First and second place in the Iowa Caucus appear to largely be set at this point, with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump far ahead of the rest of the Republican pack. But what about third place? That may end up as the real prize here.
There’s a fascinating and competitive race right now to emerge as the establishment/moderate/electable alternative to Cruz and Trump, and the path to that lies in performing above the rest in Iowa and New Hampshire. Up to now, few of those potential candidates have committed what it takes to really win Iowa, leaving a big opening for whoever wants it. The one who seems most eager to grab that opportunity right now is Chris Christie.
The New Jersey Governor seemed hesitant in his approach to Iowa early on, likely feeling his more moderate record on some issues wouldn’t play with the more conservative electorate here. But he scored some important endorsements this Fall, bringing on major GOP donor Bruce Rastetter, several of his business colleagues and a host of former Branstad and Republican Party of Iowa staffers to run his operation. But then Christie only visited Iowa sparingly, and for a time it seemed like he was doing just enough in order to deny Jeb Bush the chance to consolidate the more moderate wing of the party in order to cripple Bush’s momentum for New Hampshire.
It looks like January will be different, with Christie signaling he’ll spend half his time in Iowa. At several events in Iowa this past week, Christie was asked by voters who said they liked him, but were worried about his viability as a candidate. Christie replied with some insights into his strategy.
“I’ll have a better handle on that in about two weeks,” he said in Marshalltown, seeming to hint they’re judging whether or not to commit heavily to Iowa in the last month. “You all decide pretty late. I don’t want to start making predictions that are unattainable.”
He cautioned voters to not choose solely based on polls, and suggested he just needs to beat certain rivals.
“What I need to do in Iowa and New Hampshire is do well in both places,” Christie said. “Because the field is so big, if you don’t do well in both places you probably will have a hard time staying in the race. This race is going to get down to four or five people at the most by the time we get done with New Hampshire, that’s my prediction.”
Christie is probably right about his four to five candidate prediction. Cruz and Trump have the appeal and money to go the distance. Santorum, Huckabee, Fiorina and Paul will likely drop out soon after placing poorly in Iowa. Carson’s campaign is in full collapse and will end soon. Kasich, Bush, Christie and Rubio compete for that Cruz/Trump alternative, and it’s hard to see more than two of them emerge as real contenders following New Hampshire.
So could Christie actually do it in Iowa? Could he surpass Rubio and Bush to come in a surprise third place? He polled at a mere 3% in the latest Selzer Iowa Poll, so it may seem like a daunting task at first. But considering third place could only require 15% of the vote, it suddenly becomes much more possible. We’ve seen candidates get jumps of 12% or more in polls in a month’s time.
And Christie’s campaign style seems so perfectly suited for the Iowa Caucus crowd, it seems rather odd he hasn’t been here more often. His preference for town hall forums and his easy-going, relaxed manner in them connects a lot better with Iowa audiences than what we’ve seen from Bush and Rubio events. Plus he’s finding increasingly larger crowds on the campaign trail at this late stage.
“Prior to this trip our largest turnout had been about 200 people at both of our Scott County town halls,” Phil Valenziano, a Christie campaign spokesperson, told Starting Line. “On this trip over 250 turned out in Cedar Rapids and about 400 in Waukee, setting new turnout records for Christie events in Iowa. We’re also signing up new supporters faster and filling precincts with leaders at a more rapid clip now than ever before. Enthusiasm is clearly building as people get serious about their decision and focus on which candidate is the most mature, tested, and ready to be President on day 1, and can defeat Hillary Clinton in November.”
If those turnouts continue, he’s got a competent team in Iowa assembled to take advantage. Veterans of key Iowa Republican campaigns, like Jake Ketzner (Branstad-Reynolds 2014 campaign manager), Kevin Poindexter (2014 RNC Iowa state director) and Valenziano (2014 Branstad-Reynolds political director), are on board with Christie. Christie’s years of courting Iowa Republican leaders, going back to 2010, have paid dividends.
His Iowa team is obviously smaller than most, but no Republican caucus operation, save perhaps for Cruz, seems large or sophisticated enough to will their candidate into the lead. So this could come down to pure momentum and enthusiasm. And Christie has continued to do well in the debates, typically aiming fire at Hillary Clinton, which has helped him avoid incoming attacks from the other Republicans.
The real test will be whether he can realistically overcome both Rubio and Bush. Playing significantly in Iowa takes away travel time in New Hampshire (where he’s climbed to fourth place in several polls), which could be dangerous. He probably has a real chance to best the struggling Bush, who recently cut $1 million from TV advertising here (they tried to spin it as they were pivoting to the ground game, but extra staff were going to come in anyway – this was a bad sign all around for Bush).
Taking out Rubio could prove much more difficult. Despite Rubio’s underwhelming operation here, he has still consistently polled well thanks to his appeal to a mix of the younger crowd, conservative and establishment bases. And he seems to be planning a busy schedule as well in the last month. To make the Iowa investment worth it, Christie probably needs to beat Rubio or come really, really close behind him.
The opportunity to win or over-perform in Iowa has been available all last year. Few took it. Christie has identified the opening and seems poised to take full advantage of it. Don’t be surprised if we’re talking about Christie’s surprise showing the day after February 1st.
by Pat Rynard