January 22, 2016
There’s nothing like a good heavyweight bout (or the modern UFC equivalent). It happens in primaries less likely than you might think. There’s the true showdown (what we have to look forward to here) and the recovery bout.
A recovery bout is Reagan v. Bush in New Hampshire (1980), Bush v. Dole in New Hampshire (1988), Clinton v. Obama in New Hampshire (2008). In each case, the favored candidate lost Iowa, the winning challenger took a polling lead in New Hampshire, with a chance to knock out the original front runner. In each case, the Iowa loser rallied.
None of those were showdowns in Iowa. Reagan didn’t see Bush coming, and the other two were three-way contests in Iowa. Sometimes the key battle is much later in the contest. Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater contested California at the end of the 1964 primary season.
I’ll spare you (for today) the full list of primary/caucus showdowns, but 2016 Trump v. Cruz in Iowa is a Top 10, quite possibly higher depending on how the season plays out. What makes a contest qualify?Both candidates need to have a real chance of getting nominated. No spoilers, nobody who isn’t taken seriously yet. That’s an upset, not a showdown. The outcome needs to be in question for more than a couple days before the vote. If one candidate is a clear national front runner, the other needs to have home field advantage.
Add in a bit of personal conflict, some solid attacks, and various politicos taking sides and you have yourself a real showdown. That’s exactly what we have to look forward to over the final 10 days in Iowa.
Donald Trump is the clear national polling front runner. Ted Cruz has home field advantage. Polls are exceedingly close right now. There’s one more debate between now and the vote. The candidates are in the middle of an endorsement contest.
While it’s technically possible Marco Rubio could take advantage of the conflict to slide in ahead of one or both, it’s extremely unlikely. In 2004, John Kerry moved past the dueling Howard Dean and John Edwards to win the Democratic caucus. The difference is nobody was attacking Kerry, leaving him unscathed.
That scenario is benefitting John Kasich in New Hampshire right now, but Rubio is dealing with more televised attacks than Cruz and Trump combined. The Jeb Bush forces are throwing millions at making sure Rubio doesn’t come in to New Hampshire with momentum.
Cruz arguably needs this victory more, if he can’t stop Trump in Iowa, it gets harder later. On the other hand, a loss could puncture Trump’s reputation as a winner. Let’s just say they are both motivated. If you’ve listened to either over the past few days, it’s obvious they won’t fail to use all their ammunition.
Let’s check the most updated tale of the tape:
Polls: Slight Advantage Trump
At this exact moment (links will stay updated), Trump is leading by as narrow a margin as possible. Real Clear Politics has him up by 1.5. FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only measure has Trump 2% more likely to win.
If you weight the most recent polls based on whether previous versions were more likely to favor Cruz or Trump, The Donald is actually doing a little better than they indicate. If you weight them based on the historical quality of pollster, Cruz looks a little better.
It all cancels out. They are very, very, very close. Trump is marginally ahead, by less than the margin of error. If the caucus were today, we could expect a long evening. Not only do some polls show Trump ahead and others Cruz, but they are close in most of them.
The largest gap is in a CNN/ORC poll, with Trump showing an 11 point lead (37/26). However, CNN polls have consistently favored him compared to the median result, and has the two candidates even among voters who have caucused before. That’s a long way of saying Trump has a small edge.
Momentum: Advantage Trump
Ten days ago, Cruz was likely ahead by at least as much as Trump is now. A month ago, Cruz was definitely ahead and trending up. December was a great month for Ted. He had a strong debate, Ben Carson began to fall apart, and Rubio’s attack attempt failed and arguably rebounded on him.
He consistently found himself above 30% and had a 10 point lead over Trump in Ann Selzer’s poll, the one everyone (me included) always says is the best. Ten days ago, the gap was 3. If she’s polling again now, Trump might find himself ahead.
Cruz has plenty of time to push back, and he’s not appreciably trailing even now, but his surge has ended. Carson is hanging on to 8-12% of the vote, depending on the poll. It appears Ted will have a hard time capturing the rest.
Ground Game: Advantage Cruz
The universal opinion of people who are actually on the ground in Iowa is that Cruz has the best Caucus Day team. He’s requisitioned college dorms to house out of state volunteers, has a county chair in each of the 99 counties, plenty of precinct captains, etc.
He’s also received the most individual donations, an excellent sign of commitment. It’s unlikely someone will donate and then fail to caucus for you. Cruz will not fall short because he failed to build an organization. He’s also spending plenty of time on the ground himself down the home stretch.
We won’t know exactly what Trump built until the caucus actually happens. He does have plenty of organization. His Iowa manager, Chuck Laudner, led Rick Santorum’s 2012 upset. While he’s relying on plenty of first-time or occasional caucusers to come out and vote, Trump isn’t using amateurs to herd them.
For whatever it’s worth, plenty of Iowans seem willing to stand out in the cold for hours to attend one of his events. While not all attendees will caucus for him (plenty of people go out of curiosity), anyone investing that many hours in hearing a speech is a legitimate threat to go caucus.
