Ted Cruz’s lead in new Iowa poll underscores Trump’s participation gap

A new poll from Monmouth has Ted Cruz overtaking Donald Trump in Iowa. Cruz came in with 24 percent of likely caucus-goers’ support, Trump carried 19 percent and Marco Rubio was a close third with 17 percent. Ben Carson, fading fast, fell to fourth place with 13 percent support.

Nate Silver was quick to throw cold water on the assumption that the poll represented an outlier, pointing out that Trump’s topline is in line with what polls using similar methodologies had found in Iowa recently:

The poll presents a number of instant takeaways, should it be verified by other polling organizations. First, it suggests that Cruz, who has been drafting behind Trump for much of the campaign, is the go-to alternative for former Carson supporters now that he’s made his move. Second, relatedly, it suggests that Trump didn’t do himself any favors with Iowa’s hyper-sensitive and markedly Evangelical Republican electorate by calling them stupid and saying that he has never asked God for forgiveness. As Monmouth notes, “Evangelical voters, who make up about half of the Iowa GOP caucus electorate, back Cruz (30%) over Trump (18%), Rubio (16%), and Carson (15%). In October, Carson held the advantage with this group – garnering 36% support to 18% for Trump, 12% for Cruz, and 9% for Rubio.” Third, the poll also shows that Congressman Steve King’s endorsement of Cruz has proven to be significant, if not consequential, in the Texas senator’s rise. As Monmouth reports, “Nearly 1-in-5 likely caucusgoers say that Rep. Steve King’s recent endorsement of Cruz makes them more likely to support the Texas senator – including 7% who say it makes them a lot more likely and 12% a little more likely.”

The poll also underscores a problem that I and others have highlighted before: Donald Trump could have a problem turning stated support into actual votes. In fact, Monmouth’s poll could even be overstating his support.

Polling caucuses is tricky, as the act of participating in a caucus entails a larger investment of time and energy than most voters are willing to make. Turnout for February’s Republican Iowa Caucus is expected to be about 140,000 this year at most in a state that cast roughly 728,000 votes for Mitt Romney in 2012. Partisan registration is not required for participation. In short, figuring out which subset of the state’s eventual GOP voters will actually show up to caucus for a given candidate requires a great deal of guesswork — and you’re almost guaranteed to be wrong.

Which is why this methodological note from Monmouth, included at the end of their write-up of the poll results, is significant:

Donald Trump, via iprimages / Flickr

Donald Trump, via iprimages / Flickr

Methodological note: This poll marks a slight modification in Monmouth’s sampling methodology for the Iowa Republican caucuses. Prior sample frames included past state primary voters only. The current poll includes a small proportion (30%) of regular general election voters. The addition of these voters did not have a significant impact on the overall findings. For example, under the previous tighter sampling frame, Cruz’s support would be 25% compared to 24% in the full sample, Trump’s support would be 16% rather than 19%, and Carson’s 13% support would be unchanged. Rubio’s support using the prior frame would be slightly higher (21%) than in the current frame (17%). The current sample frame suggests a high-end turnout level of approximately 140,000 caucusgoers.

Monmouth is right to say that the the inclusion of general election voters who hadn’t previously participated in the caucuses didn’t change their results all that much in isolation. After all, excluding general election-only voters only widens Cruz’s lead over Trump four points (although it does bounce Trump into third place behind Rubio). However, given what we know about Donald Trump’s support, the finding confirms a broader, larger, trend. As prior surveys have shown, Donald Trump is the candidate most likely to have the support of the subset of the electorate least likely to actually participate in the caucuses. In other words, he could be facing a serious participation gap.

This sort of phenomenon isn’t new. Outsider candidates who tap into frustrations with the political process will, almost by definition, attract support from those who are less likely to engage with the political process. Were I writing this post in December of 2007, it isn’t hard to imagine me making the same point about then-Senator Obama, who rode a wave of enthusiasm from young voters to dramatically outperform polling averages and pull off a comfortable upset win in Iowa. In 2008, 43 percent of participants in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses were participating for the first time. By definition, they didn’t show up in polls that only included past caucus participants.

However, the case for Trump turning raw enthusiasm into actual results on February 1st is thinner, as he hasn’t put together the same kind of campaign organization that Obama used to register new voters, educate them about the caucus process and follow up to make sure they actualized their support. In fairness, neither have any of his opponents — Trump’s 12 paid staffers in Iowa as of October were the most of any Republican candidate — but none of the GOP campaigns’ organizations hold a finger to Hillary Clinton’s 80+ organizers in the state. What’s more, as Cruz and Rubio are relying on the support of voters who already know how the process works, they don’t feel a need to staff up. At least not to the same extent.

In the general election, campaigns may only matter on the margins — or have canceling effects — but in the primary process they can matter a great deal. That’s especially true when it comes to turning out your supporters for a time-consuming caucus. Trump may have mastered Republican rhetoric en route to persuading a large subset of the party’s rank and file to support him, but he’ll need to figure out how to overcome Democratic turnout problems if he hopes to actually win.

