Yes, I know: There’s an incredibly handsome orange-haired man from Queens sitting atop the polls. Donald Trump has a serious chance of winning the Republican nomination — not words I’d have expected myself to be writing six months ago.1 Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, however, still have a shot to knock Trump off his pedestal. Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie might have a chance too, although they’ll need a lot of things to break right for them.
The dominoes will begin falling after the Iowa caucuses Monday night. It seems to me there are four basic narratives that could emerge from the state. (By “narratives,” I mean how the media, Republican party elites and the other candidates will interpret the results. Be warned: How the media responds is sometimes way more predictable than how voters do.) They depend, respectively, on whether Trump beats Cruz and on how well Rubio does.
About Rubio: What it means to perform “well” is obviously a little subjective, but how a candidate does relative to his polls is usually a pretty good guide to the spin that eventually emerges. Recent Iowa polls have Rubio in third place, with a vote share in the mid-teens. If Rubio finishes in the low teens or worse, his performance is likely to be regarded as disappointing (he’ll also be at risk of falling behind Ben Carson or another candidate into fourth place). If he’s in the high teens or better, he’ll probably be regarded as having momentum, especially if he slips into second place. Our models also think there’s an outside chance — 7 percent to 10 percent, depending on which version you look at — for Rubio to win Iowa. That’s mostly out of an abundance of caution: Iowa polls are sometimes wildly off the mark.2 The scenarios below contemplate Rubio finishing in second or a strong third place, but not winning. Of course, there could be even crazier outcomes still — our models give Carson around a 1-in-100 chance of winning Iowa, for example — but the four cases we describe below are the ones we take to be most likely.
Road No. 1: Trump beats Cruz, and Rubio does well
This seems to be the result the cognoscenti are expecting. Betting markets give Trump a 2-in-3 chance to win Iowa; our models now have him favored too, although not by as clear a margin as the markets. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of talk, with some justification, that Rubio has “momentum” going into the caucuses.
No matter what happens, the first headlines that emerge from Iowa are likely to be about Trump. Depending on exactly how well Rubio does, however, the conventional wisdom could congeal into anticipating a two-man race between Trump and Rubio. Perhaps that’s the matchup Republicans deserve. Rubio and Trump offer the two clearest visions for what the Republican Party’s future might look like: a forward-looking but emphatically conservative party in Rubio’s case, a populist-leaning and perhaps radically changed one in Trump’s.
It’s also the matchup that Republican “party elites” seem to want. By mounting an anti-Cruz campaign in Iowa, they were necessarily helping Trump, perhaps on the theory that another candidate could emerge to defeat Trump later on. If Rubio performed well in Iowa, he’d look like that candidate, giving party elites as good an outcome as they had any right to expect.
The big caveat is that this was possibly an idiotic strategy to begin with; it’s nearly impossible to control either Trump or the media narrative surrounding him, and it might be even harder after a big win in Iowa. We’d want to look for active signs of party leaders moving toward Rubio — in the form of endorsements and explicit pressure on candidates like Bush to drop out of the race. If Republican bigwigs just sit passively golf-clapping the result instead, the Trump whirlwind could sweep the news about Rubio’s vaguely good finish off the front pages.
Road No. 2: Trump beats Cruz, and Rubio does poorly
Get your Drudge Sirens ready. If Trump not only wins but blows out the competition, with both Cruz and “savior” Rubio flopping, Monday will be one of the most famous days in American political history.3 Although there might be some hope of anointing a new savior in New Hampshire — Bush, Kasich or Christie — other party elites might begin to capitulate toward Trump, as is already happening to some degree.
Could Trump get off to an extremely strong start, winning the first several states along with most of those in the “SEC Primary” on March 1, only to fail later on? Well, perhaps. The GOP calendar backloads a lot of winner-take-all or winner-take-most primaries in blue and purple states into April and beyond, so Trump could emerge with huge amounts of momentum but not be anywhere close to mathematically clinching the nomination. To some extent, we’d be in uncharted territory, since a Trump-like candidate has never gotten off to such a strong start before. But for Trump to lose, someone would have to beat him, and if both Cruz and Rubio blew their chances, it’s hard to know which candidate that would be. In my view, it would be safe to say that Trump had become the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, but where he’d fall on the spectrum between 51 percent and 99 percent I’m not sure.
You might notice I’ve pulled a little trick there, however, presuming a “blowout win” for Trump when that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. Suppose Rubio did badly, but Trump only narrowly beat Cruz. Would that make a difference? My guess is that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference — a Trump win is a Trump win — unless the vote were so close that (as in 2012) the outcome was uncertain well after midnight.
But this is one of the trickier cases. Cruz’s campaign would point toward how it had beaten expectations despite “the establishment” having stacked the deck against it. Which would be a pretty reasonable argument! But that doesn’t mean that Republican elites, having registered their discomfort with Cruz, would be receptive to it.
Road No. 3: Cruz beats Trump, and Rubio does poorly
If Cruz beats Trump, however, Cruz will look Teflon, and the Republican elites who tried to stop him will seem feckless. Also, since the conventional wisdom no longer anticipates a Cruz win in Iowa, it will be more surprising and possibly produce a bigger Cruz bounce. Furthermore, suppose that Rubio has a poor night. This is the nightmare case for Republicans who were hoping to stop Cruz.
It would also make New Hampshire really interesting. Trump begins with a fairly large lead there, and Cruz is not a good fit for the state. So even a fairly large bounce for Cruz (and an erosion in Trump’s support) could leave both candidates stuck in the high teens or low 20s, not necessarily enough to win. It’s possible that someone like Kasich or Bush could emerge under those circumstances.
We’d also want to look for signs of whether Cruz’s win in Iowa was an indication of Cruz’s strength or Trump’s weakness. If it seemed to be a result of Trump’s failed ground game, maybe that wouldn’t be as much of a problem for Trump in New Hampshire and other primary states, where the barriers to participation are less than in a caucus. Nonetheless, Trump would be — for the first time all campaign — a loser. To the extent his support is partly based on a bandwagon effect, it would be seriously tested.
Road No. 4: Cruz beats Trump, and Rubio does well
If both Cruz and Rubio have strong nights in Iowa, however, the meaning is clearer: Trump didn’t live up to the hype. There would be questions about whether Trump’s support in polls was a mirage to begin with, whether it had collapsed at the last minute because of voter dissatisfaction with his having skipped the Republican debate, or whether his lack of a turnout operation had foiled him. Those questions would be important for determining whether Trump had a chance to recover in New Hampshire. But in terms of the media narrative, they’d all be variations on the theme that Trump had gone bust.
In some ways, the Republican primary might even start to look fairly conventional. An “outsider” candidate with evangelical support would have won Iowa. A couple of “insider” candidates would be looking to emerge out of New Hampshire, with Rubio having a leg up because of his strong Iowa showing. Trump wouldn’t necessarily disappear — the media will keep writing him into the plot so long as he is willing — but it might be as more of a Newt Gingrich-esque sideshow, a candidate who wins a few states here and there but has little chance of commanding a majority. If we enter Iowa in a Trumpnado and exit it with what seems to be a fairly normal Republican race, that might be the biggest surprise of all.
Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.