Cruz, Trump and Carson. She has the right enemies, arguably more important than having the correct friends.
Should the majority of conservative talk radio hosts wind up leaning heavily towards Cruz, Palin provides a bit of a counterweight. She’s also a potential break on them overtly endorsing him. As much as a relative outsider as Cruz is, Palin is even further, having left elective office several years ago.
Until Trump, nobody received a more steady dose of mainstream media criticism and scorn. In many ways, for many voters, she’s an avatar for how the elite turn on those who aren’t refined enough, who don’t play along. While certain voters might object to Trump’s previous position on partial birth abortion, she insulates him from anyone who would object to him inviting the Clintons to his wedding.
Sarah Palin is not as important as she was in 2008. She’s not as important as she was in 2012, when her endorsement of Cruz in his Senate primary in Texas made a huge difference. Few voters will suddenly consider Trump, just because Palin is on board. It’s not a game changer.
But she’s an awfully big megaphone between now and when Iowa caucuses less than two weeks from now. Odds are excellent she’ll do plenty of TV appearances on Trump’s behalf between now and then. At a time when Ted was starting to gain another slight advantage in their battle, it does matter.
Is there any downside? None that is immediately visible. Palin is not popular with all Republicans. Neither is Trump. As Harry Enten pointed out, they have significant overlap. While you have visions of blue state suburban Republicans objecting to her, those voters are the ones who prefer one of the governors, or perhaps Marco Rubio.
The GOP voters who like Trump in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc. are the same ones who are pro-Palin. In a future world, where he’s trying to find 270 electoral votes, perhaps this is a mild issue, but he needs to get there first. Palin can only help.
Who is the current Iowa favorite? There isn’t one. Cruz no longer has a significant edge on Trump. FiveThirtyEight has them tied in the polls-only measure, and Cruz a bit ahead when considering outside factors. These calculations do not yet include any in-state post-debate polling, nor do they consider the anti-endorsement Ted received from Governor Terry Branstad.
This isn’t just any GOP governor. Branstad is the longest-tenured governor in American history, in the middle of his sixth term. He doesn’t have a 100% approval rating. Voters are not going to abandon Cruz en-masse, just because the governor is upset he’s opposed to Ethanol subsidies.
For some Cruz supporters, the scorn is a plus. It does also slightly narrow his field of supporters. There are some voters cross-shopping him with Ben Carson, a few others with Rubio. If Branstad pushes even 3 percent of Iowans away from Cruz, that’s more than I’d figure, but it could be just enough to matter.
Combined with Palin picking Trump over Cruz, it reinforces Trump’s argument that nobody likes Ted. Again, for some voters, this is a plus, but they were firmly in Cruz’s camp already.
A couple/few weeks ago, Cruz had a seemingly unlimited ceiling in Iowa. That was both guarantee of future challenge and an important cushion when it happened. He still has plenty going for him.
Excellent ground game, key endorsements from social conservatives and Congressman Steve King, high favorability ratings, rising national poll numbers, chance to pick up Carson voters if he loses further support, Rubio voters if he fades a little.
If potential voters are willing to stand in line in the cold for hours, they may actually caucus, is making progress again in most recent Iowa polls, has widest range of support, Palin endorsement, Branstad anti-endorsement for Cruz, highest floor of any candidate, ability to control narrative at virtually any time.
Sure seems pretty even.
There’s still an outside chance Rubio sneaks in with a very close victory. We don’t know if he’s moved forward, backward or stayed in place in Iowa since the debate. He’s languishing a bit in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, having trouble staying even with Jeb Bush. On the other hand, he did well in a recent Utah poll, virtually tied with Cruz, Carson, and Trump.
If Cruz and Trump do enough damage to each other over the next 10-12 days, and a few Iowans take Branstad’s advice and search for a non-Cruz, Rubio is a natural recipient. As long as Carson neither weakens further, nor gains new strength, there aren’t that many alternatives.
Combined with the few mainstream conservatives now favoring Bush or Chris Christie giving up on them, Rubio could still pull the upset. FiveThirtyEight’s math has it as an 8 to 13 percent chance, which seems about right. They’ve given Carson a 4-5% chance, which seems high.
There’s one more debate on 1/28 before the vote. Figure on two more polling rounds. One out very soon, the other right between the debate and vote. On caucus morning, we’ll know if it’s a two or three person race, but I’d be very surprised if there was a clear favorite before the vote. Should be a very interesting evening.