By David Byler – – – –
Despite enormous polling data, nobody knows how the Iowa caucuses are going to turn out. Donald Trump might excite a massive group of new voters and sweep the contest. He might eke out a win with traditional caucus-goers plus a few newcomers, or he could fail to turn out his supporters and lose to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (or, possibly, a surprise victor from the rest of the field). Recent polls show Trump with a significant advantage, but primaries are volatile and Cruz could still pull out a win.
Despite these uncertainties, we can get clues about what the leading candidates’ coalitions might look like. By examining demographic data, polling and past caucus results we can make some inferences about where Trump, Cruz and Marco Rubio are likely to perform best – and how their Iowa coalitions hint at their strategies beyond the Hawkeye State.
Rubio: Mitt Romney 3.0
Marco Rubio isn’t a particularly good fit for Iowa. In most polls, he doesn’t have very strong support from evangelical Christians, Tea Party conservatives or voters who say they’re philosophically “very conservative” – three large, overlapping parts of the traditional Iowa GOP caucus electorate. He often performs better with voters who say they’re “moderate” or don’t describe themselves as evangelicals or members of the Tea Party. This suggests that Rubio would do better in areas of the state where those voters are fewer.
The map on top shows a partisanship index based on the 2012 presidential election results. Computing the index was fairly simple – I just subtracted the statewide two-party Republican share of the vote from the two-party Republican share of each county’s vote. That shows which counties lean toward each party while controlling for the effect of President Obama’s six-point 2012 win in the state. Interestingly, the partisan divide reflects some of the economic divides within Iowa. The western regions that rely more heavily on livestock and agricultureleaned toward Romney, while some of the more urbanized, less agricultural regions in the east lean toward Obama.
The middle map shows what percentage of the state’s overall turnout in the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses came from each county. The large circles in the central and eastern part of the state correspond to Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport – some of the most populous areas.
And the bottom map shows what percentage of each county’s population was evangelical as of 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. The concentration of evangelicals generally rises as you move west, and the concentration of (primarily German) Catholics has a roughly opposite pattern – increasing sharply near the eastern border of the state.
All of this adds up to a potential Rubio advantage around Des Moines and eastern Iowa. Republicans in Democratic areas are often more moderate than Republicans in conservative areas, and the concentration of evangelicals is lower in the east – playing to some of Rubio’s strengths.
There’s a precedent for this pattern of support – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney, like Rubio, performed well in Iowa with non-evangelicals and moderates in both 2008 and 2012.
This map shows the “Romney lean” of a county – Romney’s percentage of the vote in a given county compared to his overall statewide performance. Romney outperformed his statewide average in the eastern part of the state and Des Moines – two areas where Rubio might also do well. And while Romney didn’t win the Hawkeye State in either 2008 or 2012, his more moderate support helped him in New Hampshire and less conservative, less evangelical states down the line.
Cruz: Gary Bauer Meets Ron Paul
Cruz led the polls in Iowa for part of the past month, and he has a shot at winning on Monday night. He explicitly appeals to evangelicals, so he’s often compared to socially conservative Christian candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively. But that comparison is flawed. Santorum and Huckabee were economic populists, and Cruz got a 92 percent on his 2014 scorecard from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.
Cruz’s path to victory might look something like Rick Santorum meets Ron Paul – a combination of religious conservatives and libertarians.
The map on the left-hand side shows the counties where Santorum performed better and worse than his statewide share of the vote. He handily won the very conservative northwest corner of the state, and like Mike Huckabee he overperformed in the south-central and north-central areas of the state while underperforming in some of the eastern areas and cities.
Santorum’s support correlated surprisingly strongly with that of Gary Bauer. The former head of the conservative Christian lobbying group The Family Research Council ran on a socially conservative platform in the 2000 Republican primary. Bauer wasn’t nearly as successful as Santorum (he only won 8 percent of the vote in Iowa), but the outlines of their support were similar – suggesting the Santorum (or Bauer) map shows where the religious right is strongest.
The map on the right-hand side shows the counties where former Texas Rep. (and libertarian favorite) Ron Paul outperformed and underperformed his statewide share of the vote in 2012. Paul’s coalition was mostly in the eastern part of the state, with especially strong showings in some of the northeastern and southeastern counties.
Cruz isn’t a perfect libertarian candidate, but he clearly wants to grab some of Paul’s support. While Cruz likely won’t do well with the foreign policy doves who favored Paul (I doubt noninterventionists want to learn if sand can “glow”), he’s likely banking on winning some of the philosophical libertarians who helped Paul get to 21.5 percent in the state in 2012.
If the Texas lawmaker successfully puts these groups together and pulls out a win, he’ll be set up well to compete in South Carolina and beyond. He has a strong organization outside the state, and it’s easy to see how he could become the philosophically conservative standard-bearer. But Cruz is now behind in Iowa, and he has a lot to lose. If he can’t win this heavily evangelical, very conservative state, his candidacy will take a serious – possibly fatal – hit.
Trump: Unclear but Fascinating
I have no idea how to map out a Trump win in Iowa. His support cuts across many of the traditional demographic and ideological lines – he’s able to battle with Cruz for very conservative and evangelical voters while still besting Rubio with self-described moderates. Trump’s core is white, blue-collar men, but in most polls he shows significant strength beyond that group.
It’s also hard to know how increased turnout will shift the map. Trump has a huge advantage among voters who usually don’t turn out in primaries and caucuses, and it’s impossible to know ahead of time how many of them he’ll mobilize. Moreover, it’s hard to know exactly where in the state these new voters would come from.
But Trump’s candidacy does represent an important natural experiment in psephology. Trump looks like the most successful economic-populist/secular-but-socially-conservative candidate in decades. Looking at the areas where Trump does best will help us figure out who his constituents are, where they live and where he might perform best in future contests.