With all due respect to the general election and the Democratic primary, the most interesting presidential votes will be the ones cast in the Republican primary. Iowa is once again one of the critical states to help decide the nomination. The early primary/caucus states are important because about half of the media coverage for the primary season is completed by the end of the New Hampshire primary. Iowa's caucus is bizarre to say the least but we're going to look at the past Iowa caucuses to see what we can learn for the 2016 caucus.
For all of the early primaries and caucuses that we'll be looking at, we will be dividing the Republican Party into several categories based somewhat on policy ideas but mainly the divisions are more about style than substance (but that's the subject of a bloggie for a different day). For this bloggie, we are going to look at the Religious Right and social conservatives in Iowa.
The Religious Right and social conservatives
The Religious Right and social conservatives hold a lot of power in Iowa for the caucus which in turn means that they hold a lot of power for the nomination of the President. It's hard to separate out the true social conservatives from those who would identify with the Religious Right. There's not a substantial difference between the two in terms of politics but the Religious Right believe that God or their particular religion should hold more sway in politics and life, in general. Social conservativs believe that we should return to traditional mores and values with regards to our political structure and life, in general. In terms of policy, they both believe that same-sex marriage should not be legal, that abortions should be more difficult to get, etc.
In Iowa, the Religious Right candidate has received about 25-30% of the vote since 1976 and has not finished below second. In the last two Iowa caucuses, the Religious Right candidate won the caucus, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. They both outperformed the rest of their results during the rest of the primaries.
So far for 2016 there are three candidates who appeal to the social conservatives and those on the Religious Right. They are the previous two Iowa caucus winners, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. The third candidate is neurosurgeon turned conservative commentator Ben Carson. Huckabee has been by far the most successful candidate in Iowa and looks to continue that trend. Let's look at the numbers:
The Real Clear Politics (RCP) average for the Iowa polls has Huckabee first in this tier averaging support at 12% (only behind Scott Walker and Jeb Bush). Carson is second at 9% and Santorum is third at 4%. Santorum has been hemorrhaging support since his highest mark in July of 2013, relatively fresh off of his victory in 2012. If you look at the averages, these three candidates' support is equal to 25%. With about 9-10% undecided in the averages, it's well within the range of what the typical support is for these type of candidates.
Huckabee's support could potentially be even higher. Public Policy Polling (PPP) had a recent national poll for Republican primary voters. In that poll, they ask the primary voters who their second choice would be for the primary. In that poll, 24% of Ben Carson supporters name Huckabee as their 2nd choice. 17% of Ted Cruz supporters name Huckabee as their 2nd choice. Cruz's supporters are pretty decided on who they would vote for in the case that Cruz is out of the primary, only 2% are not sure. Carson, surprisingly, does well with Cruz supporters as 20% of them name Carson as their 2nd choice. Carson partisans are not so well set up with their 2nd choice as 20% of them are not sure who their second choice would be.
Is there potentially another candidate who could siphon off votes from the Religious Right to help form a coalition to victory? The most likely choices are almost complete opposites. On one hand, you have the maverick Cruz and the other is the establishment's establishment choice Jeb Bush. Bush is second in RCP's polling averages at almost 13%. Bush is the second choice of 31% of Huckabee's supporters but only 5% of Carson's. If Huckabee falters in Iowa, Bush might be able to steal some support.
Meanwhile, Cruz is clearly trying to win over the Religious Right. His first advertisement of the 2016 campaign featured his faith as the theme and numerous people praying. This will consistently be a part of Cruz's message in both Iowa and South Carolina. He will look to steal some support from the other candidates who voters view as outsiders, Carson and to an extent Carly Florina. Running as an outsider, even though he is a Senator will be interesting. He will have even greater support among the TEA Party supporters. According to the same national poll by PPP, nearly 25% of Republican primary voters identify as members of the TEA Party. Cruz is the first choice of 26% of TEA Party supporters and the second choice for 26% of TEA Party supporters. TEA Party supporters have tended to support outside candidates (15%) for Carson and are not fans of who they view as moderate insiders, Chris Christie (0%). Cruz is the second choice of 18% Carson partisans and 8% of Huckabee supporters.
It's dangerous to infer too much based off of one poll. Cruz has clearly indicated that he is going to go after the Religious Right and other social conservatives in the early primary/caucus states. The strategy here is completely sound. They make up almost a plurality of the Iowa caucus voters. Cruz is not going to be able to win by reaching to just the TEA Party voters or those who want to vote for an outsider. In order to win Iowa and other states, he will have to put together a coalition. The Religious Right and social conservative voters could be up for grabs, especially since the second candidate expected to split this portion of the electorate is a political outsider who has never run for office.