Just four weeks from today, Iowans will cast the first official votes of the 2016 presidential election. And what was once a very crowded GOP field, with 17 people officially declaring their candidacies, is really down to only three potential scenarios.
Let’s assess the impact of each on the race going forward should it become a reality.
Scenario #1—Ted Cruz Wins Convincingly
And by convincingly, I mean with 35% or more, which only two Republicans have ever scored in Iowa’s history (George W. Bush 2000 and Bob Dole 1988). With the combined strengths of his existing structure and the vocal support of Congressman Steve King and key activist Bob Vander Plaats, Cruz has assembled the most impressive organization the state has ever seen.
Impact—Because of the existing resources and national presence his campaign has built in preparation for the long haul, Cruz would instantly become the favorite for the nomination.
This scenario would also wound Donald Trump. If you’re the far-and-away national polling frontrunner for six months, but then lose the first real vote, it more than punctures one’s aura of invincibility. Especially if Trump were to react to such a defeat with a meltdown that makes Howard Dean’s scream look like the Gettysburg Address.
Every candidate that has won at least two of the first three early states has always gone on to be the nominee, and in this scenario we’re talking about the prospect of Trump winning all three.
Scenario #2—Donald Trump Wins a Close One
For Trump to win Iowa, he’s probably going to need Cruz to finish below 30%, because that’s Trump’s likely caucus max if you do the math.
For example, if turnout remains around the state record of 125,000 voters, that would put evangelical turnout at 58% (the average of the past two caucuses). That’s 72,500 voters, of which polls currently show Trump getting roughly 20%—or 14,500 votes. That’s only 12% of the total caucus electorate, which means for Trump to get to 30% he’s going to need to clean up in other demos, which when combined make up less than half of the total turnout.
This is why new voters and record turnout are vital to Trump’s chances in Iowa, and why his polling is much more dominant in New Hampshire by comparison. The granite state is a primary, which is more convenient than a caucus, and it’s also an open primary that anyone can vote in regardless of party affiliation.
However, even if Trump’s campaign is successful at bringing in new voters—and so far there has been no uptick in GOP registrations this cycle—his task is still formidable.
Let’s say turnout in Iowa on February 1st reaches a new record of 150,000 voters, which would be a massive 20% increase. That probably won’t happen, but for the sake of argument let’s just say that it does. And then let’s say Trump receives a monstrous 70% of those 25,000 new voters. That probably won’t happen, either, but for the sake of argument let’s just say that it does.
That gives Trump 17,500 votes. To get to 30% overall, Trump would still need another 27,500 voters. In other words, even with the greatest new voter turnout machine the state (and maybe the GOP itself) has ever seen, Trump would still need to receive more votes from the traditional caucus electorate than Dole received in his 1996 caucus victory in order to win.
Impact—If Trump wins Iowa, then he may be unstoppable the rest of the way. A win here would cement his frontrunner status in New Hampshire, and organizationally he may actually be strongest in South Carolina. Every candidate that has won at least two of the first three early states has always gone on to be the nominee, and in this scenario we’re talking about the prospect of Trump winning all three.
Probably the only thing that would stop Trump would be for the race to come down to a two-man battle between Cruz and himself before the March 1st Super Tuesday in the South, where Cruz is strongest.
Rubio needs to knock Christie out in Iowa, otherwise his chances of emerging post-New Hampshire as the clear establishment choice could be mortally wounded.
Scenario #3—A Mad Scramble for Third Place
Cruz and Trump are the only two candidates who could win Iowa outright, but there are several potential third place finishers, and third place matters in Iowa. Historically, Republicans have never nominated someone who didn’t finish in Iowa’s top three (McCain was three-tenths of a percentage point behind Thompson for third in 2008, which is a virtual tie)…