The Primary Known Unknowns

A look at what we learned in Iowa, and what to expect going forward.

The results of the Iowa caucuses have shown us several important things. 1) Everybody hates the establishment of both parties. 2) No one trusts the media anymore. 3) Pollsters have no clue how to conduct polling in the fast-paced world of smartphones and social media.

Ted Cruz easily won the Iowa caucuses on the Republican side, despite trailing Donald Trump by as much as 20 points in some polls, and despite the GOP establishment and the ethanol lobby doing their best to take him down. In fact, the establishment’s scorn is a huge part of Cruz’s appeal. Cruz’s net favorability leads all Republican candidates with a rating of +45% (61% favorable, 16% unfavorable) among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, according to a recent Gallup poll. Establishment favorite Jeb Bush has a net favorability of -1%.

The top five vote-getters on the GOP side were all anti-establishment/outsider candidates: Ted Cruz (28%), Donald Trump (24%), Marco Rubio (23%), Ben Carson (9%) and Rand Paul (5%) (though Paul just announced he is ending his campaign). That is an astonishing 89% of votes cast. And before anyone claims that Rubio, among the first Tea Party candidates elected, is now an establishment guy, ask yourself why the establishment attacks against him are second in intensity only to those waged against Cruz. Rubio has a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 98 (out of 100). He has a perfect NRA rating. Citizens Against Government Waste gives him a 95, and National Right to Life gives him a 100. Without Rubio’s participation in the Gang of Eight fiasco, he would arguably be the undisputed favorite at this point, with heavy support from the conservative grassroots — because he’s a genuine conservative.

Now the questions are these: What does this all mean? Is Trump now mortally wounded? Does Cruz have a clear path to the nomination? Is Rubio’s rise a growing fire or a shooting star?

It’s important to note we’ve completed a contest in just one of 50 states — one that accounts for only 30 of the GOP’s 2,472 delegates. New Hampshire, with 23 delegates, will account for even less, though with the exception of 1996 and 2000, the Granite State has chosen the eventual nominee in every contested primary since 1968.

These two states have outsized importance because they represent two very different constituencies early in the nominating process, and any candidate who doesn’t win one of those two states is highly unlikely to win the presidency. In the last 40 years, only Bill Clinton lost both and still moved into the White House. With Ted Cruz having won Iowa and Donald Trump well ahead in polling in New Hampshire, a loss there makes it difficult for any other candidate to justify staying in the race.

That said, Rubio, though he didn’t win Iowa and is unlikely to win New Hampshire, has a more plausible reason to stay in. South Carolina is after New Hampshire, and in that state he has been endorsed by two of its most popular elected officials, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. Not too long after South Carolina comes the primary in Rubio’s delegate-rich home state of Florida.

Trump needs to win New Hampshire and then win either South Carolina or Nevada to validate his long ride atop the GOP primary polls. The shocking loss in Iowa damaged his aura of invincibility, and his campaign, based primarily on the idea that he is a winner, may find itself struggling without convincing wins in the next few races. Trump has very deep and loyal support, but he’s not winning over undecided voters like Cruz and Rubio did in Iowa.

Cruz will need to consolidate his win in Iowa with a win in either South Carolina or Nevada to be well-positioned going into the “SEC Primary,” but even second- or third-place finishes in those states won’t be fatal. Cruz is poised to do very well in the Southern states, including his home state of Texas which, at 155 delegates, is the second most delegate-rich state behind California. Cruz also has the benefit of having as much cash on hand as his next four rivals combined (other than Trump, who is self-funded). Cruz has a very sophisticated analytical, social media and ground game, and he looks to be in it for the long haul. His win in Iowa will only improve his fundraising efforts.

Rubio needs to place in the top three of the next few races leading into the SEC Primary. If he succeeds, notwithstanding recent establishment attacks he may eventually become the non-establishment candidate most palatable to the establishment. And there’s a big difference between being palatable to the establishment and actually being establishment.

In recent weeks, the establishment has become cozy with Trump, but if Trump’s fortunes fall, and if Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie continue to run campaigns from the Witness Protection Program, we may see the establishment rally to Rubio, if for no other reason than to ensure the hated Cruz does not win the nomination.

Only one thing is certain in this election cycle: If anyone tells you they know who will emerge victorious, it’s time to fit them for a straightjacket.

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