Conventional wisdom is congealing around two key factors in Trump’s loss this morning, so let me offer them to you as I think there’s merit to both. The main factor: Evangelicals came through for Cruz in the crunch. Political sites have been filled with news over the past few weeks about Trump’s surprising strength with born-again Christians, particularly given how intensely Cruz was courting those same voters. A guy who doesn’t know if he’s ever asked God’s forgiveness and who’s regularly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with Christian practices during this campaign shouldn’t be competitive with an evangelical candidate with dozens of prominent Christian leaders behind him. But Trump was — until last night, when he faded. The early entrance poll in Iowa claimed that Cruz was running was just two points ahead of him among evangelicals, 26/24, which, if true, would have been a disaster for Cruz and almost certainly would have delivered Iowa to Trump. That’s because evangelicals made up 62 percent(!) of the electorate. If Trump could neutralize Cruz’s advantage with them, the remaining 38 percent of voters would probably give him the win.
Cruz 33, Trump 21. Rubio finished tied for second with the same number as Trump. If you win by double digits among a group that exceeds 60 percent of the overall electorate, odds are good that you’re going to win. As for why Trump underperformed here, you can float as many plausible reasons as I can — effective attack ads noting Trump’s prior support for abortion, persuasive endorsements of Cruz by Bob Vander Plaats and other influential Christians, smart targeted turnout measures aimed by Team Cruz at evangelicals, and of course the plain fact that Trump isn’t a devout believer himself. “New York values” may have helped too: A member of Cruz’s team told Bloomberg News that that was no ad lib by Cruz but was designed to appeal to specific voters they had in mind. Everything Cruz and his team did was carefully planned, and nothing more so than their all-important evangelical turnout operation.
The other Trump landmine being considered this morning by the punditocracy was his decision to skip the last debate. My prediction of the outcome yesterday was, er, not so smart, but I’ll mitigate it slightly by noting that I did think Trump’s decision to pass on Fox and Megyn Kelly wasn’t the genius move that most of the rest of the media seemed to think at the time. Emerson College, which got closer to the actual result in Iowa than any other pollster, tucked this bit of data away in their crosstabs yesterday. Hmmm:
That’s a lot of Iowans who say Trump skipping out made them less likely to vote for him. Nate Silver made that connection too last night, before even a quarter of the votes were in:
With 19 percent of Iowa precincts reporting, Donald Trump has 27.1 percent of the Iowa vote. That’s not a bad result by any means: Trump trails Ted Cruz by just 3 points and could very easily win the state. Still, a case can be made that (contra the pundit conventional wisdom at the time) Trump was mistaken to have skipped last week’s debate. Trump stood at 31.1 percent in our Iowa polling average on the night of the debate, so if he finishes at 27.1 percent, he’ll have lost 4 percentage points since then.
It’s hard to attribute a late slide in the polls to any single silver-bullet factor — maybe Rubio’s surge peeled some votes away from Trump, maybe evangelicals who were on the fence tilted heavily towards Cruz — but passing on the debate seemed even at the time like a needless risk for a guy who was ahead of Cruz and had held his own at multiple debates already. Why take a chance that Iowans will feel snubbed, or that they’ll perceive Trump as behaving as though further debates are beneath him? Megyn Kelly asked Krauthammer last night whether he thought missing the debate hurt Trump. He makes a good point at around 2:50 of the clip below: Even if Iowans weren’t insulted by Trump boycotting, Trump not being there gave Cruz and, importantly, Rubio more opportunities to make their case. For once the spotlight was on them, not Trump, and it came at a moment when thousands upon thousands were only beginning to make up their minds. According to the entrance poll, fully 35 percent of caucusgoers decided yesterday or “in the last few days.” Trump may have enabled the Rubio surge by sitting out.
Good news for Trump fans, though. He’ll definitely be at Saturday’s debate, having learned his lesson from this failure, and evangelicals aren’t the force in New Hampshire that they are in Iowa. If he disappoints next Tuesday, it’ll be for different reasons. One more point: Scroll down through the entrance poll data and you’ll find some surprising results when caucusgoers were asked who they favored on important issues. Those who said immigration was most important preferred Trump, of course. Those who said the economy, though, preferred Marco Rubio by nine points over Trump — an unexpected result given that Trump usually wins on the economy in primary polls. Those who said terrorism was most important favored Ted Cruz, another shock given that Trump and Rubio typically are seen as more muscular would-be presidents on foreign policy. If Trump’s losing his lead on individual issues, maybe he’s in more trouble than thought.