Q: You’re tied with [Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)] in Iowa. How are you going to pull ahead?
Trump: I’m not tied with him. Since when am I tied?
Q: You’re in a statistical tie with him in Iowa.
Trump: I’m two points ahead. See, if anybody else — I’m two points ahead — anybody else, they’d say you’re leading. With me, they say you’re tied.
Both assessments of the state of the Republican primary race in Iowa are true, by the way. A recent Quinnipiac University poll put support for Trump at 25 percent and support for Cruz at 23 percent, but the two-point gap was within the survey’s margin of error — a virtual tie. It’s all in how you frame the results.
Now, to be clear, no presidential candidate has benefited more from media attention than Trump. He has had to spend virtually nothing on campaign ads because, as he told the New York Times in September, he’s “gotten so much free advertising” through nonstop coverage. Trump is hardly in a position to complain that the media are raining on his White House parade.
But the media do appear to be looking awfully hard for a viable Trump alternative on the Republican side — and using relatively isolated indicators to identify one.
Cruz’s strong showing in that (one) Iowa poll prompted many stories about his “surge” — across a broad media spectrum (including on The Fix). Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 1, is important, of course; Cruz’s improvement there certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant.
But the Real Clear Politics national polling average, which provides a more complete picture of the campaign, still puts Cruz 15.3 points behind Trump nationally — only slightly better than his 17.8-point deficit a month ago. Cruz is still in fourth place.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also has picked up the “surging” label lately, though the rationale varies from his polling in New Hampshire to his performance in debates to his collection of congressional endorsements.
Like Cruz, though, Rubio hasn’t really gained much ground on Trump when it comes to the big picture. He was down by 16.3 points a month ago and now trails by 14.5. And he remains in third place.
The biggest change since early November has been the precipitous drop of Ben Carson, who remains in second place but has lost 5.2 points off his polling average. Rubio and Cruz have added supporters amid Carson’s decline, but Trump has, too. Trump is now 9.5 points clear of his nearest competitor, after holding a slim edge of 1.3 points a month ago (owing, again, to the drop of second-place Carson).
In other words, it’s not a stretch to say that, if anything, Trump’s grip on the race is getting tighter.
Cruz or Rubio — or maybe even Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — might yet overtake Trump. He’s a long way from locking up the GOP nomination and is, at the very least, overstating the existence of a widespread, anti-Trump media bias. New developments drive coverage. That's why this business is called "news."
What's new right now is that Cruz and Rubio are climbing, however gradually, and appear to have replaced Carson as Trump's most formidable opponents. Interesting. Meanwhile, Trump has been leading for months. Yawn.
But, if Trump's gripe is that the news media are pumping up his rivals, despite his sustained dominance, he kind of has a point.