Endorsements: Advantage Cruz so far, uncertain going forward
Congressman Steve King and Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats are two of the most important possible Iowans to have in your corner. King is the most conservative Hawkeye in Congress and Vander Plaats supported Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012.
The combination was a key to Cruz attempting to stitch together evangelicals and strong conservatives. Glenn Beck is joining the fray this weekend, planning on doing several events with Cruz. He’s from more of the libertarian conservative wing of the electorate, so combining the three gives him a full spectrum.
Senator Joni Ernst and Governor Terry Branstad are not endorsing a candidate. If they were to choose, it would provide a boost. Branstad has given Cruz an anti-endorsement, urging Iowans to defeat him.
Combined with the Sarah Palin endorsement, this evens the scales a bit, though Cruz still has the advocates with proven results in caucus years. Palin was an important endorser for Ernst in her Senate primary.
Apparently, Trump has another surprise or two up his sleeve, but it’s hard to think of someone with a bigger impact than Palin.
Strategy/Tactics: Slight Advantage Trump
This is a unique fight. Often a campaign manager or strategist is moving the chess pieces. Here the candidates themselves are making the major tactical moves and setting the overall strategy. Staff is following the lead.
Cruz has likely planned for this next week since his freshman year at Princeton, if not before. He’s extremely savvy, as his current position shows. Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal are just two examples of candidates who hoped to sit where Ted does.
Now he’s met his match. While Cruz is an expert in messaging to various parts of the conservative diaspora, Trump is a media wizard. He has the ability to completely change the national discussion with a few well-timed words and plenty of follow-up.
Cruz isn’t shy about appearing on Sunday shows, getting interviewed on Fox News programs, or going on conservative radio shows. Trump does all of the above, often in larger quantities and is willing to spend copious time on CNN and other mainstream outlets.
This ensures his message never gets crowded out. He’s also not afraid to adjust or change course when the first attack doesn’t work. When Cruz was visibly ahead in Iowa, Trump knew he needed to act. His first attempt was to question Ted’s temperament. Didn’t work. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk heroes slapped him down.
So he switched his gaze to Canada. That did take. Not a lethal blow, but it threw Cruz off stride temporarily. Ted struck back with New York Values. Trump parried during the debate, but Cruz continued to push on it, perhaps gaining some traction, at least in Iowa.
Palin counteracts that pretty well. Now they’ve moved on to a new debate. Trump is reminding voters that people don’t like Cruz. His fellow senators don’t. Not at all. When Trump questioned his presidential eligibility, none stood up to defend him. This included John McCain, one of Ted’s examples, and someone Trump previously insulted.
Bob Dole has declared he’d prefer Trump to Cruz. This is from someone who previously said he’d probably forget to vote if Trump was the nominee. Cruz is using these developments as well as he can, shifting to portray Trump as a creature of the establishment.
Branstad’s anti-endorsement is based on Ted’s opposition to ethanol subsidies (though he’s now ok with phasing them out over several years). Trump supports them. Cruz mentions this is an example of crony capitalism (a valid point). Trump says it’s about energy independence and not winding up dependent on OPEC again (a strong retort).
These are two pros. Cruz can turn anything into a reason why he’s the true conservative and his opponent is either inconsistent, an establishment stooge, too liberal, or all of the above. Trump can tie anything into doing whatever he needs to so that America wins again.
A whole lot of Iowans are open to one of those two arguments. I have no idea which group is more numerous. Both will have their dog whistles blown repeatedly next week.
Next Debate: Uncertain
Until the last debate, I would have assumed Cruz had the edge. He’s the college debate champ who began showing that skill in the third debate. Trump was clearly worse in this format than almost any other.
But Trump was strong in Round 6 (as was Cruz). We shouldn’t assume he’ll struggle anymore. Meanwhile, odds are very strong that Rubio will spend much of his time attacking Cruz. Ted held his own with Marco in the fifth debate, but Rubio probably got the best of him last time.
Either way, Rubio is a strong debater himself and will present a challenge. Jeb Bush will likely attack Trump, but to The Donald’s fans, a Bush attack is a positive, and a chance for him to slap the fading former front runner down.
Overall: Microscopic Advantage Trump
Trump has two things going for him. He’s probably ahead right now. All things being equal, better to be ahead than behind. If the caucus was today, he’d probably win. Even more importantly, he can adjust faster than any candidate I can remember. If Cruz plays an ace on caucus morning, Trump will have reacted and taken over the airwaves by lunch.
He’s a one man rapid response team. It’s too soon to pick a winner, but The Donald is holding an edge. Unless everything we’ve learned over the years about infrastructure and ground game in a caucus state is wrong, it’s a small edge.
Whatever you may think of their personalities, policies or fitness for the presidency, these are two heavyweight politicians. There’s a reason the others are trailing in their wake.