After months of several candidates’ rises and falls, the final picture of caucus night is starting to come into focus. A top tier of four candidates has emerged, composed of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, with Carson the shakiest of the bunch. It’s unclear whether any of the remaining hopefuls can climb their way up. Here’s Starting Line’s ranking of the Republicans’ chances for the Iowa Caucus as the month of November closes out:

Green Arrow1. Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz will win the Iowa Caucus. He, more than any other candidate (yes, even Trump), has a finger on the pulse of what drives a wide array of conservative voters and has consistently delivered it to them. He’s consolidated support among evangelicals (boosted by Huckabee, Jindal and Santorum’s slow demises). Cruz has won over or kept himself as the second choice of Tea Party activists (helped by refusing to criticize Trump, who decimated Bush for months with mocking attacks). And Cruz has pulled in his share of libertarians (partly thanks to Rand Paul’s lackluster candidacy).

Cruz appeared to hold Iowa at arm’s length early on in the process, but a robust volunteer and evangelical networking effort behind the scenes slowly built him into a top tier contender. Turning out 3,000 people to a “Religious Liberty” rally in August was an incredible organizational feat for a campaign with few staff in the state. Now Cruz is criss-crossing the state on a regular basis, holding or attending 40 events in October and November. He’s finding large crowds at nearly every stop. He’s also pumping a significant amount of advertising funds into the state as well now.

Cruz also doesn’t seem like the type of candidate who will crumble under increased media attention, having spent many of the past years in the spotlight (and under attack from fellow Republicans) for his obstruction efforts in the Senate. His trajectory only seems to point upward. The only potential drawback to his fast momentum now (as opposed to just a week or two out from the caucus) is that it gives the other candidates time to focus their attacks on him.

2. Donald Trump

Trump’s early investments in an experienced Iowa staff, along with his devoted following of disaffected voters who love his brash personality, will ensure Trump does well on caucus night, no matter what happens between now and then. The Paris terrorist attacks, which many thought would direct voters’ attention to “serious” candidates, only seemed to benefit Trump. He sucked up more news cycles with vicious lies about Muslims celebrating 9/11 and his defense of mocking a reporter with some physical disabilities.

People like this stuff… well, some people. It’s enough to keep Trump at a healthy margin in the polls and in Iowa. It likely won’t suffice when the field winnows late in the primary season – Trump certainly couldn’t win a one-on-one matchup with a Cruz, Rubio or Bush.

Red Arrow3. Ben Carson

Under scrutiny for bizarre past beliefs, inconsistencies in his biography and a concern post-Paris about candidates’ foreign policy knowledge, Carson dropped fast in the polls in November. His impressive numbers during the Fall were always soft. People loved him personally, but weren’t solidly committed to him.

Carson himself simply doesn’t appear to have that fire-in-the-belly dynamic to him to dig himself out of his self-created hole. His calm demeanor endeared people to him early on, but failed to inspire the passion in conservatives to stick with him. That may be his undoing in the end, and why he’s dropping like a rock once under scrutiny, as opposed to Trump, who’s held his own. For Republican primary-goers, strong and wrong is better than weak and wrong.

The question now is how far Carson will fall. If he can stave off the bleeding, or at least get the national media spotlight off his questionable credentials, he could still coast to a respectable top five finish in Iowa.

Green Arrow4. Marco Rubio

The student surpassed the master quite some time ago, as Rubio bested his old mentor Bush in several of the debates and moved ahead of him in early state and national polls. But he has a long way to go in winning this thing. Sure, he has the momentum, but he’s still only polling at 12% to 15%. It’s an improvement, but you still got to do better than that.

Much of the media and political odds-makers think Rubio is now the favorite to take the nomination. This seems to rely too much on the theory that a “serious,” establishment or establishment-leaning candidate will win out in the end. Yes, in past years the standings changed dramatically in the last month before the caucus. But I think the Republican Party has changed significantly this decade and is looking for an outsider or much more conservative candidate to lead them. Rubio needs a fresh take on his message to close the deal with Iowans.

Red Arrow5. Jeb Bush

What can Bush do to change the conversation? Who knows. The silliness of the Republican nomination conversation has undermined his efforts to run as a conservative with a proven record who can make government work. Voters and the media only seem interested in who says what crazy thing each day. Bush’s only hope at this point is that there’s real truth to the idea that voters will start considering the more electable candidates with experience as decision time nears. He has a real operation in Iowa to capitalize on it if that happens.

6. Rand Paul

It’s hard to figure out where to rank Paul. In the end it probably doesn’t matter. He still holds onto a loyal base of libertarian-minded voters, and will probably bring in some new people to the caucus. A lot of voters, however, have written him off for his foreign policy views, even more so after the Paris attacks. It likely won’t be enough to finish in the top five.

Green Arrow7. Chris Christie

After receiving the high-profile endorsement of Bruce Rastetter and several of his Ag business compatriots back in October, Christie vowed to play heavily in Iowa. He has yet to make good on that promise, making only one three-day trip to Iowa in November. You get the sense that Christie has some potential here, but it’s questionable whether it’s enough to rise into the top tier, or what over-performing will get him in the media narrative immediately post-Iowa that will likely focus on other candidates.

Red Arrow8. Carly Fiorina

Her lack of a national or Iowa campaign infrastructure doomed her from early on, squandering any momentum she gained out of the debates. You’d think she’d have an easier way to get on national news shows for interviews to say things that would’ve driven a few news cycles, but she didn’t do that either. Oh well.

Red Arrow9. Mike Huckabee

The 2008 caucus winner barely registers at 2% or 3% in most recent polls. His time of relevancy in the Republican Party is long over.

10. John Kasich

The Ohio Governor keeps coming back to Iowa every now and then, even though his real path to competing nationally lies in a strong New Hampshire showing. Bush and Christie simply have stronger operations here to cultivate the small base of moderate and business Republicans.

11. Rick Santorum

Not going to happen again.

12. Lindsey Graham

People like Graham, they’re just not going to caucus for him.

 

by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/30/15

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