In the frantic lead-up to the caucus, politicians and the media are playing an expectations game. But a closer look at the final Des Moines Register poll suggests that in terms of the fundamental contours of the race, a lot less will be decided in Iowa tonight than meets the eye. Simply put, the GOP nomination is going to come down to Trump (who leads the poll over Cruz 28-23) vs. “Not Trump.”, with the “Not Trump” almost certainly being Cruz or Rubio. And based on the Register poll, I would bet on “Not Trump” as long as he can get Trump into a one-on-one matchup.
Right now, both in Iowa and nationally, it appears to be a three-horse race between Trump, Cruz, and (in a somewhat distant third) Rubio. And the Register poll offers a fair bit of optimism for the Trump alternatives. While Trump leads the field with 28 percent, his 7 percent second choice rating is just a few points higher than Jeb Bush’s. By comparison, Cruz is the second choice of 17 percent a Rubio is the second choice of 20 percent, Furthermore, of those having “very favorable” opinions of a candidate, it is actually Cruz who leads with 29 percent followed by Trump at 27 percent and Rubio at 25 percent.
Despite a flood of recent attacks on them, Rubio and Cruz both maintain excellent favorability with Iowans (70 percent -21 percent and 65 percent-28 percent respectively) In contrast, Trump’s favorable/unfavorable ratio is just 50 percent to 47 percent, and is more similar to distant also-rans Rand Paul and Chris Christie than it is to his fellow front-runners. He rates a full 17 percent behind Cruz and 23 percent behind Rubio. Furthermore, Trump is rated very unfavorably by 27 percent of caucus-goers, by some margin the highest in the GOP field. A full 37 percent of GOP voters are “not OK” with Trump as the nominee, as opposed to just 20 percent for Cruz and 15 percent for Rubio. Most tellingly, when the Register matched up Trump and Cruz head-to-had, Cruz beat Trump decisively 53 to 35 percent.
And while Iowa is not the ideal territory for Trump, this head-to-head blowout vs. Cruz lays out his weakness most starkly. Trump only looks dominant when there are many alternatives. As alternatives drop out over the coming weeks, their votes figure to go to other non-Trump front-runners – but not to Trump.
Those fundamental dynamics are not going to change no matter what happens in Iowa, unless Trump wins an overwhelming double-digit victory with Obama-2008 style turnout, in which case all bets are off.
If Cruz pulls out a surprise and wins the caucuses in the face of an all-out push against him by the GOP establishment, it would give the campaign strong momentum going into New Hampshire and then the Southern primaries, where he is perhaps better positioned than any other candidate to do well. A follow-on runner-up showing in New Hampshire, would put all of the other non-Trump candidates on the ropes and would leave the GOP establishment looking at a fairly clear (if unpleasant, to them) choice between Cruz and Trump as the nominee. If Cruz places a solid second, in Iowa, as expected, he will still go into New Hampshire as the leading Trump alternative, though the stakes will be higher in New Hampshire. While the GOP establishment will do their best to downplay Cruz’s showing regardless of the result, only if Cruz finishes an unexpectedly distant third in Iowa would his prospects be substantially dimmed.
As for Rubio, the calculus is a bit trickier. If he pulls of an unexpected win, he would carry strong momentum in New Hampshire and would expect to see a surge of establishment endorsements and money line up behind him. A win or strong second there would leave him in a very strong position to be an alternative to Trump. If Rubio places second in Iowa, he would also be in a good position to carry momentum into New Hampshire, and a 2nd place showing there would put him in a good position going into SC and Nevada, though he is not as well positioned as Trump or Cruz for the “SEC Primary.” Rubio’s team has done a nice job tamping down Iowa expectations, but if, after hopes have recently risen, he scores only in the low to mid teens, or worse, somehow gets caught by Carson, his star may be eclipsed.
But in any of these scenarios, it seems that Trump, Cruz and, (most likely) Rubio aren’t going away anytime soon, nor will Trump, with his sky-high negatives, simply be able to shock-and-awe his way to a GOP primary victory. Barring something very unexpected in tonight’s Iowa results, those fundamentals aren’t going to change.