The Iowa Caucus Expectations Game: What Do the Republican Candidates Need?

by Dan McLaughlin

The Iowa Caucuses award 27 of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination, they are awarded proportionally, and nobody is likely to get much more than a third of the vote, so the numerical importance of winning Iowa is almost nil. What matters is the psychology of the results, how they shape the race going forward, and what they tell us about the candidates’ campaigns. What does each candidate need tonight?  Caucus polling is notoriously volatile and often inaccurate all the way to the end, so even the best poll in the business (Ann Selzer’s Des Moines Register poll) does no more than set the boundaries for what we might expect.

Ted Cruz: The expectations game for Cruz could not be simpler: a win is a win and a loss is a loss. Cruz seemed to have Iowa locked up a month ago, and while boom and bust cycles in Iowa are common, Cruz’s full-spectrum “true conservative” appeal seemed unlikely to be shaken once it took hold. Donald Trump seems to have damaged Cruz for the worst reasons you could imagine (attacking his Canadian birth, his hostility to ethanol subsidies, and paid-off loans from Wall Street that are dwarfed by orders of magnitude by what Trump owes the big banks), and ruined the narrative of a Cruz juggernaut, but if Cruz pulls this out by the skin of his teeth based on his superior ground game, he will still be the man who handed Trump a loss. No campaign is ever disappointed by its first W. On the flip side, Iowa seemed like a perfect storm for Cruz’s whole build-the-evangelical-vote approach and he devoted enormous resources to Iowa (including a late barnstorming tour to keep his promise to visit all 99 counties), and if he can’t win there, it raises doubts about where he can win.

Cruz has more hard money than anyone in the field, a vast donor network, and the most ideologically cohesive message of anyone in the field, so he’s in no danger of dropping out before mid-March at the earliest. Most likely, Cruz is one of the last two candidates standing, win or lose. But if you want a test of his strength tonight, look beyond the percentages and focus on his vote total. Rick Santorum won in 2012 with just under 30,000 votes; the two largest vote totals for a Republican in past caucuses were Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Bob Dole in 1988, both of whom finished between 40-41,000 votes. Cruz’s argument for his electability in a general election is that he can turn out millions of voters who have stayed home in the past. If that theory holds water, we should see signs of it tonight after his team has had months to tend the Iowa grassroots.

Donald Trump: The Iowa Caucuses are uniquely bad terrain for a thrice-married New York billionaire with a socially liberal history, and Trump could very rationally have justified writing them off after Cruz pulled ahead. Trump understands that the psychology of his campaign is wrapped up very deeply in winning — given the lack of content he offers beyond immigration and trade and his constant bragging on his polls, his support could collapse with shocking speed if he no longer looked like a winner. The risk of contesting Iowa is that he could have that broken at the outset rather than retreat to more favorable turf in New Hampshire, but Trump obviously calculated that the risk of losing Iowa without a fight and letting someone else notch a win was an even bigger threat, and that he was better off contesting states early while the opposition was still splintered and unable to exploit his high negatives.

A narrow Trump loss is bad for him, though perhaps not fatal given the likelihood of a big win looming in New Hampshire, especially if turnout is high. A third place finish would raise serious alarms about his amateurish GOTV operation and the number of low-propensity voters among his poll support. But a modest Trump win does not make him invulnerable unless his opponents remain unreasonably stubborn about staying in the game with no hope of winning. As Jeremy notes, the polling fundamentals still show Trump as a very fragile frontrunner once he needs to get beyond 25-30% of the vote. That said, if Trump clears 35-40 percent tonight, or if he wins around 30 percent with very high turnout, that should be a sign for the party to get a lot more worried in a hurry about him.

Marco Rubio: Rubio’s been the focus of the most intense spin wars, because he’s the candidate most likely to finish in the gray area between the head and the tail, with the most to gain or lose from how his finish is interpreted. Rubio’s third-place 15 percent showing in the DMR poll nails his expectations threshold. If he beats that, especially if he’s over 20 and Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are all in low single digits, he gets a big boost to convince New Hampshirites that he’s the only plausible alternative to Cruz and Trump (and, if Trump beats Cruz, he can start suggesting that it’s a two-man race, the way Cruz has been doing in Iowa). But Rubio has fallen back to the Kasich/Jeb/Christie pack in a number of recent Granite State polls, so if he is below 15 percent, he goes in without a great argument to separate himself, and could be in critical shape by South Carolina – especially if Cruz wins. Like Trump, Rubio seems to have considered bailing on Iowa when Cruz surged, but decided in the end to stake more of his campaign there than originally planned.

