A crescendo of activity unfolds in the final days before the Iowa caucus. The media descends on Des Moines. Candidates and their surrogates rush from event to event. Meanwhile, multiple public surveys are released, while dozens more are conducted internally by the campaigns and their Super PACS.
The data from each will be parsed and dissected. Turnout projections will be analyzed and disputed. Predictions will fly in from all sides, some right, many wrong. And then on Monday night or perhaps Tuesday morning we’ll know who won, who surprised, and who failed to meet expectations.
At Trendency Research, we’ve been continuously surveying Iowa voters since September, and thought it would be useful to take a step back and look at the totality of the data and lessons that can be taken away from this unusual nomination fight.
Donald Trump’s voters are consistently fanatical in their support for their candidate.
Since we first looked at the Iowa Republican race, Trump has enjoyed a core set of supporters at high Thresholds that other candidates have either lacked or failed to maintain.
In case you missed our previous articles, or need a refresher, Trendency Research doesn’t ask for binary responses to questions. Instead, we allow users to allocate their choice of candidate on a sliding scale. They can apportion all their support to one person, or divide it among several if they haven’t made up their mind.
In the analysis, Trendency utilizes Threshold Analysis to separate strong supporters from weak. Voters at higher Thresholds are more likely to cast a ballot for that candidate and less likely to switch their allegiance. As you move to lower Thresholds, voters begin to divide their support among more candidates who they may or may not end up voting for.
From the very beginning, Trump has led (or shared the lead) in our surveys at higher Thresholds. In October, he could count on 35 percent of the vote from those at the 90 Threshold and 33 percent support at the 75 Threshold. In our latest look at the race this week, he has almost the same level of support (35 percent at the 90 Threshold and 36 percent at the 75 Threshold).
This high vote share among strong and stable supporters is actually down slightly from his peak in December, when he was the candidate of choice for well over 40 percent of Iowa voters at higher Thresholds. Nonetheless, Trump’s core constituency seems to have settled back to where it started having moved little since our last look at the state two weeks ago.
Does this foretell a Trump victory? Not necessarily. The odds are certainly in his favor and if he did worse than a close second it would be a surprise, but there are question marks surrounding Trump supporters’ willingness to actually show up and caucus.
That being said it is remarkable the degree to which voters have stayed loyal to Trump throughout a controversial and unpredictable last few months. Moreover, we see nothing in the data to point to his supporters not coming out on Tuesday. Other candidates should be envious of this consistency.
Not every candidate can be Trump.
While Trump has hit a nerve with a large segment of Republican primary voters, other candidates (namely Ben Carson) represent what many prognosticators thought Trump would be: A flash in the pan.
Back in October, Carson actually led Trump overall in our analysis. Not only that, he tied Trump with the number of supporters at the higher Thresholds and led Trump at the lower Thresholds as well. In other words, many voters in Iowa during the fall loved what they heard about Carson and strongly indicated they would end up voting for him, and many others were willing to give him a shot.
His swell of support began to waver the next month, as he lost ground among those at the 75 Thresholds and lower. Those voters who toyed with the idea of Carson were beginning to move on. At the 90 Threshold, his core supporters remained loyal.
By December, however, the mass exodus had begun, with Carson losing 50 percent of this top supporters in one month. Now, Carson’s slide has halted, but he enjoys nowhere near the support he once did.
Voters think Ted Cruz will be the nominee, but won’t necessarily vote for him.
Throughout the junior Texas senator’s rise in Iowa over the last couple of months, one issue has the potential to be a thorn in his side. A high percentage of Iowa voters believe that he will end up with the Republican nomination, but fewer are willing to cast their ballot for him.
Currently, Cruz is viewed as the second most likely candidate to win the eventual nomination (tied with Marco Rubio) behind Trump. At the same time, Cruz has never been able to break free from the pack and build a strong constituency.
This is especially true with those at the higher Thresholds, where Cruz has never been able to draw the high numbers that Trump has maintained throughout. As we stated earlier, most of the chatter has been around the likelihood of Trump’s supporters coming out, our data points to that question around Cruz’ supporters much more than the hotel magnate.
It’ll be interesting to see how this lack of core supporters affects Cruz on caucus night. Can he draw enough votes from those at lower Thresholds to match strong Trump supporters? The answer to that question may decide who wins in Iowa.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.