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Eye On Candidates
November 24, 2015

Cruz Catches Trump in Iowa

Businessman Donald Trump has consistently led the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest since shortly after he entered in June. In the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the average of polls at Trump has mostly polled at the top spot since early August and late July, respectively, and nationally has been on top since July 20. A question on the minds of many is who will catch up with Trump. For a while, it looked like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson might have been the answer, briefly overtaking Trump in many polls several weeks ago. But now the answer appears to be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as Politico writes this morning:

Poll: Ted Cruz pulls even with Donald Trump in Iowa

Ted Cruz, buoyed by tea party support and the backing of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, has surged to a virtual tie with Donald Trump in the first caucus state of Iowa, according to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll surveying likely Republican caucus-goers released Tuesday.

Trump took 25 percent of support, followed by 23 percent who opted for the freshman Texas senator, more than doubling his support in the same poll from October, when he earned just 10 percent. Trailing the two leaders is Ben Carson, who dropped from first to third, falling 10 points to 18 percent….

Cruz drew 42 percent of his support from Republicans identifying with the tea party, nearly double the next closest candidate in Trump, with 23 percent of support from that group. While Cruz leads Trump among those who described themselves as very conservative (38 percent to 21 percent), Trump holds advantages over Cruz and Carson among those describing themselves as only somewhat conservative and, strikingly, those describing themselves as moderate or liberal. The Texas senator also narrowly outperformed Trump and Carson among white, born-again evangelical Christians, earning 27 percent to Carson's 24 percent and Trump's 20 percent.

Steve Benen at MSNBC writes that Cruz’s rise is the first meaningful shakeup of the race in months:

For the past few months, there’s been an obvious, two-person top tier in the race for the GOP nomination: Trump and Carson. Much of the media hype focused on [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio, who shared second-tier status with Cruz and, by some measures, [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush. It was very much a short-head-long-tail dynamic: in a massive field, a handful of candidates were grouped at the top, trailed by a lengthy list of candidates hovering around the margin of error. 

The question was when, if ever, we’d see a meaningful shake up, and these Quinnipiac results suggest that time is now. 

Of particular interest, of course, is Carson’s sudden drop, Cruz’s sudden rise, and the relationship between the two. The Texas Republican has long believed that he’s best positioned to benefit if/when one of the frontrunners falters, and this poll offers proof that the assumption was true: as Carson’s wayward supporters look for a new favorite, they’re not flocking to Rubio; they’re rallying behind Cruz. 

If this continues, and Cruz supplants Carson in the top tier, the nature of the race will fundamentally change.

There’s quite a bit of time left on the clock, but it’s now quite easy to imagine Cruz winning Iowa and Trump winning New Hampshire. It creates an interesting question for Republican insiders to kick around: the GOP establishment hates Cruz, but should we assume that it hates Trump more?

Rich Lowry at National Review Online noted yesterday afternoon that Cruz seems to be catching a lot of breaks in recent weeks, at least in Iowa:

The CBS poll over the weekend had Cruz nosing into second in Iowa. Trump still leads at 30 percent, with Cruz at 21 and Carson at 19. At this point, I think you have to say Cruz is the favorite to win Iowa — in fact if this is where the race stood in a poll the weekend before the caucuses, I’d still bet on Cruz because I assume his voters are very motivated and very reliable caucus-voters.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much things have broken Cruz’s way. Potential threats to him in Iowa have faded away, with Scott Walker out of the race and Rand Paul a non-factor. Meanwhile, Carson has been losing some altitude on his own. This is exactly what Cruz expected and hoped for, because he couldn’t go out and attack Carson.

The numbers on who Iowa Republicans consider ready to be commander-in-chief are off the charts for Cruz. He’s at 67 percent ready and 15 percent not ready, solidly ahead of anyone else and particularly Ben Carson, at 43–38. Of course, it’s still early and Trump is still ahead.

This weekend Cruz will seek to solidify the support of evangelical voters in Iowa, and more key endorsements could be coming his way that would do just that. Cruz appears to be executing his campaign plan more precisely than anyone else in the race, and while that doesn’t ensure ultimate victory, it likely does mean he will be one of the final handful of candidates fighting for the nomination.