As of today, there are just 106 days until we will know the winner (hopefully) of the Iowa Caucuses. As the trees change colors and the farmers bring in the harvest, the presidential race also enters its final season before Iowans caucus on February 1st. Multiple candidates are constantly in the state vying for support. And the voters themselves are feeling the need to figure out which candidate they want to caucus for next February.
Before we embark on the leg of the campaign leading up to the Iowa caucuses, now might be the best time to take a step back and analyze each candidate in regards to how they are positioned in Iowa. When assessing the field, I always break things down into subsets.
In this race, you have religious conservatives – Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. The establishment candidates are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich. The outsiders are Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Rand Paul. Participation ribbons will be rewarded to Lindsey Graham and George Pataki.
The Cruz campaign claims that they have the best ground game in the state. I’m not sure I believe it. Do they have passionate grassroots activists? Sure. But everyone does. The mistake that caucus campaigns can make is that they start believing their own hype. I’m far from writing off the Cruz campaign in Iowa, but I do think that they are living in somewhat of an echo chamber.
At the Cruz campaign office opening a few weeks back, Steve Deace made the argument that what makes the Cruz campaign different is that it’s made for the long haul because they have raised a lot of money. The belief is that Cruz is the most principled candidates in the race, and as other candidates drop out, their supporters will naturally end up with Cruz. Talk about wishful thinking.
Besides being wishful thinking, I don’t think it works like that. First, I think Huckabee, Santorum, and Jindal are all in through Iowa. Why would they get out now? Second, if you are a Cruz supporter, you are already with him, and if you are not, I don’t know if you automatically default to Cruz because your candidate either isn’t viable or does drop out.
I also think there are two types of religious conservative voters. The first types are your socially conservative political activists. This is Cruz’s bread and butter, but these voters also like Bobby Jindal, who’s been very aggressive in tone and campaign strategy in Iowa. The other type of religious conservative voter is your typical church-goer. These voters are not looking for someone to take a flame-thrower to Washington like Cruz and Jindal. They are looking for a more thoughtful socially conservative candidate who they could be proud to see in the White House. These voters are more likely to be older and make up the base of Huckabee and Santorum voters.
I fully understand why people believe Cruz is the frontrunner in this bracket, but I think this is a much closer contest than anyone else would believe. Santorum and Huckabee have been successful in Iowa in the past two caucuses for a number of reasons, but if they have one thing in common besides being the most viable social conservative in the race at the end, it’s that they were able to relate and connect to people in a very authentic way. Cruz struggles mightily with that.
I had long thought this was going to come down to a contest between Cruz and Huckabee, but I see all four of these candidates being in the race until people caucus in February. The question is, who will be standing after the caucuses? This is where identifying your supporters and turning them out matters. None of these campaigns look to be all that sophisticated today, but that could change.
Cruz has the potential.
Huckabee has the personal connections.
Santorum has a unique message and firm grasp on the issues.
Jindal is either a wild card or the spoiler.
The Republican Establishment
This bracket is a mess. The top candidates in this tier poll at seven, eight, or nine percent in Iowa. The lower tier comes in with maybe two or three percent. The main reason for the mess that is the establishment field in Iowa is a lack of early commitment and misreading what was going on in Iowa.
Everyone and their brother believed that Iowa was Scott Walker’s to lose. His sudden departure from the race created a gaping hole for an establishment candidate to now emerge. The mistake that people made was believing that Walker was competing for the conservative vote in Iowa or that he was some mythical creature that appealed to everyone. Low and behold, we found out that he was flat as a candidate and, in the end, didn’t appeal to anyone.
The candidate with the best campaign in this bracket is Jeb Bush. If the Bush campaign knows how to do anything, it’s block and tackle. The campaign is sound, but the candidate struggles. Marco Rubio is the exact opposite. The candidate is great, but the campaign leaves a lot to be desired. If I had to wager, I’d put my money on the person with the best campaign, and in this case, since Bush also has that famous last name and a well-financed Super PAC, it’s not an exciting wager, but it’s one that makes sense.
The wild card is Carly Fiorina. She’s got charisma like Rubio. She’s impressive on the stump, and people want her to do well. The problem is that she has no semblance of an actual campaign. Fiorina is completely dependent on exposure in the debates and her associated Super PAC in Iowa. It’s a real shame that she isn’t running a traditional campaign in Iowa because, if she was. I think she could finish first in this bracket, which would be huge for her.
Kasich and Christie might end up being factors in Iowa, but not in the traditional sense. Their fundraising figures and poll numbers both suggest that they would be wise to focus more on New Hampshire than Iowa. Still, both candidates have support in the state, and by not throwing in the towel in Iowa, any vote they can get in Iowa hurts Bush, Rubio, and Fiorina. And that, my friends, is why you have to campaign in Iowa, even if you don’t plan to make it your focus.
Bush has the best ground game in Iowa of this lot.
Rubio has tons of potential.
Fiorina is the wild card and likely spoiler.
Kasich and Christie just make it harder for any establishment candidate to actually win Iowa.
Trump might have spent most of his campaign money on flying around in his 757 and on campaign swag, but it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that he has the largest campaign staff in Iowa, and they guy leading his effort here, Chuck Laudner, knows a thing or two about how to organize for a caucus.
It seems like every two weeks or so, the media starts beating their drums declaring that Trump isn’t serious and his exit from the race could come at any time. Really? Actions speak louder than words. He’s campaigning in Burlington this Wednesday, which is in a pretty sizable county, but it’s one that Bush, Rubio, Fiorina, Kasich, Christie, and Carson have yet to even visit. As we have seen, it’s a pretty big deal when Trump comes to town, and especially when he goes a little bit off the beaten path to a place like Burlington.
The Carson campaign is a difficult one to figure out. He spends as much time on official book tours, during which he doesn’t really campaign, as he does campaigning in early states. He has done well in Iowa, and he is a likable individual. But like Trump, he has to convince people that he’s presidential and serious about running for president.
The surprise isn’t how well Trump and Carson are polling, it’s how well they are doing with actual caucus goers. Both are attracting new people to the process, but when you look at the people who come to see them at campaign events, they are mostly full of typical caucus goers. The difference between the two campaigns is that I trust that the Trump campaign will do a better job of telling it’s supporters where and how to caucus.
Rand Paul insists that he’s committed to his presidential campaign, and I do think that he has a very unique and loyal base of support in the state. I also recognize that the Paul campaign knows exactly what they need to do to organize for a caucus. Where the doubt creeps in is the political reality that he is also up for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
If Republican candidate Matt Bevin loses his bid for governor of Kentucky on November 3rd, one can bet that Paul will be encouraged to end his presidential race and focus on his re-election. Thus, I’m still not convinced that Paul will be a candidate on caucus night.
Trump is unavoidable and better organized than you think.
Carson may have reached his ceiling. The social conservative candidates will have to peel off the religious conservatives who like him. There are plenty of ways to do it.
Paul is only interesting if he is a candidate on caucus day, which is hard for me to see.
Overall ranking as things stand today.
Bottom Line: I’m just not impressed with how the establishment candidates approached Iowa.