Although it feels like it has been going on for nearly 250 million years, today officially kicks off the 2016 presidential primary. The first votes will be cast (but not really) in the Iowa caucuses this evening beginning at 7 pm Central. Voters will hear each candidate’s case from either the candidates themselves or their caucus chairs, then make their preference known.
Because of the personal nature of the caucus process, the results have been notoriously hard to predict by pollsters in the past. On the Republican side, all the polls have seen the recent Cruz bounce fade and return to a Trump lead, but the last few polls have the perpetual frontrunner up only +1.
In fact, of the top few Republicans, only Rubio actually has an upward trajectory in Iowa polling. He’s risen from an average of 10% to almost 17% in the last week or so, a trend that is eerily familiar.
In 2012, Rick Santorum polled in the single digits nationally for all of 2011 right up until the week before the Iowa caucuses. He would come out of nowhere to win the state on a combination of endless local campaigning, evangelical support, and a few key endorsements. Santorum went on to be the only significant challenge to Mitt Romney for the nomination, winning several other states and amassing a small share of the national delegates.
So we could be in for a Rubio surprise tonight. If so, what happens next? If the polls are right, not much. In the next primary state, New Hampshire, Trump has held a double digit lead almost since he announced his campaign. All movement among the other candidates is little more than statistical noise within the margin of error.
The story is much the same in every other early primary state (where there’s enough polling data to tell) until Texas, where local favorite and junior senator Ted Cruz holds a sizable lead.
If Trump loses tonight, and more importantly next week in New Hampshire, state and national polling as a predictor of election outcome will be effectively over. It’s been decades since a frontrunner has held as strong a lead for as long as Trump has over the last 9 months.
And if that is indeed the case, Trump is effectively over (though he won’t go quietly), and the election instantly becomes the race between Rubio and Cruz that pundits expected it to be a few months ago.
However, if Trump wins tonight, the polls will be validated, and Trump will run the board. He may lose a few states, lesser candidates may drop out to consolidate support around one or two alternatives, but unless it become a two-man race, 35-40% across the board is enough for all out victory.
And if that is indeed the case, the pain has only just begun.