In Iowa, is Trump stronger than people think?

Published 11:37 pm Friday, January 15, 2016

DES MOINES — Who’s leading the Republican presidential race here in Iowa? Most recent polls say Ted Cruz, including last month’s edition of the influential Des Moines Register poll, which had Cruz ahead of second-place Donald Trump by 10 points.

Yet there is a nagging sense — at least nagging to rival campaigns — that Trump may be closer to Cruz than the Register suggested, and that the race in Iowa could be virtually even at this point.

“I look at Trump, and his ceiling is so much higher than everyone else’s,” says Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa GOP who now runs the Iowa Republican blog. “His campaign has gone out and had people self-identify that they’re interested in him, and they’ve captured that data.”

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Robinson’s assessment runs counter to one of the dearest-held assumptions of the political punditocracy. Many commentators believe Trump has a high floor but a low ceiling — that is, his supporters really, really support him and are unlikely to go anywhere else, but he doesn’t have much room to grow, because he already has the loyalty of Republicans who are inclined to like him.

To Robinson, that’s not the way it looks in Iowa. Start with the numbers.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the caucuses with 35,231 votes. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won with 40,954. In 2012, Rick Santorum won with 29,839.

“Ted Cruz is swimming in a pond where the capacity is about 30,000 votes,” says Robinson. “I look at Trump and think that Trump is at that 30,000 mark now, and has the ability to blow past it — if they do a good job of turning their people out.”

Trump has assembled an Iowa team that puts a lot of stock in gathering the basic data needed to turn potential voters into actual voters. But Cruz, finishing up a six-day race across Iowa, has run a smart campaign, too. “He is the natural fit,” says Robinson of Cruz, “appealing to the activists who are going to turn out anyway.” Of course, that might be the key to victory if it turns out Trump can’t blow by, or even hit, the 30,000 mark. (On the other hand, Robinson believes Cruz’s opposition to the ethanol mandate might do him more damage here than some Beltway Republicans believe.)

In any event, even if Trump and Cruz do well, there will be room for someone else, too. In 2012, in addition to Santorum’s 29,839, Mitt Romney received 29,805 votes and Ron Paul won 26,036. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie — someone can do pretty well here without winning.

As campaigning intensifies across the state, there’s another feeling among politicos here: that Iowa, critically important to the nominating process, has gotten the short end of the stick from the Republican Party.

What sense does it make to have the Iowa caucuses lead off Republican presidential voting on Monday, Feb. 1, and not have a Republican debate here — not even one — until Jan. 28, the Thursday before the caucuses?

It doesn’t make much sense at all, but that is what the Republican National Committee has wrought. There have been GOP debates in Ohio, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Nevada, and there will be another next week in South Carolina, while Iowa, for all its importance, will be left out until about 90 hours before the voting begins.

The result is that an Iowa perspective on issues and events has been shut out of the debates, and it’s too late to change that now. And of course, there haven’t been that many debates in the first place — there will be a total of seven before the caucuses. In 2012, there were 13 debates — three in Iowa — before Iowans voted.

More debates in Iowa this time around would have meant the voters knew more before voting; candidates’ strengths and weaknesses would have been more systematically exposed. But that’s not what the RNC wanted.

With the caucuses less than three and a half weeks away, even candidates who haven’t made a big play for Iowa, like Chris Christie, are stepping up their involvement here. But at this point, Iowa still looks like a two-man Cruz-Trump race. And Trump’s position could be stronger than some observers believe.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.