After nearly an entire year of campaigning, many big story lines have played themselves out in the Iowa Caucus. Hillary Clinton had her scare early on as she struggled with email server questions while Bernie Sanders surged, but has since regained her footing and lead in the polls. Ben Carson has played out the full Icarus plot, and likely won’t factor much into the final result. We’ve lost good candidates and bad along the way, most done in by Donald Trump’s dominance of the media conversation. Jeb Bush was fatally crippled by Trump’s attacks, but hasn’t accepted it yet.
What left is there to happen? On the Democratic side, not much. How things stand now is likely where they’ll end. But there’s still some real unanswered questions on the Republican side before we get to caucus night. Let’s mull some of them over:
1. Who Wins The Cruz-Rubio Showdown?
The answer to this question will likely determine who the Republican nominee is, and possibly the next President. The two are now squaring off against each other, seeing themselves as the likely final match-up for voters after the early states cull the herd. They clashed on immigration in the debate, and Rubio is now pushing hard on Cruz’s past votes on reform measures, claiming he’s lying about his past stances. So far, everyone who’s challenged Rubio in a debate has failed miserably. Rubio simply seems untouchable and too well-prepared. Will Cruz finally meet his match?
Cruz has a big lead in Iowa (31% to Trump’s 21% in the Iowa Poll), while Rubio’s only at 10%. Plus Cruz has recently racked up a number of handy endorsements from social conservatives in Iowa who will organize on his behalf. So Cruz would have to completely implode in the next six weeks to somehow slip behind Rubio. But the expectations are so high now for Cruz in Iowa, that anything less than a first-place finish might damage him and allow Rubio to overtake him in later states.
2. Can Donald Trump Turn Out New Voters?
The Trump train has picked up a lot of disaffected voters, independents and some oddballs on its wild ride through Iowa. Will they actually turn out to caucus for the first time? I’m skeptical. Trump is one of the few with the ability to really expand the caucus electorate, but his team may not be up to the daunting task. They have a decent organization in the state, but to pull off this feat on this level requires a much larger, more professional operation that can build relationships with unlikely voters in all 99 counties.
3. Will Establishment/Moderate Voters Coalesce Around A Candidate?
How are there no governors in the top tier in Iowa? And why hasn’t a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie caught on more here? Yes, Iowa Republicans trend more socially conservative and evangelical, but it’s peculiar to see Cruz, Trump and Carson make up 65% in the latest Iowa poll. Rubio is starting to pick up some of those “establishment” and/or business conservatives, but there ought to be some candidate doing better at organizing this group into a real coalition.
Jeb Bush remains at 6%. He could theoretically cobble together enough Christie and Kasich voters to put together a respectable showing. Bush almost certainly can’t overtake Cruz, Trump or Rubio at this point, but a 4th place finish above Carson could save some face. The problem is that Christie has done just enough here, through his Rastetter endorsement and by hiring some good Branstad staffers, that he should deny Bush that chance. Actually, it almost seems as if hurting Bush is Christie’s whole strategy in Iowa.
4. Will Anyone Else Drop Out To Save Face?
A number of candidates must be coming to the slow realization that a late rally isn’t coming for them. Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul all should consider whether Bobby Jindal made the right choice and got out of it before he got embarrassed on caucus night. They all need something in Iowa to justify continuing on. Others, like Chris Christie and John Kasich, have hope in later states.
Huckabee probably shouldn’t have left his TV show, as this campaign has shown he’s clearly part of the past for Republicans. Santorum just seems to enjoy campaigning, so I’m guessing he sticks with it. Fiorina may stick around to stay in the debates. Rand Paul sounded like he was considering dropping out if he didn’t make the main debate stage this week. He turned out to be a miserable candidate and is going nowhere here. If anyone else drops out, my money’s on Huckabee and Paul.
by Pat Rynard