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What If Ted Cruz Wins Iowa?

In this week’s 2016 Slack chat, we unpack the potential paths leading out of Iowa, depending on who wins there. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, deputy editor, politics): A Monmouth survey came out yesterday showing Ted Cruz leading in Iowa — the first poll to show Cruz atop the GOP heap there. And overall, Cruz has crept into second place in the RealClearPolitics Iowa aggregate. So let’s break down the current state of play in Iowa and New Hampshire. To get us going: What happens if Cruz wins Iowa? Let’s say the Monmouth survey is dead on, and Cruz finishes first, Donald Trump second, Marco Rubio third and Ben Carson fourth. How do the dominoes fall?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): First off, I think the Monmouth poll is a very good sign for Cruz. I’ve written about Cruz’s potential strength before, and a win in Iowa would put him on the national map. Further, unlike past Iowa winners such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Cruz’s numbers in New Hampshire are not terrible relative to the non-Trump candidates. It’s conceivable that Cruz could launch out of Iowa and not get tripped up in New Hampshire.

micah: He could win New Hampshire? He’s not really the type of candidate that typically wins New Hampshire, though, right?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): The tricky thing is that the bounce a candidate gets out of Iowa depends as much on the media’s expectations as how well he or she performs in an absolute sense. So, hypothetically, if Cruz is polling at 33 percent by the time we get to the caucuses, and he wins Iowa but with 23 percent of the vote instead, he might not get much of a bounce.

Leaving that aside, I don’t think a win in New Hampshire would be completely off the table for Cruz.

harry: I’d point to our five-ring circus that shows Cruz sitting on the overlap of the tea-party and Christian-conservative wings of the party:


As opposed to some past Iowa winners, like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who were more exclusively Christian conservative candidates.

natesilver: Yeah. There are plenty of tea party voters up in New Hampshire. It’s definitely not a good state for outright evangelical candidates, but Cruz is more than that and has more than a little bit of Pat Buchanan in him too.

micah: Cruz sounds pretty formidable according to you two.

harry: Well, it depends on Iowa.

micah: Does Cruz NEED Iowa?

natesilver: I don’t think Cruz wins New Hampshire if he doesn’t win Iowa. It’s certainly possible that Cruz wins Iowa, someone else wins New Hampshire, and then he comes back to win the nomination later in the race. Still, that’s contingent on him winning Iowa. So my answer is “yes,” to a first approximation.

harry: And further, it’s quite possible that Cruz wins Iowa and not New Hampshire. Say we have a close finish between Cruz and a rising Rubio in Iowa, then Rubio could easily win New Hampshire. Or if Chris Christie, whose favorable ratings have been climbing in Iowa, does better than expected even if he doesn’t finish in the top two, then he could win in New Hampshire.

micah: Harry is basically working for the Christie campaign at this point.

natesilver: To me, there are four basic cases in Iowa: Cruz wins, Trump wins, Rubio wins, and Carson/Huckabee/Santorum wins.

Likewise, there are four basic cases in New Hampshire: Cruz wins, Trump wins, Rubio wins, and Christie/Bush/Kasich wins.

Which would yield 16 possible scenarios, except some are implausible — I highly doubt that Rubio wins Iowa but Cruz wins New Hampshire, for instance.

micah: Yeah, and the reactions to Trump’s proposed ban of all Muslim immigrants and tourists really threw into relief who’s making a play in Iowa vs. New Hampshire. Christie/Bush/Kasich hit Trump much harder than Carson/Huckabee/Santorum.

Alright, let’s take the next scenario: Trump wins Iowa.

natesilver: BOOM!

micah: Who is that worse for? (Besides Nate.)

natesilver: DOOM! Seriously though, we’ve been saying for months that Trump could win Iowa or another early state. What we’ve said is that he’s quite unlikely to win the nomination. And he’d still probably be an underdog conditional on winning Iowa, although that depends on a lot of things.

What’s clear, though, is that if Trump gets a lot of people to turn up for him and vote in Iowa, that’s an epistemological game changer.

micah: That should be the name of your next book, Nate: “Epistemological Game Change.”

natesilver: Right now, there’s some reason to wonder about what Trump’s standing in the polls really means. Is it just drive-by voters gawking at the accident? Is it people recalling his name because he’s the only candidate they’re hearing about? Is it “unlikely voters” who will not turn out to vote in the primary or caucus? Or is it actual, genuine popularity that translates into votes? The media has tended to presume the latter — support in the polls is equivalent to votes — and has done an insufficient job of exploring alternative hypotheses, in my view.

But if Trump actually does get lots of people to vote for him — especially if he’s up toward say 30-35 percent of the vote instead of 20-25 percent — that changes a lot.

He’d still have some major hurdles to overcome. Other candidates will probably gain more as the field is winnowed. And the party will be doing everything in its power to stop him. But it’s a different ballgame at that point.

micah: OK, back to my question: Who is Trump winning in Iowa worse for?

harry: I think it’s Chris Christie.

micah: Explain.

harry: Well, I think Trump pulls from a similar moderate, macho-guy vote.

natesilver: Harry, you seem to be living in a fantasyland where Christie is a leading candidate. He’s got a shot, but it’s a bankshot.

micah: It’s a bank off a Trump collapse in Iowa, right?

harry: Well, who do YOU think it’s worse for? You got fingers. You got a computer. Speak, my young sir. Speak!

natesilver: Well, it depends on how the candidates line up behind Trump.

