No one expected Donald Trump to be seen as the potential nominee for the Republican Party in 2016, much less part of the conversation. But here we are, facing the Iowa Caucus, with a reality star and businessman leading in the early states.
However, we are also in for a reality check. The caucus will answer some big questions in this unusual – to say the least – election cycle, but it may not answer all of them.
Here are some questions that just might be answered coming out of the Republican primary:
1. Was it all media hype or is the support for Donald Trump real? Is Trump as teflon as he and everyone else thinks? In the past weeks, we’ve seen Trump claim that his supporters are so loyal that he could literally shoot someone in broad daylight and the poll trends would not change. The numbers make it hard to argue with him, but will the caucus tell the same story? There’s a slight possiblity that Trump’s entire hype train is smoke and mirrors, but we can’t count him out.
2. Were the polls right? Recently the polls have miscalled several elections, leaving voters skeptical about early predictions. If the recent Fox News polls are accurate, Trump maintains a more than 10% lead with Cruz tailing him.
3. Turnout, turnout, turnout. Who really had ground game? And do they have similar operations in New Hampshire and the SEC states? Iowa should give us a sense of how campaigning in these key states translates to success at the voting booth. Plus, a win in Iowa can mean a huge boost in voter interest for a candidate.
4. Did the winning turnout model and ground game strategy bring in new caucus goers? There has been much talk about Trump supporters not being traditional caucus goers. If he wins or not, could largely depend if he was able to bring out new caucus goers on a cold Iowa Monday night. If he is able to do so, then it will speak to growing anti-establishment feeling amongst voters.
5. Never count a Bush out. Are there shimmers of hope for Governor Jeb Bush to pull something out in the upcoming states? Yes, his polls are low and he hasn’t been as present in the media as Trump, Cruz, or Carson. We’ve seen previous candidates rise from the ashes to win the nomination, even as recent as 2008. Bush’s stability in the polls could mean voters see him as a calm in the storm – the dependable and steady candidate. It will be interesting to see how he fares and if he can get generate momentum going into New Hampshire and the March primaries.
6. Does Senator Marco Rubio get enough of a showing to give him the momentum to go into New Hampshire? In Iowa as in national polls, Rubio maintains third place behind Trump and Cruz. Republicans, especially Christians, have responded well to him in the past few weeks as he has taken on questions about faith in America without alienating constituents on either end of the spectrum. This and his well-documented political prowess could push Rubio to the forefront, but its critical he gain momentum coming out of the early states.
7. We saw earlier in the cycle that a Super PAC could not make up the difference for Governor Rick Perry, but does that theory hold true? In the end, it depends on voter turnout, and polled conservatives seem to have soured to “big money” behind their candidates. Trump’s financial independence is one of his biggest selling points. Does the Super PAC air support given to Bush help him? Do the anti-Trump Super PAC ads work?
8. Do the issues still matter? Specifically a local issue to Iowa – a corn subsidy known as Renewable Fuel Standard. Senator Ted Cruz came out against it and Trump for it. With national eyes on Iowa, will the state vote with the nation in mind or will they be divided across local lines? Or will voters even take this issue into account during the primaries? Cruz backs the minority opinion, but, depending on the outcome, we’ll see how much the issues - and which issues - weigh on voter choice this early in the cycle.
9. How does Cruz fare? Were Trump’s late attacks on the candidate enough to cripple him in the coming months? Trump has focused on everything from Cruz’s policies to his nationality. Will this wide net of criticism be effective or will it backfire? If Cruz comes out of this a champ, it will introduce him to a wider stage where he can better respond to those criticisms. If not, its because he’s already been buried under them.
10. Are Carly Fiorina, Governor Mike Huckabee, and others left in the wake? And will they get out of the race? With so many candidates in the early polls, the Republican Party has a lot of fat to trim before they make a final decision. Iowa historically knocks off a few stragglers. Names that we’ve been hearing for months may disappear from the media or reemerge by giving their backing to another candidate.
Iowa means big changes for the upcoming campaign and a clearer sense of who and what we’ll be dealing with going into the election. The Republicans need a strong candidate to win the White House in November – which could be an outsider or establishment candidate. Either way, February marks the beginning of a new phase in one of the most interesting election cycles in years.
Gretchen Hamel is a political messaging and communications strategist-- with experience in preparing candidates and elected officials for debates-- who worked in Iowa on Senator Joni Ernst’s campaign.