What to expect from the GOP Iowa caucus

The Iowa caucus is widely considered to be one of the most important presidential primary states. It is the first real election of the primary process for both Democrats and Republicans. Turnout expectations are confirmed or refuted. Momentum candidates prove their staying power…or don’t. Campaigns are invigorated or finally put to rest.

Yet the result of the Iowa caucus is often unimportant for the ultimate nominee, particularly for Republicans. Of the 2,472 delegates to the Republican National Convention, only thirty delegates—or 1.2 percent of the total—come from Iowa. The Hawkeye State also awards delegates proportionally according to the final statewide vote. In this year’s deeply fractured primary competition, it is hard to imagine any candidate winning more than ten electoral votes in the aftermath of caucus day. And though Iowa is the first state in the primary election lineup, it does not have much predictive power for the rest of the race. Evangelical candidates have historically outperformed in Iowa, only to falter later as a more diverse electorate brings its views to bear on the race. In 2008, Iowa caucusgoers selected Mike Huckabee as their candidate of choice, only to see John McCain—who took fourth in the state—win the nomination. Rick Santorum defeated Mitt Romney narrowly in the 2012 Iowa caucus but ultimately took a distant second at the nominating convention.

This year, however, could be different. With the polling success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have come predictions of dramatic changes in the caucus electorate. Some pundits have predicted that a victory in Iowa for Mr. Trump could make him “unstoppable.” Others have commented that a win by Sen. Sanders in the Democrat Party’s Iowa caucus could produce a “nightmare scenario” for Hillary Clinton and imperil what has appeared so far to be a shoo-in for the former secretary of state.

What are the likely outcomes of the GOP Iowa caucus, and what will the broader effects be of the result there?

Likely outcomes

1) Ted Cruz wins Iowa, followed by Donald Trump

The drill-down shows, if anything, stronger alignment with Cruz than Trump, except for the horse race.

J. Ann Selzer, Pollster

In the Des Moines Register‘s final poll of likely Republican caucusgoers, Donald Trump (28 percent) and Ted Cruz (23 percent) lead the field, with Marco Rubio (15 percent) situated in third place. Though Mr. Trump maintains a five-point lead, Sen. Cruz appears to be much better positioned to win the caucus for several reasons.


First, though Mr. Trump’s supporters are the most committed in the race, with 71 percent saying that their minds are made up, they are not very reliable voters, especially in a caucus election where casting a vote is an arduous, time-consuming matter. Unless Mr. Trump manages to generate a vast groundswell of new caucus voters, he will not be able to defeat Sen. Cruz, who draws his support from evangelical conservatives, one of the most reliable voting blocs in the state.

Second, though Donald Trump’s supporters are deeply committed to him, he lacks a broader appeal. Only seven percent of likely GOP caucusgoers name him as their second-choice candidate, while 17 percent see Cruz as their best alternative. In other words, Mr. Trump’s numbers have nowhere to go but down, since Cruz and Rubio are likely to be the beneficiaries of any last-minute vote switches.

Third, nearly half of Iowa caucusgoers say that they could still be persuaded to change their vote. This also works to the detriment of Mr. Trump, whose favorability and second-choice rankings pale compared to those of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Fourth, the enthusiasm surrounding the Cruz and Rubio campaigns appears to be much broader and deeper than that which Trump enjoys. Only 44 percent of Republicans say that they would be enthusiastic if Trump became the presidential nominee, while nearly three-fifths of voters would feel enthusiastic about nominating Rubio (58 percent) or Cruz (56 percent) for the general election contest.

It is hard to imagine that with all of these headwinds, Mr. Trump will manage to win Iowa, especially given the historical preference of Iowa caucusgoers for an evangelical conservative. And for evangelicals in Iowa, Ted Cruz fits this preference much better than Donald Trump.