Of course, if Rubio is second or wins Iowa — both still possible, if unlikely, outcomes – the whole dynamics of the race get rewritten and the story of New Hampshire could suddenly become “Can Anyone Stop Marco Rubio?”

Ben Carson: It’s easy to forget that Ben Carson is still in the mix, but his 10 percent showing in the DMR poll suggests he is still a factor (the late-arriving Emerson College poll has him down at 3). Carson could still surprise, as his supporters tend to be off the grid of where the media hunts for voters and he still has dedicated grassroots volunteers. But Carson could just as easily collapse if his backers defect to Cruz or Rubio to stop Trump. Carson has enough money to last a few more weeks, but like Cruz he bet it all on Iowa and lost a big lead. Unless Carson cracks 10 percent, it’s really hard to see even a fig leaf of justification for him to go on to New Hampshire, let alone SEC Tuesday.

Rand Paul:  Paul was at 5 percent in the DMR poll, the only candidate even on the radar after the top 4, and if enough of the remnants of his father’s organization are still with him after the rest defected to Cruz and Trump, he might clear that and find a way to go out on a high note. But with a re-election campaign to run in Kentucky and a constant struggle to stay on the main debate stage, Paul is running out of rationales. Neither New Hampshire nor South Carolina is likely to be any better for Paul than Iowa, so assuming he doesn’t stun us with a double-digit showing, it’s logical to expect Paul heading for the exits after Iowa or after New Hampshire.

Jeb Bush: After spending tens of millions of dollars in Iowa, Jeb’s strategy there is now entirely about how low the Rubio vote is, not how high the Jeb vote is. That said, most polls have Jeb around 4-5 percent, but if he falls as low as the 2 percent in the DMR poll, Jeb will limp into New Hampshire looking like a man begging the voters to put him out of his misery. Donor pressure could become intense if he is under 10 percent in each of the first two states, no matter how much vestigial Bush family loyalty remains in South Carolina. He can’t afford to be getting one vote for every eight or ten that Rubio gets. But if Jeb is in the pack with the other candidates between fifth and eighth place and Rubio is not hugely ahead of them, he can make his case in New Hampshire.

Chris Christie and John Kasich: Christie tried to make a stand in Iowa, given his de facto support from Governor Terry Branstad, but he hasn’t broken 6 percent in an Iowa poll since 2014, and Branstad appears to be pushing his support to Trump in order to block Cruz, so 6 percent now seems impossibly ambitious. Christie will make his last stand in New Hampshire, as will John Kasich, who is not even trying to compete in Iowa.  It really doesn’t matter what either does in Iowa now.

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum: The 2008 Iowa winner and early leader in Iowa in 2014 polls has passed his sell-by date with Iowa voters, as has the 2012 winner, even though both have parked themselves in the Hawkeye State and Santorum in particular has campaigned tirelessly there. Santorum is almost certainly out of the race before New Hampshire; Huckabee seems devoted to thwarting Ted Cruz, so he might stay in the race through the SEC states (including Arkansas) if he gets 4 or 5 percent, but otherwise there are signs he might drop out soon and maybe even endorse Trump.

Carly FiorinaFiorina’s campaign from the outset looked like an extended audition for vice president, and a savvy one at that; she’s made a great impression in debates and TV interviews, while being nearly invisible on the ground and keeping her policy platform (such as it is) vague enough to be jettisoned in favor of a running mate’s. It’s hard to see how she advances that goal by staying in the race even this far, and her polling in New Hampshire is only marginally better than her 2-4 percent range in Iowa polls.  So for Fiorina as well, there is little reason to stay up to get tonight’s returns except to see what everyone else does.

Fiorina has two paths to being considered for the VP slot: stay uncommitted, or back a horse. She probably ruined her chance to do the former with regard to Ted Cruz when she echoed Trump’s attack on Cruz’s Canadian birth, so she may be just waiting until after New Hampshire to pick a different candidate to support, maybe Rubio or one of the other “establishment lane” candidates.

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