I want to look at both contests tonight in Iowa. Not predictions. I have no idea what will happen. But some things to look for.
First the Republicans.
I’ll start with what I believe is a critical bedrock assumption. Democrats really, really want Marco Rubio’s campaign to end in the rapid back-to-back of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary. This is not to say that I think Rubio is a strong candidate or that he would win the presidency. It is to say that I consider him a credible national candidate who could win. Each of the other candidates are in their own way weak national candidates or in some cases close to impossibilities against a national electorate. When Rubio says in debates, which he does again and again, that he’s the Republican the Clinton camp doesn’t want to face, he’s right.
And yet look at these numbers.
Trump is clearly ahead. But Rubio is the only candidate making rapid progress into the first tier. I suspect this movement is being driven by a mix of electability arguments and the experience of seeing Ted Cruz up close. You can see that Cruz peaked in late December and he’s been trending down since.
Now two potential caveats to a potential surprise by the parched Floridian.
First, I’m used to thinking through the Iowa Caucus by the caucus night threshold which forces a series of rounds of caucusing in which candidates not meeting a certain level of support in a specific caucus location must drop out and then have their supporters re-affiliate with another candidate. If that were the case for the Republicans, it could be a big boost for Rubio since, as you can see, only Trump, Cruz and Rubio are even close to a 15% threshold. There’s a lot of establishment support clustered there down with bottom feeders in single digits. But there is no threshold on the GOP side. So horse trading is unlikely to drive a big burst for Rubio.
Second, it is almost universally agreed that the signature poll of the Iowa Caucus is the one conducted by Ann Selzer for The Des Moines Register – this year cosponsored by Bloomberg News (yes, they actually hassled me once for not mentioning that!). And for good reason. Her final poll was conducted Jan. 26-29th. And three more polls have been released which remained in the field either on the 30th (Sat) or on the 30th and 31st. Of those four, Rubio gets his lowest mark in Selzer’s poll – 15%. His highest was a weekend poll came from Emerson College which puts him at 22% support. In other words, a lot of that final run-up is based on a support Selzer’s poll didn’t see. There are two main interpretations: 1) Selzer’s a better pollster of Iowa and she’s right or 2) she may be a better pollster but she wasn’t polling over the weekend and she missed some very late surge in support for Rubio.
I think these are both plausible interpretations. And remember, the debate was Thursday – with the heavy dollop of Cruz smarm and unlikeability plopped over the undulating cornfields of Iowa. So a late, late move away from Cruz doesn’t seem out of the question to me.
Best case for Democrats is Cruz/Trump is some version of a virtual tie. Remember, Trump is way way out ahead of everyone in New Hampshire. And Rubio appears to be falling there. So Rubio needs a big night. If he gets it, it could have a very, very big impact because there’s so much desperate hope for someone other Trump and Cruz among establishmentGOPs/GOPs who want to win in November.
If Trump wins big and Rubio doesn’t have a strong showing, at least against expectations, I really think Trump could become all but unstoppable. I know we’re supposed to avoid definitive predictions before the first voting and things can change blah blah blah. But Trump will likely have a blowout win in New Hampshire in a week. If he stomps through the first two contests, has big national leads and has held leads virtually everywhere for more than six months, it gets very hard to understand how another candidate manages to beat him.