Let’s look at the GOP caucuses in Iowa. When they didn’t have an incumbent, Iowans, led by a solid bloc of evangelical extremists have done two things:
1- picked someone who wasn’t the front-runner
2- picked an ultimate loser
In other words, the Iowa Republican caucuses are largely useless as any kind of national oracle. The Republican Party should do what the Democratic Party just did in deemphasizing it— but they won’t… because they’re idiots.
2008- Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney and John McCain
2012- Rick Santorum beat Mitt Romney
2016- Ted Cruz beat Trump
Writing for The Atlantic yesterday, Ron Brownstein asserted that that Trump is beatable in Iowa. “Among Trump skeptics,” he wrote, “there is a widespread belief that ‘Iowa is more crucial than ever, because if Trump wins here, he will be your nominee; he’ll run the table,’ as Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based social-conservative organization, told me in an interview last week. But even if Trump is defeated in the caucus, this recent history suggests that he will still be a strong favorite for the nomination if Iowa Republicans do not choose an alternative stronger than Huckabee, Santorum, or Cruz proved to be. The conundrum for the candidates chasing Trump is that the strategy that probably offers the best chance of upsetting him in Iowa— maximizing support among evangelical-Christian conservatives— also creates the greatest risk of limiting their appeal and making it harder to beat him in most later states. Although focusing on evangelical conservatives can deliver victory in Iowa, ‘if the campaign you’re running is only aimed at those people … it’s hard to put together a coalition big enough to win’ the nomination overall, says Dave Kochel, an Iowa Republican strategist.”
[T]he largest question looming for Republicans may be whether the road to success in the Iowa caucus has become a path to ultimate failure in the GOP presidential-nominating process.
The common problem for Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz was that even on the night they won Iowa, the results demonstrated that the base of support they had attracted was too narrow to win the nomination. Entrance polls conducted of voters heading into the Iowa caucuses found that each man finished well ahead among voters who identified as evangelical Christians. But all three failed to win among voters in Iowa who did not identify as evangelicals.
…Kochel told me that the best way to understand the formula that might allow another candidate to overtake Trump in enough states to win the nomination is to consider the candidates who finished just above and behind him in the 2016 Iowa caucus: Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
“If you want to put it in 2016 terms, particularly with Trump looming so large, you really need the Cruz-plus-Rubio coalition,” Kochel said. “You need the Santorum/Huckabee/Cruz supporters, Christians as defined by people like Vander Plaats. But then you also need the Rubio coalition: Ankeny soccer moms and old-school Republicans, college-educated non-evangelicals. That’s the coalition that can win a nomination.”
Can any of Trump’s rivals assemble such a coalition to threaten him, in Iowa and beyond? His following in the state remains passionate, as his exultant reception at the state fair last weekend demonstrated. And though he’s campaigned in the state considerably less than his leading rivals, Trump held a big lead in the recent New York Times/Siena poll of Iowa Republican voters. That survey showed Trump leading among evangelicals and non-evangelicals, largely on the strength of a dominant advantage among the likely caucus-goers in both groups without a college degree.
But there may be a bigger group of Iowa Republicans willing to consider an alternative to Trump than polls now indicate. It’s not scientific, but my conversations with likely caucus-attenders at the fair last week found a surprising number expressing exhaustion with him.
Although they liked Trump’s performance as president, and mostly felt that he was being unfairly prosecuted, several told me they believed that he had alienated too many voters to win another general election, and they were ready for a different choice that might have a better chance of beating President Joe Biden. “He did the best he could for four years, but he didn’t win again, and we’re done with it, we’re done,” Mary Kinney, a retired office manager in Des Moines, told me. Later that afternoon, at a Story County Republican Party dinner headlined by Senator Tim Scott, Steve Goodhue, an insurance broker in Ames, looked around the crowded room and told me, “Even though Trump is leading in the polls in Iowa, this shows you people are interested in alternatives.”
Trying to reach those voters ready to move past Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is putting the most time and money into building a traditional Iowa organization. His campaign staff and the Never Back Down Super PAC that is organizing most of his ground game in the state both include key veterans of Cruz’s 2016 winning caucus effort. DeSantis has committed to visiting all 99 Iowa counties (what’s called a “full Grassley” in honor of the state’s Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who makes a similar tour every year), and his supporters have already recruited caucus chairs in every county as well.
DeSantis has announced endorsements from more than three dozen state legislators, including State Senate President Amy Sinclair. That’s much more than any other candidate. “Look at what the state of Florida has been doing, and look at what the state of Iowa through our legislature has been doing,” Sinclair told me, citing parental rights, school choice, cuts in government spending, and a six-week ban on abortion. “We’ve been working on all of the same things, so when Governor DeSantis steps into the presidential race and says, ‘I have a vision for the nation, and that vision is what we’ve done in Florida,’ well, that’s the same vision that the folks in Iowa have had.”
Many leading Iowa social conservatives also appear likely to coalesce around DeSantis. Steve Deace, an Iowa conservative-media commentator, endorsed him earlier this month, and in our conversation, Vander Plaats seemed headed that way too. Each had backed Cruz in 2016.
All of this shows how many Iowa Republican power brokers consider DeSantis the most likely to become the principal alternative to Trump. DeSantis also polled second to Trump in that New York Times/Siena Iowa survey. But my conversations at the fair failed to find anyone particularly interested in him. Several of those looking for options beyond Trump said they found DeSantis too much like the former president in his combative temperament and style.
Craig Robinson, the former state Republican political director, says he believes that DeSantis, by running so hard to the right on social issues, has already boxed himself into the same corner as Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz, with little chance to reach out beyond evangelicals to the economically focused suburban Republicans who liked Rubio and Romney. When DeSantis entered the race, Robinson says, he could have appealed to “the Republicans who are sick of the bullshit and don’t want all the extras that come with Trump. Then he’s run a campaign about Disney and all this woke stuff, and all he’s done is make himself as controversial as Trump.”
DeSantis’s positioning has created an opening among the Iowa Republicans uneasy about Trump that Tim Scott looks best positioned to fill. The senator may be developing a more effective formula than DeSantis for appealing to both evangelical social conservatives and more socially moderate, suburban economic conservatives. Unlike DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence, Scott doesn’t hammer away at social issues in a way likely to alienate suburban Republicans. Instead, he connects with evangelical Republicans through his testimony about the importance of religious faith in his own life, and the way in which he organically and authentically weaves Bible phrases into his conversation. As several Iowa Republicans told me, Scott “speaks evangelical” in a way DeSantis does not.
Still, Scott’s campaign message so far is bland, focused primarily on his personal story of ascending from poverty. The senator’s unwavering refusal to challenge or criticize Trump has left the impression among some activists that he is really running for vice president. So long as Scott fuels that perception by refusing to contrast himself with Trump, Vander Plaats predicted, “his poll numbers will not move, and his caucus support will not be there.”
The caucus is now less than five months away, but in earlier years, this final stretch often produced rapid shifts in fortune. Bardwell, the political scientist, notes that five different candidates led polls at some point leading up to the 2012 caucus before Santorum finally edged past Romney at the wire. Iowa social conservatives have frequently coalesced behind their favorite late in the race. The choice those evangelical Christian voters make this winter will likely determine whether Iowa sets Trump on an unstoppable course to another nomination or anoints an alternative who might seriously challenge him.
And now some hard reality— the polling average among Iowa Republicans:
Tim Scott- 10.5%
Nikki Haley- 4.3%
Francis Suarez- 0.5%
Larry Elder- 0.3%