What I mean is, will Trump fans conclude that it’s rigged? I was thinking about that this weekend after the big Selzer poll showing Cruz 10 points up in Iowa dropped. Consider a few things. First, Trump has led in nearly every poll since June. There are exceptions here and there, the most notable being Selzer, but be it nationally, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, and even in Bush’s and Rubio’s home state of Florida, Trump is ahead — often by a lot. And Trump loves reminding his fans of that. The man does not speak publicly, whether at rallies or in interviews, without reminding the people he’s talking to that he’s utterly crushing it in the polls.
Remember too who Trump’s base is. Many are blue-collar and have been disaffected from politics for awhile. They don’t watch polls day in and out like blog readers and political junkies; they won’t know why online polls might be less reliable and phone polls more reliable or vice versa. They may not even be following the race closely enough to know which direction the polls are trending. They heard something about a good poll for Ted Cruz in Iowa, but Trump says that pollster always posts bad numbers for him and besides, the CNN poll showed Trump doing very well! You heard the man at his last rally: He’s crushing it. His movement is taking over America. He’s going to win Iowa and New Hampshire and quite possibly every other state too.
How entrenched is that mindset among Trump fans? Or better yet, how entrenched will it be six weeks from now when people finally go to vote? What got me onto this was the argument that Ted Cruz might be peaking too soon by racing out to a lead in Iowa now, nearly two months before the caucuses. I think that’s great for Cruz, for the simple reason that the longer he gains and holds this lead, the more plausible his victory in Iowa will be to the Trump voters he’s trying to win over. If instead Cruz were reliably trailing Trump by 10 points, say, and then surged ahead in the final days before the vote, people who don’t follow elections every cycle would find it suspicious that Trump — who’s led for six months — had coincidentally lost his lead at the last possible moment before the big vote. There would be a perfectly logical explanation for that, namely, that late deciders routinely determine the outcome in elections, especially in presidential primaries. But would Trump fans buy it? Would they accept that most polls overestimated Trump’s support because they included casual voters who didn’t turn out for him on election night? Would Trump buy that? And if they didn’t buy it, if they thought that shadowy establishment forces had put a thumb on the scale at the last minute to push Cruz past their populist nemesis Trump, how could Cruz continue to woo those voters? They’d see him as a catspaw of D.C. who denied their guy his rightful victory.
The longer Cruz builds and holds his lead in Iowa, the harder it’ll be for Trump fans to claim shenanigans on caucus night. The fact that Iowa is a caucus state will help Cruz too, as it should be more difficult to allege nonsense in a format like that than it would in a primary state that votes by secret ballot. If I’m not mistaken, the actual votes in Iowa are also cast by secret ballot but the fact that each candidate’s supporters organize themselves into groups inside the room would at least give Trump fans a visual clue that they’re outnumbered by Cruz fans. That won’t prevent conspiracy theories from happening anyway, but it does make them less facially plausible. How about New Hampshire, though? Everything I’ve just written applies just as well to NH as it does to IA — better, actually, since Trump’s lead in New Hampshire is not only undisputed but sizable (double digits in most polls). In all likelihood he’ll lead there as of January 1st. If he ends up losing, it’ll take a last-minute surge by Rubio or Christie in a secret-ballot vote to do it. And unlike Ted Cruz, Rubio and Christie really are establishment favorites so the suspicions of fixing will be even more intense. Imagine if Trump actually leads by a few points in the very last polls before the vote and then, thanks to poor turnout assumptions, Rubio or Christie comes through with the upset. Trump fans being Trump fans, won’t suspicions of rigging by the establishment run deep? And if they do, how does the GOP keep those voters engaged for the rest of the primary? The RNC’s goal in all of this is to somehow deny Donald Trump the nomination while also retaining all of the new blue-collar voters whose interest he’s piqued. (Ironically, the only candidate who may be capable of pulling that off is RNC nemesis Ted Cruz.) Perceptions of fixing are going to blow that up.
The X factor, as always, is Trump himself. How would he handle a late poll surge by one of his competitors that ends in defeat for him? “Congrats to Marco Rubio on a hard-earned win” would be completely out of character. If anything, in the interest of protecting his own enormous ego, he has an incentive to feed the suspicions that he was cheated out of a win that’s rightfully his. That would resolve one of the biggest mysteries about the Trump 2016 campaign: How does a man cope with losing when his public persona is based on the idea that he always wins? Won’t he be forced to drop out before daring to risk rejection at the polls? Answer: Not if he can spin “rejection” as a scam perpetrated by his establishment enemies. That would poison the rest of the primaries, but what does he care? It’s the next best thing to running as an independent. “I could have won, and I did win, but they stole it from me.” How eager do you think Trump fans would be to support the GOP nominee after that?
As I say, the best thing for the GOP here if Trump is destined to lose is that the winner(s) in the early states assert themselves soon and hold those leads. It would also be to the GOP’s benefit that Trump lose by a landslide, even if that means more momentum for tea partier Ted Cruz after Iowa. The bigger the margin of defeat, the harder it is for Trump to claim cheating.