In recent weeks, Ben Carson has supplanted Donald Trump as the frontrunner in Iowa. Trump, who held the top spot in public polling since Scott Walker’s precipitous fall in early August, began to lash out at Carson this week.
Moreover, he practically begged Iowa Republicans to support him. The usual Trump-being-Trump arguments aside, does he really have a leg to stand on when it comes to these demands? Can he make Iowans do his bidding and return him to the lead?
According to our latest Trendency Research data, the answer is no. Barring a seismic shift in the narrative, perhaps from the CNBC debate, Trump simply has a lower ceiling of voters to work with than does Carson. This isn’t a new phenomenon either, he has had this problem ever since we began looking at the state back in the middle of the summer.
In fact, Trump’s Rejection Index stood at 74.5 percent in early October, which means he would be unlikely to get more than 25.5 percent support if the caucuses were held then. Carson, on the other hand, while still down in the public polls, held a Rejection Index of 68.1 percent. Looking at the Trendency data from this week, Carson’s potential for support has only widened over Trump —and the rest of the field. The former surgeon’s ceiling of support now stands at 34 percent, while Trump is down to 24.5 percent, almost a 10-point gap.
Obviously, this isn’t the high level of support that you would normally like to see if you were hoping to win an election, but with so many candidates running for the Republican nomination, 30-to-35 percent support can, and likely will win many primaries this cycle.
But while Carson has more potential support to work with, Trump still remains quite strong with Iowa voters as compared the rest of the field. When looking at those voters who are very strong supporters of a candidate at the 90 Threshold (for an explanation of Thresholds, refer to our earlier articles), Carson and Trump tie with 36 percent of the vote.
When we move further down the spectrum of voters to include those with lower levels of support for a candidate and more volatility in their support, Carson’s lead slowly increases but isn’t overwhelming. At the 75 Threshold Carson leads Trump by 3 points, at the 50 Threshold the advantage increases to 4 points, and it isn’t until the 25 Threshold that Carson jumps to a 6-point advantage at 29-23 percent.
While Trump continues to bring in strong numbers in Iowa at the top of our Threshold scale, unless he can correct the widening gap between him and Carson in the rejection index, he’ll face a mathematical problem on Caucus Day. His supporters might be more dedicated, but a strong 25 percent is still going to lose to a weak 30 percent.
Now, with lower threshold voters it’s Jeb Bush who comes in 3rd with 14 percent of the vote. This vote tally doesn’t include any post-debate data, so we shall see how Bush’s performance, and subsequent bad news cycle after the debate, affects these numbers. But when examining his overall situation pre-debate, we see Bush’s support is shallow even though he sat in third. At the 90 Threshold, he only receives 9 percent of the vote — far behind the 36-percent totals for Carson and Trump. There’s currently little enthusiasm for Jeb! in Iowa. Those voters who do currently support him are just as likely to switch their allegiance as they are to stick with him.
To make matters worse, Bush’s Rejection Index stands at 85 percent, meaning that he’s already at his ceiling of support at about 15 percent. At that level, there’s little room for him to grow.
It’s tough to argue that the debate will help him. That being said, the former governor still has plenty of money in the bank. If he focuses squarely on the early states, he still has the potential to make these races interesting. Still, New Hampshire seems like a better bet than Iowa for Bush.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.