Iowa: The beginning of the beginning

In a week’s time, the 2016 presidential race in America will be finally under way. Voters in Iowa will turn out next Monday evening in caucuses to select their preferred candidates to be the major parties’ nominees: the first actual voting in the long process that culminates with the general election on 8 November.

The Democrat race is finally showing a bit of excitement – I hope to talk about that in another post – but there’s still very little doubt that Hillary Clinton will ultimately be the nominee. The interest is mostly in the Republican race, which remains wide open.

About six weeks ago, just after I had unwisely drawn attention to the fact that the relative strength nationwide of the three major Republican blocs (mainstream, extremist and Trump) had remained constant for a long time, a significant shift took place. Donald Trump’s support, which in the high 20s had already put him in a clear lead, climbed suddenly into the mid-30s, where it has remained ever since. (The graphs at RealClearPolitics are an essential aid for this story.)

As you might expect, Trump’s rise has come mostly at the expense of the extremists – Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum – who now have only about as much support as Trump between them. In early December they were outpolling him in aggregate by about 15%.

More than half the “extremist” support is concentrated in one candidate, Cruz. Mainstream support is almost as concentrated: Marco Rubio is running in the low teens, and the other three remaining mainstream candidates (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) have about the same level of support between them.

So it looks as if it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to challenge the three leaders – Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Iowa probably won’t tell us much about the relative chances of those three, but it may well determine whether or not anyone else is going to be able to emerge from the pack – and if so, who it will be.

At the moment the Iowa polls are pretty much reproducing the national ones. Trump’s lead over Cruz isn’t as large as it is nationwide, but it’s still pretty good and trending upwards: until a fortnight ago he was actually behind. Among the rest, Paul and Santorum are doing a bit better than their national average but are still way back, while the lesser mainstream candidates are all doing worse.

If Cruz can beat Trump in Iowa or run him a close second, that will confirm his position as the standard-bearer of the extremists. It’s hard to see why Carson and the rest would bother staying in after that. Conversely, for any one of the lesser extremists to have a chance, they need not only to do better than expected, outdistancing the others in their group, but also have Cruz lose badly.

Among the mainstreamers there’s a similar dynamic. If Rubio runs a close third or better, it’s hard to see any of the others being a threat, although they may stay in until New Hampshire anyway (where the four mainstreamers are currently evenly placed). But if he fails badly, and one of the other three puts in a standout performance, the dynamic of the race will quickly change.

This is the traditional function of Iowa: it doesn’t reliably anoint a frontrunner, but it winnows the field. Last time around, it ensured that Santorum and Newt Gingrich would be the only serious rivals to Mitt Romney. Expect something similar next week.

But don’t put too much credence on any message about the standing of the survivors. Even if Trump wins big, there’s a long way to go before he could become the nominee. And not only does Iowa select a very small number of delegates (27 out of 2,472), but the way the process is structured disadvantages both Trump and Cruz, because there are more winner-take-all contests among the more moderate states, which vote later. (See David Wasserman’s detailed analysis at FiveThirtyEight.)

That doesn’t mean the Republicans are wrong to be fretting about the prospect of a Trump nomination. A frontrunner with more than a third of the vote against ten opponents clearly can’t be ignored. And so far the frenzy of attacks on Trump seem to have failed to dent his popularity among the Republican base.

Moreover, so hated is Cruz among the Republican establishment that many are evidently starting to think about making their peace with Trump as the lesser evil. It’s going to be an interesting year.

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