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50 Days to Go in Iowa: Who Can Beat Trump?

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The first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses are technically 56 days from now. But if you account for the upcoming holidays, when most Americans tune out politics in favor of yuletide cheer, there’s really 50 days to go.

And how Iowans may ultimately turn out come February 1, could very well be decided this week.

That’s because word on the street is that’s when Bob Vander Plaats and The Family Leader, the last remaining coveted endorsement of the cycle, are schedule to unveil which of the candidates they will put their considerable influence behind.

Note: for more on why Vander Plaats endorsement is so important click here.

With Iowa being a caucus state, organization is vital.

I recently wrote for CR that given the criteria he’s previously laid out, the only four candidates I believe Vander Plaats would seriously consider endorsing are (in alphabetical order): Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum. However, since neither Huckabee nor Santorum have been able to establish any campaign momentum on their own, I believe we’re really down to just Cruz and Rubio. Which means Vander Plaats is really down to Cruz and Trump.

Here’s why.

With Iowa being a caucus state, organization is vital. If a candidate is unable to build that organization, he cannot deliver on his poll numbers. This explains why over the years we’ve seen several candidates who were soaring in early public opinion surveys flame out come caucus night. Recent examples include Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Hillary Clinton (who finished third in 2008).

Heading into the final Iowa stretch, three candidates have separated themselves on the ground from the rest of the pack:

1. Ted Cruz

With what his team already had on the ground here, combined with Congressman Steve King’s unparalleled influence in GOP voter-heavy northwest Iowa, Cruz has a formidable organization in Iowa. In fact, his campaign just rented two college dormitories to house at least 500 out-of-state volunteers who have signed up to help push him across the finish line.

2. Donald Trump

Publicly, Trump’s ground team in Iowa is being coy about where they’re at organizationally, but I’ve spoken to several folks with whom they have privately shared their confidence about where they are at. There’s no doubt he’s drawing huge crowds, but what is in doubt is how many of those people are likely caucus-goers. Remember, this is not a primary, which makes voting convenient, but a caucus that works as a mini-convention. And sometimes that requires several hours of commitment, which has a tendency to whittle down turnout to the most committed. To account for that, Trump made a big splash by hiring Chuck Laudner, considered one of the best grassroots organizers in Iowa. Trump will make sure Laudner has the resources necessary to bring scores of new voters to the polls to take advantage of Iowa’s same-day registration.

3. Ben Carson

Just a month or so ago I might’ve ranked Carson’s organization tops overall, and he still has one of the best apparatuses out there. In fact it is still the envy of many. However, Carson is cratering in the polls and public perception for two reasons. Voters just don’t see him as a commander-in-chief despite their personal admiration for him, and the many foibles of his underwhelming national campaign team are starting to take their toll.

No other candidate in Iowa has an organization on the ground capable of winning the state. And regardless of what Vander Plaats/The Family Leader decide I don’t believe that will change in just 50 days.

Yes, it’s true that with Vander Plaats’ help in the final month four years ago, Santorum went from 4% to the winner’s circle. But four years ago we still had the Iowa Straw Poll we didn’t have this time, which means Santorum had to work the state building organization throughout the spring and summer. Thus, when he got that late lift from Vander Plaats, he had a statewide organization in place to capitalize on it.

The Donald will be tough to beat in Iowa as it is, and that task will be made even tougher if conservatives divide their support in the final days.

But with no straw poll this cycle most of the candidates, like Rubio, didn’t spend as much time in the state early on as they should have—miscalculating that “Iowa breaks late.” Yet another conventional wisdom that isn’t true. That happened with Santorum in 2012, but Huckabee was at or near the top of the Iowa polls in 2008 by this time. The previous two winners, George W. Bush and Bob Dole, were the establishment favorites all along.

Rubio’s campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, proved he has no idea how the caucuses work by telling the New York Times recently “more people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ then when he’s in Iowa.” Every campaign that really believed stuff like this has received a reality check on caucus night, and Rubio likely will too. Regardless of whether he gets the support of Vander Plaats/The Family Leader it’s doubtful even their documented influence can rescue Rubio organizationally these final 50 days.

Therefore, should they decide this week that Rubio is their champion, the biggest beneficiary will be Trump. The Donald will be tough to beat in Iowa as it is, and that task will be made even tougher if conservatives divide their support in the final days.

And with Trump running strong in early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina, if he wins Iowa he could very well be unbeatable for the nomination. On the other hand, at their November candidate forum Vander Plaats/The Family Leader proved their pastoral network in Iowa is very committed, when they turned out more than 1,500 activists in a blizzard.

That commitment, coupled with Cruz’s existing organization, could “trump” Trump.



 

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