The campaigning in preparation for the Iowa caucuses has rewritten the traditional playbook for how to win a presidential election. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the $100-million man who smashed previous fundraising records when he declared his run for the nomination, has struggled to register in national and statewide polls. Senator Ted Cruz, the architect of the 2013 government shutdown and a Senator with virtually no congressional allies, has benefited from the contentious political environment and found traction in Iowa and throughout the SEC primary states. Governing experience is a liability, and policy rollouts have proved trivial. A billionaire businessman and reality-TV star is about to find out if his frontrunner status is built upon his celebrity or actual votes.
However, with the Iowa caucuses in the rear-view mirror, the nominating battle might begin to resemble a more traditional Republican primary. Maybe. If Donald Trump manages to emerge from Iowa with a percentage of the vote similar to polling expectations, all bets are off. According to the latest Des Moines Register poll, the standings in Iowa heading in to caucus night are: Donald Trump at 28 percent, Ted Cruz at 23 percent, Marco Rubio at 15 percent and Ben Carson at 10 percent.
A Trump victory not only legitimizes the polling in Iowa, but also in New Hampshire as well as nationally. A combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — the first three states in the nominating process, all of which Trump currently leads — could be a knockout punch for the candidate. Yet, there’s cause for hesitation before anointing Trump; polls are historically unreliable.
In the week preceding Iowa in 2012, Rick Santorum was polling in the RealClearPolitics average at 7.7 percent, good enough for sixth place. He won with over 24 percent of the vote. In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in a virtual tie in the state at 31 percent to 29 percent, respectively. Obama won by nearly 10 percentage points while Clinton dropped to a third-place finish.
Trump has silenced the initial doubts regarding his viability and exhibited astonishing staying power. But when the enormous rallies are in the past and it’s time to actually vote, will enough Iowans be willing to put a man whose name has never before appeared on a ballot on a path toward the presidency? The Iowa caucuses are a relatively complicated and time-consuming system. If speculation about Trump’s lagging get-out-the-vote apparatus proves true, the businessman may find himself a loser for the first time this campaign. It may be that a campaign sustained on the concept of winning, that doesn’t win, isn’t all that sustainable.
Besides the variability in the polls, Trump presents a unique case; no candidate before him has singlehandedly consumed the majority of oxygen in the media while suffocating his competition.
According to FiveThirtyEight, “Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate… Since July, Trump has received 54 percent of the media coverage of the GOP primary — about six times more than Jeb Bush, who’s in second place with just 8 percent of coverage.”
Monday night will prove whether media coverage is predictive of actual support or whether voters and polls were simply caught up in the hype.
If Trump falters in Iowa — an indication his support may be overstated in further primaries — Cruz is poised to claim victory and the New Hampshire race will be blown wide open; what has been a bizarre election cycle may not actually be all that abnormal. A social conservative — Cruz — wins Iowa, like Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008, while a moderate candidate — Rubio, Kasich or Bush — wins New Hampshire, much like Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008.
If that’s the case — and that’s where my money is — look for a stronger than expected showing from Rubio as well as Carson, and for Cruz to limp his way to a victory. In a few weeks, the most provocative campaign season in recent history may seem irrelevant. Of course, I could be wrong and we could wake up one step closer to a Trump presidency.
Jake Forken is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My Forken Opinion appears alternate Fridays this semester.