The RealClearPolitics average of all the current polls in Iowa shows Donald Trump and Ted Cruz virtually tied, with less than two points separating them. That’s why both camps are rolling out celebrity endorsements in a desperate attempt to gain even the tiniest competitive edge.
This week, Donald Trump secured Sarah Palin’s endorsement. The former vice-presidential nominee praised Trump’s opposition to political correctness while going light on his issue positions. Ted Cruz’s campaign announced that Blaze TV’s Glenn Beck would campaign with their man in Iowa on Saturday. Trump immediately attacked Beck via Twitter: “Wacko [Glenn Beck] is a sad answer to the [Sarah Palin] endorsement that Cruz so desperately wanted. Glenn is a failing, crying, lost soul!” For his part, Beck cryptically responded about Palin’s endorsement: “I couldn’t disagree with her more but she has played the game now for years.”
In the end, out-of-state endorsements aren’t likely to matter nearly as much as a good ground game, backed up by local Iowa figures who have a proven track record of motivating voters. There Trump appears to have come up short, but he does have Iowa governor Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the country’s history (22 years and counting), actively slamming Ted Cruz over his opposition to permanent federal subsidies for the corn-based fuel ethanol. This week, Branstad told reporters at a summit meeting celebrating the subsidies that it “would be a big mistake to support [Cruz],” adding, when asked if he wanted to see Cruz defeated, “Yes.”
While Branstad is, in effect, aiding Trump, Cruz has local conservative potentates actively supporting his candidacy. That can be important in a state such as Iowa, where turnout is everything. In 2008 — the last year with competitive caucuses in both parties — only 350,000 Iowans participated. That’s less than 17 percent of registered voters. Iowa’s caucuses are much more complex and time-consuming than a primary election. Voters don’t just cast a ballot. They have to show up at a local meeting at 7 p.m. on a cold winter’s night for several hours.
Given those rules, Cruz’s secret weapons may be the backing of Christian conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa congressman Steve King. Vander Plaats proved his political muscle in 2010 when he successfully led the campaign against the retention of three members of the Iowa supreme court who had voted to overturn Iowa’s traditional-marriage law. In 2012, he struck again when his endorsement of Rick Santorum for president helped catapult the former Pennsylvania senator to an upset win in Iowa.
But Steve King probably has even more clout than Vander Plaats. In 2002, he was elected to represent a swath of western Iowa including the cities of Council Bluffs and Sioux City in Congress. In 2012, his district was altered dramatically to drop Council Bluffs and add in much of northern Iowa. Between the two districts, King has a connection to some 38 percent of the likely voters in the GOP caucuses.
Since endorsing Cruz in November, King has tirelessly campaigned with him in front of crowds of 200 or more at a series of bus-tour stops. “He and I have fought [together] time after time,” King told audiences, saying Cruz will “restore the respect for the rule of law” that is the heart of “constitutional conservatism.”
In an interview with me, King said he believes the race in Iowa is now “clearly just a two-man race.” He says Trump has a strong fan base, but it isn’t growing because “more and more people cannot predict or track what Donald Trump’s positions will be.” Cruz, he believes, has more room to grow because he is a full-spectrum conservative who can unite libertarians, Tea Partiers, social conservatives, and defense hawks. He says Trump hurt himself at Liberty University in Virginia on Monday, where in his speech he mixed profanity with a clunky reference to “Two Corinthians” (a religious person would call Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth “Second Corinthians”).
Trump spokesman Katrina Pierson says chatter about Trump’s inconsistencies on issues won’t matter to voters who are demanding a strong leader rather than someone “auditioning for a role in the musical 1776 on Broadway.” Pierson says Trump will win Iowa, but rejects claims that if he doesn’t he’ll be the dreaded “loser” he claims he never is. “He’s a winner whether he wins Iowa or not,” Pierson claims. Sounds like the Trump campaign has a Plan B no matter what happens.
It is conventional wisdom to observe that the Iowa caucuses have a mixed record in predicting the eventual GOP nominee. But whoever wins Iowa claims more than bragging rights. That candidate will have valuable momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary, which is only eight days after Iowa. What certainly is true is that it’s very difficult for a candidate who loses both Iowa and New Hampshire to go on to win the nomination. That’s why a lot is at stake in Iowa, and why conservatives — both celebrities and local power brokers — are making their choices clear now.