Now that we’re under a month out from the Iowa Caucus, the Republican presidential field once again shows some real movement. The top two spots seem pretty secure at this point, but everything underneath looks increasingly up in the air. The battle to emerge from the first two states as the alternative to Cruz and Trump is on, with Rubio, Bush and Christie all desperate to make their mark here. Those five look to be the only serious candidates who can both continue long into the national primary and have a decent shot of winning Iowa. Others could still mount a bit of a surprise in the caucus state, but at this point they’re mostly taking away 1% or 2% here and there from the real contenders.
Here’s how Starting Line sees the Republican field shaking out now:
1. Ted Cruz
Nothing changes for Cruz’s top spot. His 36-county bus tour he kicks off on this week is exactly what every credible Republican contender should be doing right now – but he’s the only one. Capitalizing on the interest and momentum he enjoys by locking down support in rural counties all over the state will keep him in the lead. He’s also brought in an army of hundreds of volunteers who have taken over the old dorms at the defunct AIB college in Des Moines. Cruz’s campaign may not have the massive staff that Clinton or Sanders does in Iowa, but his overall operation and outreach efforts are the only Republican campaign that comes close to a full version of the Democrats’ sprawling caucus organizations.
2. Donald Trump
Trump is practically certain to come in first or second place here in Iowa, with enough loyal support among the base and new, usually-disaffected voters to come out to the caucus for the first time. No, his organization likely isn’t capable of fully taking advantage of those newcomers, but it should still be enough to not fall down in the standings. And he should be plenty happy with a silver medal. He’s still getting massive crowds all over the country as he travels. Coming in second is still a great accomplishment for the first-time candidate, and keeps him in a strong position for later states. We’ll see if he’s able to handle not coming in first in a reasonable manner or if he freaks out about it and looks petty for voters in the next several states.
3. Marco Rubio
If the caucus were held today, Rubio would likely come in third, surpassing Carson who falls sharply in this ranking. But Rubio’s placement here is precarious. For too long the Rubio campaign ignored the necessary basics of building up a strong Iowa infrastructure. It seems like they’re righting the ship to some extent now, though you only have to compare his recent bus tour to Cruz’s to see problems – Cruz knocks off county after county each day with his tour, while Rubio used it more as a prop for 3-a-day stops. Still, Rubio’s own personal appeal is strong, he attracts voters from a number of constituencies, he performs well in the debates and there may be some gamesmanship among the also-ran candidates’ supporters to back Rubio in order to hurt Cruz. Rubio needs to watch his rear view mirror and make sure he out-hustles the other contenders in the last month.
4. Jeb Bush
The former Florida Governor found some new life in him when he took Trump head on at the last debate. He’s since doubled-down on this new take-on-the-bully persona in the hopes it rallies Republicans scared to death of Trump actually winning the nomination. Will it really move anyone in Iowa? One thing that’s moving here is some Bush staffers from their national headquarters to buff their ground game in the last month. The bug-out deployment to early states, matched with cutting millions of television advertisements, sound a lot more like the final gasps of a struggling campaign than a new strategy to close the gap. But if Bush campaigns hard in Iowa (which it’s unclear if he personally will), he could still end up with a respectable showing that gives him life in New Hampshire.
5. Chris Christie
See our post yesterday for our full take on Christie’s new opportunity here in Iowa. I’m hesitant to move him up further in the rankings considering he only polled at 3% in the recent Iowa Poll, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if ends up in third place on caucus night.
6. Ben Carson
Once again, the only question that remains with Carson is how much further he will fall. Losing your national campaign manager, communications director and 20 staff a month out from the caucus is a recipe for utter disaster. Basically, the Carson campaign no longer exists. Some good people still stick with him here for his Iowa campaign (one of which was spied checking out Huckabee’s crowd in Urbandale yesterday), but the rest of the infrastructure is gone. Carson’s longtime connection with his “business manager” Armstrong Williams was his ultimate undoing (although so were the professional staffers who hired all the consultants who bilked the campaign of all their money). Will Carson even travel to Iowa anymore? Does he even have national staff to arrange and pay for flights? Who’s in HR to cut the remaining staffer’s checks? Carson is sadly in thoroughly over his head in this whole presidential run.
7. Mike Huckabee
Huckabee has set off on a 150-event January Iowa trek to make up lost ground in advance of caucus night (pray for Kathy Bolten, the Register reporter assigned to Huckabee). But what can it really accomplish? If Huckabee draws crowds of 20 to 40 people in each county he visits, even if every one decides to caucus for Huckabee, how does that add up to a top three caucus night showing? That’s what Huckabee has said he needs to move on, but it’s hard to see what in Huckabee’s message or personality will catapult him ahead of the fresh faces in the race. Craig Robinson of TheIowaRepublican.com continues to subtly cheer-lead for his Nick Ryan-backed candidate, but there is simply no evidence on the ground that Huckabee is suddenly going to surge at the end, helped on by concerns over some Cruz video where he’s not sufficiently anti-gay marriage.
8. Rand Paul
Paul’s campaign claims a robust organization in the state. We could believe it – there’s enough libertarian-minded people around the state to volunteer for Paul. The question is whether there’s enough regular caucus-goers to make up a decent percentage for Paul on caucus night, given his somewhat lackluster candidacy. Probably not.
9. Carly Fiorina
How much can one poorly-advised Tweet cost you in a political election? We’re about to find out. Her Rose Bowl Tweet saying she’d root for Iowa over her own alma mater was met with overwhelming derision, especially once Iowa started losing, leading to #CarlyCurse trending in Iowa. How awkward will it be when she’s asked about it in an interview or at an event in Iowa? Iowa Republicans have a dozen candidates to choose from. They’re looking for reasons to cross off certain candidates. Not voting for someone over a silly Tweet about your favorite sports team may seem petty, but it’s an easy excuse for folks interesting in supporting a candidate they see as more viable anyway.
10. John Kasich
Not gonna happen here, man. Kasich’s only real hope lies in New Hampshire (and in doing better in the debates, where he’s come off as whiny and way too moderate for any Republican electorate). He’s spending just enough days here to take away time from New Hampshire, but not enough to win enough votes or deny them from a rival. It’s confusing, and I don’t get his national campaign strategy in the slightest.
11. Rick Santorum
It seems unlikely that Santorum will come in dead last in the Iowa Caucus, four years after winning it, but who would you put him ahead of in this list?
by Pat Rynard