State of Play: Iowa

Everyone knows that the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2016 nomination season, but how much do you know about them? Whether your answer is “uh, not too much” to “more than you, buddy,” you’ll like this piece, the first of my new “State of Play” series. “State of Play” will describe every state, in order of voting, and give you the clues of the forces at work in each state as well as who’s up, who’s down, and – most importantly – who’s strong in the key demographics in each state.

Iowa is every candidate’s “field of dreams,” and why not? Its small size purportedly gives every candidate a chance to mingle with the voters one-on-one and make a name for themselves even if they are short on cash or national fame. But like many things that are too good to be true, in reality Iowa is only heaven for a group of candidates competing for the favor of its dominant faction, very conservative evangelicals.

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have ridden support among this group to national prominence in the last two cycles and this year the field has gotten wise. Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Ben Carson have joined Huckabee and Santorum in vying to become the evangelicals’ man of the hour. 

Yogi Berra once said that no one goes to there any more, it’s too crowded. This might be true of Iowa’s religious movement conservatives: there might be so many candidates currying favor with them that someone who focuses on the state’s other voters might slip through to win with 20-25 percent of the vote. Indeed, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul almost did that in 2012, as each came very close to Santorum despite doing quite poorly among evangelical voters.

That’s what the polls are showing so far. Donald Trump is running second behind Ben Carson among all evangelicals, but he leads narrowly in the most recent Iowa polls because he runs well among other conservatives and wins among the small number of moderates and liberals who plan to vote. Even though they comprised less than twenty percent of the vote in 2012, Trump seems to be exciting these voters and encouraging more of them to think about voting. The last two Iowa polls by Public Policy Polling estimates the moderate/liberal share of the electorate at between 22 and 23 percent of the electorate. Trump gets between 31 percent (PPP) and 23 percent (CNN/ORC) among these non-conservative voters, enough to offset his shortcomings among evangelicals.

Ted Cruz has surged here on the back of strong debate performances, but it remains noteworthy just how tilted toward the very conservative/Tea Party right his support is. PPP has him leading among Tea Party supporters with 34 percent – but they are only 19 percent of the electorate. Among the 64 percent who are not Tea Party supporters, Cruz slumps to only 8 percent support. CNN/ORC also shows this tilt: Cruz gets 19 percent among Tea Party supporters in its poll but only 7 percent of those who are neutral to the populist movement.  

Cruz’s support among moderates and liberals is also nearly non-existent. PPP has him getting less than 1 percent among this group, less than Rick Santorum. CNN/ORC has him receiving only 3 percent of moderates. This won’t kill him in the Iowa caucuses, but it will likely doom him in later Midwestern state primaries where moderates traditionally make up between 35 and 40 percent of the vote.

Below are some regular charts that will accompany this feature as I update the Iowa race.  They include:  the average share of the electorate for each of the GOP’s four factions over the last three contests (2000, 2008, 2012); average poll standings for this year’s candidates by faction; and fun facts about Iowa’s counties.  The last chart tells you which counties have voted for the winner in each of the last three races (bellwethers); which counties are the backbone for the establishment Republican candidates; where the social con heartland is; and other light-hearted factoids.  This last feature will help guide reporters to places they can interview caucus goers to get a feel for where the winds are blowing before election day.  Don’t be shy – go the distance!

Henry Olsen — Henry Olsen is an elections analyst and political essayist who studies conservative politics, both here and abroad.  He looks at election returns and poll data to understand why ...

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