Probability: 50 percent

2) Trump narrowly defeats Cruz

In spite of the aforementioned difficulties, Mr. Trump could still come out of Iowa with a victory. The first and most obvious way for Trump to win is to produce better turnout, since his voters are disproportionately more likely to be new caucusgoers. The more voter turnout exceeds expectations tomorrow night, the more likely a strong finish will be for Mr. Trump. In view of the numbers—and, admittedly, a good amount of intuition—I see a turnout-driven victory for Trump to be a relatively unlikely outcome. I and others have long suspected that Mr. Trump’s poll numbers are not reflective of his actual support.

The second and more likely path to a Trump victory is a vote split between a weakening Ted Cruz and a surging Marco Rubio. If Rubio gains enough strength to break through the 20 percent mark, a good portion of his newfound support will likely come from disaffected Cruz backers. In this situation, Trump could significantly underperform his poll numbers but still win if Cruz and Rubio finish in a dead heat.

Probability: 35 percent

3) Trump slips to third after a Cruz-Rubio surge

A perfect storm of circumstances—low turnout among new caucusgoers, strong turnout from the evangelical conservative base, and high rates of defection from third-tier candidates—could pull Trump down to third place, leaving Rubio and Cruz to jockey for first and second place. This inversion of the polls is rather improbable, but there are some forces at play in this race which could combine to produce this outcome.


Marco Rubio at a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

First, Marco Rubio is widely seen and portrayed as a compromise candidate. He comes without the perceived extremes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump but without the establishment bonafides of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.  He is also viewed more favorably than everyone in the field except Ben Carson, who scores only two points higher. This perception of Marco Rubio as a likable and viable candidate has the potential to attract broad support for the Florida senator from those voters who are looking to cast their ballots for someone with a better chance of making an impact in the race than their preferred candidates in the third tier.

It is also unclear what the impact of Ted Cruz’s recent ad blitz against Donald Trump will be. A super PAC backing Sen. Cruz struck at Mr. Trump last week for comments he made in 1999 which were supportive of partial-birth abortion. Though social issues are not at the heart of this campaign by any means, the heavily evangelical Republican base in Iowa may take these charges quite seriously and defect from Mr. Trump. Another advertisement showcased Trump’s support of the use of eminent domain to confiscate private property for public use or redistribution to private developers, another practice unpopular among Republican caucusgoers. Though these attacks have not been on the air for long, it appears that they have deeply unsettled many voters. According to the Des Moines Register poll, 60 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers say they are bothered by Mr. Trump’s defense of eminent domain, while 56 percent express concern about his past views on abortion. If this discomfort with Mr. Trump’s policy views manages to manifest itself among his less committed supporters, it could negatively impact his results in Iowa.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Republican presidential hopeful, speaks during a campaign stop at a Pizza Ranch in Newton, Iowa.

Ted Cruz speaks during a November campaign stop at a Pizza Ranch in Newton, Iowa. (Scott Morgan/The New York Times)

Lastly, it cannot be overstated just how much more positively Iowans view Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio than Mr. Trump. A whopping 27 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers view Trump very unfavorably, while only 7 and 13 percent feel the same about Sen. Rubio and Sen. Cruz respectively. Though Trump’s support may certainly run deep, it is too narrow for him to survive if enough backers of third-tier candidates abandon ship and throw their weight behind Rubio and Cruz.

Probability: 10 percent (Cruz 1st), 5 percent (Rubio 1st)


What victory would mean for each candidate


The Iowa frontrunners (left to right): Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump

Donald Trump: A real (but slim) chance at the nomination

As the Des Moines Register poll indicates, Trump’s strength lies in a narrow yet committed slice of the Republican electorate. In an ordinary primary election with two or three candidates, Mr. Trump would be doomed from the start. But in a twelve-man field full of compelling candidates, Donald Trump has a chance to convert his narrow slice of support into a seemingly unstoppable string of primary victories and, before the race can winnow to only two or three candidates, to pressure voters and party elites into resigning themselves to his candidacy.

