Political pros in this state are not foolish enough to pick a winner this far out from the caucuses (I am: It will be Ted Cruz, whose mix of frank religiosity and anti-establishment zeal is a good fit for the Iowa Republican electorate, and practically no other), but they do love their typologies.
Historically, by one account, there are brand-name candidates (think Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush); conservative outsider candidates (think Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum); and idea candidates (think Jack Kemp and Ron Paul). Most Iowa political types I consulted would pick this as a conservative-outsider year.
By most accounts, the Republican candidates are competing for control of three “lanes”: Hard-Core Evangelicals, who think the GOP’s main problem is a lack of fighting spirit; Practical-Minded Evangelicals, who are socially conservative but value electability; and Terry Branstad Republicans, who, following in the footsteps of a popular and effective governor, want the largest tent possible consistent with their convictions (and feel the Hard-Core Evangelicals are going off the deep end).
Note that whatever lane you choose in Republican Iowa, you are likely to hit an evangelical. This makes the Hawkeye State unique or scary, depending on your cultural predilection. Scott Walker, it is generally believed, flamed out because (among other reasons) he did not “own his lane.” Based on polling and anecdote, Hard-Core Evangelicals are breaking toward Cruz. Practical-Minded Evangelicals seem to be moving toward Marco Rubio. And Terry Branstad Republicans — a shrinking proportion of Iowa’s GOP electorate — are still divided among a few candidates. (Many politicos close to Branstad, including his son, are in the Chris Christie camp.)
No one I consulted can explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, which seems to defy typology, so they tend to talk about down-ticket conflicts: Cruz vs. Rubio. Rubio vs. Jeb Bush. Ben Carson vs. his foreign policy homework.
Cruz is benefiting from a common but specious conservative argument — that recent GOP presidential candidates have lost because they weren’t conservative enough. This claim has been around since the days of President Barry Goldwater. But it has gained traction in Iowa, with a twist. Given the perceived political vulnerability of Hillary Clinton, might it be possible to nominate and elect a “real” conservative this time around, defined as the rejection of compromise at the highest decibel level?
Cruz has the decibel part mastered and has moved rightward on immigration in an attempt to sew up conservative support. “He goes where he needs to go,” one Republican strategist told me. Influential and obstreperous Rep. Steve King has endorsed Cruz; influential evangelical Bob Vander Plaats seems about to. Cruz has benefited in one way from the Trump ascendency. He looks positively reasonable in comparison. And Cruz doesn’t have Trump’s main drawback in reaching out to conservatives — that Trump isn’t actually a conservative.
Rubio is gaining steam in Iowa on the strength of a perception that his next-generation conservatism matches up well against Clinton’s old-time liberalism. He seems to be on just about everyone’s top-three list. But the Iowa caucuses are not won by being a fallback choice. Rubio is trying to gain ground by moving right. During recent visits, he has emphasized his role as a conservative revolutionary — which is not easy for anyone once part of the immigration-reform Gang of Eight. And since then he has also moved rightward on immigration, demonstrating how Trump’s nativism has pulled many in the GOP toward restrictionism.
Rubio’s strategy is not without risk. Heading off Cruz on the right may come across as forced and inauthentic. And siding with anti-Branstad forces in Iowa could cause the Terry Branstad Republicans to coalesce around Christie or Bush. This seems to be the only possibility for Bush to finish a respectable third or fourth. And the calculations of all the candidates appealing to evangelicals are complicated by Carson — whose autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” is sometimes used as a textbook by homeschoolers. He is slipping but probably not collapsing.
All of which leaves large questions unanswered. Can Trump translate poll numbers into caucus-goers? He has hired a strong staff in the state. He is barnstorming in counties heavy in white, working-class voters. But will people who have probably never participated in a caucus trudge on a cold night to a high school cafeteria to support a candidate who isn’t part of any ideological movement, other than the Trump-should-run-everything movement?
In other words: Can you have a revolution without a cause? As the first test, Iowa will play its accustomed and essential role.