As a stepping-stone to the GOP nomination the Iowa Caucus is a consistently overrated event. This season may be different. In 2016 the caucus takes on unusual importance as our first gauge of the durability of Trump’s campaign.
One metric more than any other is worth watching on Monday: the gap between Trump’s polling average and his Iowa results.
Historically, the polling leader in Iowa under-performs significantly in the caucus itself, unless he is a religious conservative. The favorite candidate of religious conservatives in Iowa out-performs his polling average by almost a quarter, stretching back a generation.
Being a caucus rather than a primary, and being scheduled in the depth of a Northern winter, Iowa results hinge heavily on a combination of commitment and preparation. Religious conservatives are the only Republican constituency with consistently high levels of grassroots participation, discipline, and organization. And they are the core of the GOP in Iowa.
With those factors in mind Cruz should out-perform his poll numbers in Iowa by a significant margin, probably a larger margin than we’ve seen in recent years. Thanks to years of outreach, including an intensive campaign to organize homeschool parents, Cruz has well-trained and vetted precinct captains in every corner of the state. Just about every major Religious Right figure in Iowa has endorsed him.
Trump’s grassroots organization is a train wreck, led mostly by a few paid staff and a small network of 9/11 truthers, white supremacists and other political oddballs. He polls well among evangelicals, but he hasn’t done much to channel that support into an organization. Voters most enthusiastic about Trump are people who can’t be counted on to tie their own shoes, much less show up at a particular location in the snow by 7pm Central. The most active and prepared fundamentalist voters in Iowa are, for the most part, committed to Cruz.
There is talk, mostly from Trump’s campaign, that his campaign will attract a throng of new voters and Democrats. It isn’t clear where those new voters are supposed to come from. Iowa’s population is stagnant. Participation in previous caucus has been at a high-water mark. Aging, rural, Democratic racists have been presented a lot of opportunities to switch parties in recent years. There aren’t many left at the end of the Obama Administration. And a tight race on the Democratic side should prevent them from crossing over just to troll.
This gap in organization and basic capability is the last firewall insulating the GOP from a Trump win. If Trump’s supporters, in numbers consistent with his polling, can actually show up to Iowa caucus sites on time and then write his name legibly on a piece of paper, then there’s probably nothing stopping him from racking up enough delegates to earn the nomination.
My expectation is that Cruz will win Iowa, finishing 3-5 points ahead. That guess assumes that Trump’s bizarre Megan Kelly tantrum weakens him slightly going into the caucus. Trump will win New Hampshire. The two will finish one and two in South Carolina, then they will split all but a handful of the March 1-8 contests. With a close race between them, punctuated by a few wins by Rubio or another candidate, the stage will be set for neither Trump nor Cruz to amass a clear delegate majority. Cruz, by virtue of far superior organization and far more capable delegates, would win a close fight, either at the convention, or in a deal leading up the event.
On the other hand, if Cruz loses Iowa it will demonstrate that the rabble can overwhelm the structural advantages of a well-organized candidate. If that happens we will probably spend the next few months watching Republicans decide how committed they really are to this whole business of participating in a political party.
So, this year’s Iowa caucus probably carries a lot more predictive value than usual. Mind the gap.