The media and political pundits have pressed this narrative without abandon over the past several months. “Trump the inevitable?” the Boston Globe asked back in December. Charles Krauthammer, the vaunted columnist and political commentator, remarked recently that a Trump victory in Iowa would leave him only an endorsement away from becoming “inevitable as the nominee.” If Trump can manage to create the impression—regardless of how inaccurate it may be—just long enough to earn the support of the Republican establishment, he might have a chance to win the nomination.

Accomplishing this sleight of hand, however, is much easier said than done. Trump will not only need to win Iowa, but will need to do so decisively. A narrow victory will signal the underlying fragility of his hold on the race and will make forcing the party to embrace his nomination a much more difficult task. The more time which Trump spends in limbo, unable to establish himself as the only choice for Republican voters, the more time candidates with a broad appeal will have to organize a coalition to shatter Mr. Trump’s invulnerability.

Ted Cruz: Stay alive

The candidate with the most at stake in Iowa is, without a doubt, Senator Ted Cruz. To supporters and detractors alike, Cruz is a divisive figure in the Republican Party, and his presidential hopes have long been dogged by the notion that he will not be able to unite the party after making his name by attacking it. Months into the primary race, not one U.S. Senator has yet thrown his support to Sen. Cruz.

Cruz has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in Iowa, seeing it as a springboard to the party nomination. He has built the most extensive ground game of all the candidates, tapping a deep well of grassroots support to field a veritable army of campaign volunteers. If Sen. Cruz is unable to take first place in Iowa in spite of his vaunted ground game, he will have to make up the difference in New Hampshire, where he faces an unfriendly moderate Republican electorate.

A decisive Cruz victory in Iowa would likely drive Trump lower in subsequent primary states, but, on account of the demographic difficulties which New Hampshire presents, there’s no guarantee that Sen. Cruz would benefit enough from his victory to defeat even a weakened Trump in the Granite State. But well-funded and fresh from an Iowa victory, Cruz would likely survive beyond Nevada into the southern state primaries, where evangelical voters could give him the boost needed to Cruz (sorry, couldn’t resist) to the nomination.

Marco Rubio: Win Iowa, win the nomination

A shocking, come-from-behind victory for Marco Rubio would shake the entire Republican presidential race at its foundations and set the stage for a relatively easy path to the nomination.

As I mentioned earlier, Rubio has been long held as the ultimate compromise candidate. Party elites uncomfortable with the prospect of having Ted Cruz or Donald Trump as president can warm up to Rubio, who has broad demographic appeal and a record which signals a willingness to work across party lines. Conservatives frustrated by the Republican establishment’s unwillingness or inability to effectively combat President Obama’s policies also have a lot to like in Rubio, who is one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Though he has the potential to build a large coalition of conservative and establishment Republicans, his unimpressive poll numbers in the early primary states and across the country raise doubts as to whether he has much of a broad appeal at all.

A victory or a close second-place finish would dispel this question. Not only would an Iowa victory be a striking revelation of Marco Rubio’s strength as a primary candidate, it would also be an utterly shocking and unlikely performance. For the first time in months, the media would pull away from the antics of Donald Trump to focus on the Iowa caucus results, wondering how and why a young senator from Florida could exceed expectations so resoundly at a caucus in which he had hardly seemed to be a contender. Riding the wave of the free press and the flood of endorsements which would follow his Iowa victory, Marco Rubio would solidify his position as a top-tier candidate and hasten the decline of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, clearing the way for a majority consensus and the party nomination. As with Obama in 2008, an Iowa victory would prove Rubio’s viability and legitimacy as a primary election contender and tip the scales heavily in his favor going into the rest of the early primaries.

  1. […] the fallout will be from the first caucus of the 2016 presidential primary race. As I anticipated in my pre-Iowa rundown, Senator Ted Cruz put in the strongest performance in Iowa, followed by Mr. Donald Trump and […]




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