If it’s like Trump 30, Cruz 20, Carson 15, Rubio 8, that creates a huge opening for someone to emerge as the Great Establishment Hope. Which could be Christie, for all we know.

harry: One could also argue, Nate, that such a finish could demonstrate that the best the establishment can hope for is a candidate not named Trump. Therefore, there’s a rally around Cruz.

natesilver: But here we get back to how Cruz performs relative to expectations. And my guess is that those expectations will be fairly high. I doubt that Monmouth will be the last poll to show him ahead in Iowa. The narrative that comes out of Trump 30, Cruz 20, Carson 15, Rubio 8 is probably HOLY SHIT THE ESTABLISHMENT REALLY IS IN DISARRAY!!!!! Whether the establishment resigns itself to Cruz at that point or looks to Christie or Bush or Kasich instead, or starts stalking Mitt Romney, or even sticks with Rubio for want of alternatives, is hard to say.

micah: Next, let’s consider a more establishment-friendly eventuality: Rubio wins Iowa. Let’s say Cruz finishes second and Trump third.

natesilver: Then Rubio’s probably the nominee, and all of the fuss over the past six months will look pretty silly.

harry: And then Rubio will sweep the field. This is 2004 Democratic primary all over again.

micah: I think you’re both too confident in that. New Hampshire can get quite contrarian; let’s say Rubio wins Iowa, then Kasich/Christie/Jeb wins New Hampshire.

natesilver: Well, first, Kasich or Christie would have to make a lot of gains in the New Hampshire polls between now and February. Right now, they’re actually a pinch behind Rubio in New Hampshire, and he’s only going to gain ground if he wins Iowa.

micah: Well, I DO expect the polls to change a lot between now and February

natesilver: Sure, I do too. But that could put you in a GOP 2000 scenario. Rubio, the establishment-backed front-runner, wins Iowa. Christie — or whoever plays the role of John McCain — wins New Hampshire and a few liberal states. But it shapes up to be Rubio’s nomination.

harry: Let me also add that in 2000, George W. Bush had led in Iowa for a VERY long time. If anything, Steve Forbes outperformed and Bush underperformed in Iowa. Also, McCain led in the New Hampshire polls. And Bush still went on to win the whole thing with some ease.

micah: Yeah, Rubio would have to win Iowa but miss expectations.

natesilver: I’m not sure there’s enough room to the left of Rubio for someone like Christie in a world where Rubio looks formidable coming out of Iowa. I know that Rubio is a really conservative guy, but the GOP is a really conservative party. There are enough votes for someone like Christie in New Hampshire, but not nationally. Instead, they need Rubio to disappoint so the establishment starts casting about for alternatives.

harry: Right. I think there’s a consistency here: It’s almost as much about expectations as it is about the actual result in Iowa.

micah: OK, a final, catch-all scenario:

What if Carson/Huckabee/Santorum wins Iowa? Does that make you re-evaluate those candidates? Or does it make you think Iowa will be a one-off, sort of like it was when Huckabee won in it in 2008?

harry: I think this is the best scenario for Christie.

micah: CHRISTIE!

harry: It’s a total reset and none of those candidates you mentioned could carry New Hampshire.

natesilver: I think, given the history of how Huckabee and Santorum didn’t make all that much out of their Iowa wins, the media would tend to treat Iowa as a mulligan. Or not a mulligan exactly, but I think they’d look a lot at the second-place finisher. A finish like Carson-Rubio-Cruz-Trump is a pretty good outcome for Rubio, for instance.

The exception is that I don’t think Trump would get a lot of credit for finishing in second place, given the expectations he’s set for himself.

harry: It wasn’t for Mitt Romney in 2008: Finishing second in Iowa didn’t work. I think the question is where the polls are at the beginning of January. That probably gives us a good idea of what the expectations will eventually be for Feb. 1.

micah: To close: To win the nomination, do you have to win either Iowa or New Hampshire?

natesilver: The short answer is “no.” The medium-length answer is “yes, unless you’re the establishment’s leading hope despite not winning either state.” Usually, some candidate who’s acceptable to party elites wins Iowa or New Hampshire, if not both — and then the party consolidates around him and makes his path easier. Other party-backed alternatives drop out, meanwhile. But if, say, Carson wins Iowa and Trump wins New Hampshire, the party certainly isn’t going to give up the fight.

harry: Right. Remember Bill Clinton didn’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire in 1992. That’s because Iowa was won by Tom Harkin, who was from there. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire. The party just waited for Clinton to win a Southern primary, and he was off to the races. If any one of the “acceptable” candidates wins Iowa or New Hampshire, then you have to win there to win. If only “unacceptable” candidates like Carson or Trump win there, then the eventual nominee doesn’t have to win Iowa or New Hampshire.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.