Tonight’s Iowa caucuses will finally start to winnow the ginormous Republican field down to size. More importantly, it will also be the first test of three different narratives. Will Trump’s voters turn out? Can Cruz, who has staked his hopes on riding a united movement conservatism to victory, win in the early state where a united movement is strongest? Can Rubio emerge as the most conservative “establishment” candidate in modern history?
The polls now suggest that tonight’s balloting will be a three-man race, as Rubio has closed the gap quickly over the last ten days. According to the RealClearPolitics Iowa poll average, Rubio has narrowed the gap between himself and second-place Ted Cruz from 15.6 points on January 23 to 7 points as of this morning. What’s more, the two polls taken after entirely after Thursday night’s debate show Rubio within 1 point (OpinionSavvy) or 4 points (Emerson). It looks like Rubio has become this cycle’s Iowa Cyclone, and as such one should expect his momentum to carry into tonight’s caucuses. He is highly likely to surpass his current 16.9 percent polling average, and getting over 20 percent is definitely a strong possibility.
Cruz is being hurt by two things, turnout and his limited appeal. Many polls now show that white evangelicals, his core base of support, will be less than half of tonight’s caucusgoers, down ten points or more from prior years. But Cruz is not dominating among these voters: in the two most recent polls with breakdowns for evangelicals, Cruz leads Trump by between two and seven points. Cruz’s limited appeal is a larger drag.
Cruz wins large pluralities only among self-described very conservative or tea party voters. The most recent Iowa Quinnipiac poll shows this clearly, as it has Cruz winning very conservatives by 18 points (43-25 over Trump) and tea partiers by 21 points (50-29 over Trump). His support slumps to a mere 19 percent among somewhat conservatives, 15 points behind Trump and only 1 point ahead of Rubio. And among moderates he gets only 6 percent, 29 points behind Trump and 22 points behind Rubio. The Des Moines Register poll breaks the GOP electorate into different categories, but among the 38 percent who say they are “mainstream Republicans” Cruz gets only 10 percent of the vote (Trump gets 34 percent, Rubio 21).
For those of you who want to do your own real time result projections, here are some tips:
- Religious conservatives are strongest in the northwest corner of the state, especially the three counties in the far northwest, Sioux, Lyon, and O’Brien. They are also very strong in the small counties in the bottom center of the state, along the Missouri border and in the row directly above that. Watch here for large Cruz margins and compare the turnout to 2012. If Cruz exceeds Santorum’s percentage AND turnout is way up, Cruz is on to having a good night.;
- Six counties around Des Moines (Polk county) bear close watch. Marion, Madison, Mahaska, Marshall, Jasper, and Warren have voted for the winner in each of the last three caucuses. They also have strong evangelical bases. If Cruz loses here, he’s done for. If Cruz wins but only narrowly or on a turnout not much different than 2012, it suggests he’s on track for about 25 percent, which would only be enough to win if Trump’s voters don’t turn out.;
- It is very hard to know how to forecast Trump’s vote, since he relies on new caucus voters more heavily than the other leading candidates. Tonight, look carefully at the turnout differential between 2012 and 2016 in his early strong counties. If turnout is up a lot, then he should replicate that elsewhere and win comfortably. If not, his support will likely skew to the east of the state, as polls show he is doing better among moderates and Catholics and they are found in greater numbers in the east.;
- Rubio has targeted “somewhat conservative” and moderate voters in establishment-friendly counties like a laser. He has visited only the large counties that Romney carried at least once or the Des Moines-area bellwhether counties (with one or two exceptions) since mid-January. He needs to run up the score in those places if he is going to do well. Look east – Scott, Dubuque, and Clinton counties – and west – Pottawattamie, Plymouth, and Woodbury counties – to assess his night. (Dallas county, Polk’s neighbor to the west, is another potential Rubio bastion.).
I will be live blogging here tonight and Tweeting at @henryolsenEPPC. Enjoy!