All this is to say that Donald Trump will have to do more than double down on gilded fascism in order to retake and maintain his lead over Cruz in Iowa. It’s certainly not out of the question, but the time left for candidates to fix underlying problems with their campaigns is shorter than it seems.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “Ted Cruz’s lead in new Iowa poll underscores Trump’s participation gap”

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  2. The_Fixer says:

    Perhaps the GOP is losing its admiration for a guy who has the emotional maturity of an 8 year-old wearing a suit.

    Every picture I see of him captures a facial expression that you’ll also see on a bratty rich kid who has been indulged all of his life. His rhetoric is straight out of a conversation among middle schoolers. His reaction to criticism is the equivalent of calling someone a “stupid head.” If he doesn’t get his way, he takes his toys and goes home.

    I don’t see him succeeding in getting the nomination. He may do well in a couple of primaries in the heart of wing-nut country. But I really think Jon is correct when he points out that evangelicals jumped ship as soon as he said disparaging things about them.

    The question becomes whether he honors his promise not to run as a third-party candidate. The jury is still out on that one.

  3. FLL says:

    Dear Baby Jesus on a waffle. You may be right. Trump just went completely bananas and called for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. One would think that also means business, trade, tourist visas, student visas–everything. This might be enough to even freak out Republican primary voters. Jon just posted an article. I just don’t know what to think at this point. Maybe Rubio might benefit enough from this madness to actually get the nomination. Holy crap.

  4. BeccaM says:

    Well, I’ll say this much: I truly thought Trump was going to flame out months ago, as soon as people realized he’s a fascist clown and not even remotely qualified to serve in elected office. I truly did overestimate people’s capacity to be rational and to be decent human beings.

    I think you’re right, in normal times (whatever that means now), someone like Rubio would’ve been seen as the GOP alternative to Obama: A junior senator with not much experience, but who speaks to the party’s traditional base. I know as soon as I say this, someone is going to chime in with “Oh but it began with Nixon!” or some such, but in terms of truly going off the rails for the Republican party, I think the Teabagger movement was it. At that point, they just about lost control of their base and the nominating process. The bell-weather there was when their own incumbents began to be primaried for not being radical enough.

    But that’s why I’m only ‘somewhat confident’ Trump won’t be the nominee and no longer certain to the point where I’d put money on the outcome. Something truly terrible has happened to the GOP, and the country itself is at stake now.

  5. FLL says:

    You’ve got the Trumpster nailed. He is exactly the country club bully and would-be Mussolini that you describe. In relatively normal years I’d say that Marco Rubio would be the nominee, but I think the shrunken Republican base is so dominated by the hysterically anti-immigrant crowd that they don’t trust someone who is Hispanic on both sides of his family. I’m not as sure as you are that Trump won’t be the nominee, but I am sure that in the general election, voters will make a more sober choice. I don’t think voters want to imagine Trump, with his finger on the nuclear button, insulting world leaders and calling all of them losers.

  6. BeccaM says:

    Malignant narcissism, egomania, and a schoolyard bully attitude will only take one so far. Yes, sure, there are lots of morons out there who truly don’t care that most of what Trump says is nothing but lies. They say, “He says it like it is”–but the reality is he just indulges people’s worst impulses and prejudices, and gives them the false patina of moral legitimacy.

    Personally, I think Trump is running on an openly fascist platform. Not ‘neo-fascist’ or quasi- or any other qualifier. Flat out fascist. He cares not at all what the laws are. He’s expressed open disdain for elections. As the late, great Molly Ivins once quipped about Pat Buchanan, the same applies to Trump’s speeches: “They probably sound better in the original German.”

    A significant portion of the far right GOP is now far enough to the right they want an authoritarian strongman leader to be their fascist leader because Trump has been a blank enough slate in terms of specifics, everybody seems to think he’d enact precisely the government they want and nothing else. Hell, they don’t even seem to be aware he’s nakedly pandering and patronizing when he claims the Bible is his favorite book, yet cannot name a single part of he likes (save for one bit he literally made up and phrased in his typical self-aggrandizing way).

    However, Trump’s greatest weakness as far as running for office goes is his crude il Duce caricature performance is becoming ever more repulsive and ridiculous, and less and less ‘presidential’. He seems to delight in insulting people–even those who might be among his supporters or whose support he should be wooing. The guy has no dignity, no gravitas, and he speaks with the diction and vocabulary of a C-minus fourth grader.

    At this point, I have no idea who the GOP nominee will be. However, I remain somewhat confident it won’t be Trump or Carson, just as much as I was confident in previous elections it wasn’t going to be the leading favorites in the Iowa caucuses. One detail I find interesting is while the candidates do seem to spend a lot of time there anyway, I do think the campaigns are recognizing Iowa is no longer a reliable indicator (if it ever was) of who is going to win the nomination. (Neither is New Hampshire, for that matter.)

  7. FLL says:

    The Republican Iowa Caucus, unlike Republican primaries, has always been dominated by evangelical Christians. A reasonable guess would be that, like Huckabee (2008) and Santorum (2012) before him, Cruz will win the Republican Iowa caucus and then lose in all the subsequent Republican primaries.

  8. nicho says:

    Just more proof that our electoral system is about as stupid as you could imagine. If someone asked you to devise an idiotic political process, you coulnd’t come up with something this insane.

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