Will Trump stumble just as race hots up?

Long road: Donald Trump has lured first-time and less-educated voters to the polls, but he will have to ?replicate this in other primaries to have a shot at the Republican nomination. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Long road: Donald Trump has lured first-time and less-educated voters to the polls, but he will have to ?replicate this in other primaries to have a shot at the Republican nomination. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Throughout the second half of 2015, United States presidential candidate Donald Trump embraced his Republican front-runner status: belittling his opponents with incendiary insults and selectively trolled poll data, while demonstrating a need for near-complete control and an aversion for policy engagement. This is a man whose entire edifice – professional and political – is premised on #WINNING! Except that in Iowa he came second.

Like a teetering Atlantic City casino, could the Iowa caucuses signal the beginning of the end for Trump’s insurgent primary contest? In a seething, anti-establishment field with ascendant Republican turnout, who would stand to gain most?  

Poll data collated by Edison Media Research and published by various outlets paints a troubling picture of Trump’s Iowa base as he looks to build momentum towards New Hampshire and, ultimately, the Grand Old Party (GOP) convention in Cleveland.

Trump, somewhat infamously, eschewed the traditional flesh-pressing of Iowa campaigning, foregoing the intimacy of lowly town hall meetings littered with question-and-answer sessions and policy detail in favour of rambunctious, carefully choreographed rallies.

At the intersection of Trump’s messaging, rallying and social media presence exists a near-millennarian fervour: all hail the outsider with no experience of government or elected office (all the better), who sees it for what it is and calls the issues, and his opponents, for what they are.

Trump has energised marginal, extreme and bigoted constituencies in the Republican base, while concurrently mobilising would-be voters who have never participated in the primary contest before.

“The Donald” won a plurality of first-time, irreligious and comparatively less-educated caucus-goers, a difficult set of constituencies to corral and augment in the absence of detailed policy, except – perhaps – through a combination of anger, momentum and a sense of inevitability.

In the absence of a substantive campaign, the problem with winning most first-time voters – and sustaining support from fickle and extreme constituencies – is that your continued presence at or near the top of the results table necessarily depends on the reproduction of equivalent groups across all primary contests. Fellow contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, on the other hand, refined the Iowa playbook with sophisticated ground games.

  The quality of Cruz’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign – bizarrely dubbed Project Oorlog by his campaign, apparently because the Afrikaans word for “war” looked the coolest – is evident in the majorities he won across all age groups, self-identifying Republicans, evangelicals and experienced caucus-goers, whereas the nuance of Rubio’s stump message is reflected in his wooing of those caucus-goers who only decided who to support in the week prior to polls opening.

A week, so they say, is a long time in politics. The morning after Iowa, former Democratic congressman John Dingell ruefully tweeted: “Third is the new first. Second is the new last. And first is the same old crazy.”

Although Iowan Republican caucus-goers have famously backed winning losers in the past (including evangelical Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Catholic fundamentalist Rick Santorum in 2012), Trump, sandwiched between a sophisticated anti-establishment winner whom he was projected to defeat (Cruz) and a resurgent establishment candidate (Rubio), will have the most to prove – and potentially lose – in the coming days and weeks.

Trump is still best positioned to win in New Hampshire, but perhaps in diminished form. Rubio will be squeezed hard by the establishment minnows (Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush) in New Hampshire, but appears to be pulling ahead of their scrum.

To avoid unfavourable comparisons with Huckabee and Santorum, Cruz will need a strong short-term showing. But if he plays his hand cleverly, opinion data suggests he is best positioned to benefit from any political refugees fleeing the Ben Carson and Trump camps.

With record turnout on the Republican side of the Iowa ballot, almost 70% of GOP caucus-goers supported anti-establishment candidates. The Republican base is incandescent at the perceived indignities of Barack Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office, executive overreach and the quagmire of Washington, and – at least superficially – appear remarkably mobilised.

It’s still a race for an anti-establishment candidate to lose. If Trump doesn’t continue to win, or, more accurately, WIN! TREMENDOUSLY!, the sheen of energy and possibility surrounding his candidacy is likely to dissipate and, like his Taj Mahal casino, all that will be left will be glittering hubris masking bankruptcy.

  Jonathan Faull is an independent political and policy analyst based in Washington, DC

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