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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Beyond the early states, it’s the delegates, stupid

The buzz in the Republican presidential race with less than a week to go until the Iowa caucuses concerns the most recent polls showing Donald Trump having opened up a large lead in The Hawkeye State.

As an example, the latest Fox News poll indicates Trump now leads by 11 points. Last week’s CNN/ORC survey showed the same margin of separation.

Delegate mapIs it time to panic for non-Trump fans? Not exactly. As I’ve explained numerous times, holding a caucus isn’t the same as conducting a primary. Therefore, polling for a caucus quite often diverges from straight-line opinion surveys as well.

Erick Erickson of The Resurgent explains the issue. “The problem with polling Iowa is that a caucus is not a primary. With a primary, voters go to a polling booth, click the name of the candidate who they support, and leave. With a caucus, often not even in the same location as where voters go to vote in primaries, there is an hour commitment, the voter must be in the room by seven o’clock in the evening, and they must show their support rather publicly…

“We have one week to go. We will see how all the data holds up in the face of Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign. If traditional fundamentals hold, he will not come in first. But if his unorthodox campaign that defies tradition puts him in first, we may see a paradigm shift in electoral politics like we have never seen before.”

Erickson cites Iowa conservative Steve Deace in arguing the polling numbers are most likely wrong due to the massive overstatement of predicted turnout. If the pollster models are to be believed, the attendance at next Monday’s presidential caucuses would need to be significantly higher than the previous record (in 2008) and would also have to exceed the state’s record Republican primary election (for nominating candidates to state and federal offices).

Meanwhile, Republican registration is actually down from last year.

We certainly won’t know the answer to the turnout mystery until next Monday night at 7:00 p.m. CST. We won’t know the winner until later that evening – and if it’s close, it might take even longer to determine.

But as Erickson also points out in his post, Trump is setting expectations pretty high for a substantial win in Iowa. If he doesn’t get it, or if the margin is much closer than expected, people will begin to doubt the strength of his polling numbers across the board.

As I’ve said before, with a strong ground game, it’s a virtual guarantee that Ted Cruz will at least achieve his lowest expectation of one quarter of the vote. Therefore, there’s only one way to go for him.

Erickson’s right. Should Trump win big, it could very well signal a shift in our political paradigm. Poll models will need to evolve as well, to reflect potentially higher turnout from first-time voters or those who up until now haven’t bothered to actively participate politically.

But I’m guessing the end result will be extremely close rather than exposing a Donald Trump wave. Historical trends aren’t often wrong in forecasting the present – or the future. And when they are wrong, they’re not usually off by much.

So it’s not time to panic…yet. And it won’t be even if Trump wins in Iowa (see my “7 Reasons a Trump win in Iowa isn’t the end of the campaign” post).

The establishment is clueless in New Hampshire, but Ted Cruz gets it

The same mystery surrounding Trump’s supposedly huge lead in Iowa also exists in New Hampshire, where seasoned Republicans don’t have a clue what’s going on with the Trump phenomenon there.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes, “But lying just beneath the attendees' enthusiasm for the candidates was a remarkable level of confusion, frustration, and just plain bewilderment at what is going on in their state's presidential race. How is it that Donald Trump is leading his closest competitor by nearly 20 points? They wish they knew.”

York’s snapshot of the mood in New Hampshire is revealing. The Republican establishment is completely blind to the success of the Trump candidacy with reactions ranging from “I don’t believe it,” to begrudging respect for what the outsider candidate has been able to achieve with very little visible organization.

Most of the New Hampshirites York interviewed said they personally didn’t know anyone in their state who was supporting Trump. Some reasoned the polls were flat-out wrong. Others wondered whether he is operating some sort of Obama-like underground campaign through data lists and social media that shows up only in the polls.

The establishment’s ignorance would be humorous if it weren’t so serious from an electoral standpoint. It’s like they’re choosing to ignore the obvious in the face of enormous crowds at Trump events.

But it also shows the Republican elites don’t know or understand their own voters. I suspect it’s not much different than anywhere else in America, the gap between party officials and those who come to the polling places to favor their candidates.

One candidate who does appear to understand the concerns of real voters is Ted Cruz, who just wrapped-up a five-day swing through the Granite State. Some criticized Ted for spending so much time away from the political epicenter in Iowa, but there’s little doubting it was all part of Cruz’s campaign strategy.

Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard was with Cruz on one day of this New Hampshire tour and shares some observations on what he saw. “Cruz has gotten better at showing his lighter side. It no doubt helps that he repeats the same jokes, with nearly the same cadences, at every stop. Another favorite is his truism that the only difference between federal regulators and locusts is you can't use pesticide on the regulators. In Cruz's telling, a West Texas farmer once shot back, ‘Wanna bet?’”

Warren’s look at Cruz’s campaign stops that day aren’t particularly illuminating other than to suggest Cruz is comfortable meeting “ordinary” folks and responding to their concerns while also mixing in a healthy dose of policy as he goes along.

Warren also notes that Cruz’s crowds were large and patient in waiting for the candidate to arrive. The reception was enthusiastic and it’s clear Cruz enjoys a solid base of support in New Hampshire.

These are only anecdotal clues about Cruz’s popularity. The same could likely be said of just about every candidate – in terms of receptive audiences -- though the curiosity is heightened when it comes to the frontrunners.

Cruz concluded each stop with a prayer. A little wisdom from the almighty is something we all could use these days.

With days to go until Iowa, The Donald jets out of town

While Ted Cruz spent much of last week in New Hampshire, supremely self-assured frontrunner Donald Trump is heading out of Iowa this week.

I wonder if the same ones who condemned Cruz for going to New Hampshire last week (instead of focusing on Iowa) will return the favor for the always-smugly confident Trump.

Anna Palmer and Shane Goldmacher of Politico report, “He’s got a 757, and he’s flying it around the country in the final week regardless of what his rivals are doing. After barnstorming in Iowa over the weekend — he even overnighted in Sioux City — Trump has trips planned for New Hampshire on Monday and South Carolina on Wednesday, just days before the Iowa verdict is rendered.

“Trump’s confidence — or maybe overconfidence — has his campaign dreaming of an early-state sweep. ‘It gives us a mandate,’ Trump said of securing a victory in Iowa.”

“Dreaming” is a good word for it. The polls give good reason for Trump to have a warm feeling ahead of next Monday’s caucuses, but there are still voters to motivate and rivals to downplay. The candidate needs to be on the ground in order to do that.

For first-time voters especially, every moment counts in making sure their motivation lasts. That’s history talking.

The Politico journalists also highlighted Marco Rubio’s presence in Iowa, campaigning under glitzy facades and glittering lights. It’s quite a show, apparently.

But it’s clear most of the energy at this point is with Trump and Cruz, which makes it strange that The Donald is taking precious days to go to the next two early states rather than hunkering down with his Big Corn establishment allies in Iowa.

Trump prides himself on being a superior judge of people, but in this case it just looks like potentially disastrous overconfidence.

In the end, it’s the delegates, stupid

Finally today, with all the hype devoted to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, you would think the first four voting states would be the only contests that matter.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The first few states separate the wheat from the chaff in the field, but in terms of what really matters – delegates – they’re just a drop in the bucket.

Republican party rules in each state determine how the delegates are apportioned – and the bizarre method of how they’re secured could make a big difference, indeed.

Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard writes, “A candidate might therefore rack up a significant number of primary ‘wins’ without building up much of a lead in delegates. That could give the trailing candidates a strong incentive to hang around (assuming they still have enough money to campaign) in the hopes of surging when the contests largely switch to winner-take-all. The opportunity for huge delegate bounties really begins on March 15: At that point, more than half of the delegates will still be unallocated, so a late-breaking candidate could increase his delegate count quickly…

“Something like this (what happened in the Democrat race in 2008) could develop on the GOP side this year. Midwestern voters could be more important than Southern voters; voters in Democratic states or districts could be more valuable than voters in Republican states or districts; and participants in low-turnout caucuses could have more influence than primary voters. As the GOP goes about selecting its nominee, the rules will matter — perhaps a lot.”

Of course if the polls are correct, it might not matter. Donald Trump would carry significant momentum from winning a majority of the delegates in the early states and might even become “inevitable.”

But it also looks certain a “not-Trump” candidate will emerge at some point. The Donald’s favorability numbers have been steadily rising over the course of the months, but there is still a sizable bloc of Republicans who would never vote for him.

The only question remaining is who will be the chief opponent to Trump (again, assuming the polls are correct). Conventional wisdom would indicate it would be an establishment candidate. But if Trump becomes the elites’ choice… it will be Ted Cruz.

Note: Delegate map from FrontloadingHQ.

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