Iowa caucuses 2016: Politics as a contact sport
Trump's entry leads to body blows in GOP 'cage fight'
DES MOINES — The crowded 2016 Republican presidential campaign in Iowa and elsewhere has become a rough-and-tumble political slugfest that would be the envy of any professional fight promoter.
Heading into crunchtime in the state that launches the presidential nominating process, GOP candidate Rand Paul’s Iowa campaign strategist Steve Grubbs — a former state lawmaker and state Republican Party leader — predicted Iowa’s stretch run would resemble a professional wrestling “royal rumble” where all the combatants get in the ring together and wrangle until all but one — the winner — is tossed out.
That prediction has held form as the race has broken into subplots of Donald Trump versus Ted Cruz at the front of the pack, Marco Rubio versus Chris Christie, Trump versus Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson versus Trump, Jeb Bush versus Rubio, Rubio versus Cruz, Paul versus Christie and, to a certain degree, all the field versus Trump, with Bush taking the establishment lead in challenging the New York billionaire’s anger-driven insurgency.
The combative nature of the 2016 race was evident during the Jan. 15 debate in South Carolina when Cruz and Trump took swings at each other over citizenship and “New York values,” while Cruz and Rubio tangled over immigration policy and Senate votes, and Rubio and Christie clashed over being absent from their respective duties due to campaigning and who is the true conservative.
“It is kind of the death match in the cage, throwing people over,” said Council Bluffs Republican Brent Siegrist, a former Iowa House speaker who is supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “That’s an apt description — throwing people overboard. The question is ‘who remains standing at the end?’”
The political landscape already is littered with GOP contestants who sparred for a time but failed to have staying power: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki.
Still in the race and competing in Iowa are:
• Donald Trump, a New York businessman and entrepreneur.
• Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas.
• Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida.
• Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
• Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida.
• Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey.
• John Kasich, governor of Ohio.
• Rand Paul, a U.S. senator from Kentucky.
• Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman and former CEO.
• Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas.
• Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
Gone are the days when GOP candidates lived by Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment — thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican — although Christie told a Marshalltown crowd recently he thought whoever wins the nomination will stand a better chance of unifying the party “if you haven’t been beating the bejesus out of everybody.”
The days leading up to the departures of Perry and Jindal were marked by scathing criticisms of Trump and his unorthodox campaign style, with Jindal calling the New York billionaire a “narcissist” and “egomaniac” while Perry warned that Trump was “a cancer on conservatism” who threatens to destroy the GOP.
But Trump has succeeded in counterpunching his rivals and even bested Graham, who called him out publicly as a “jackass,” by reading the senator’s personal cellphone number on live TV.
Trump and Cruz generally had avoided confronting each other until they found themselves battling for the top spot in Iowa and the gloves came off during the sixth televised GOP debate in South Carolina.
“It’s no surprise that the elbows are getting pretty sharp right about now,” said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science. “It usually happens about this time, if not even earlier, in a campaign when people are starting to get into crunchtime, and some people aren’t doing as well as they want and still think that they have a chance. If it wasn’t close, you probably wouldn’t be seeing the sharp elbows that we’re seeing now.”
Some of those sharp blows are being delivered by candidates and some are being delivered by TV ads paid for by candidates or super PACs working in support of campaigns.
“These attack ads are going to be part of life,” Bush said at this month’s debate.
“Everybody just needs to get used to it. Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized. And, at the end of the day, we need to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton because she is a disaster,” Bush said. “Everybody needs to discount some of the things you’re going to hear in these ads, and discount the ... the back-and-forth here because every person here is better than Hillary Clinton.”
Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University, said the GOP caucuses have become a two-person race between Trump and Cruz. The remaining order of finishers is up for grabs as the race divides among those competing in the party establishment track, like Bush, Christie and Rubio, and those competing in the populist/evangelical/social conservative track like Cruz, Huckabee and Santorum.
“Everybody’s jockeying to be better-than-expected,” said Goldford, who qualified his statements with what he called “the Santorum caveat” that leaves open the possibility of an unexpected, late-charging surge like the one that propelled the Pennsylvania senator to an upset Iowa caucuses win in 2012.
David Redlawsk — a political-science professor who directs Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and has spent a number of months in Iowa tracking the 2016 presidential race — said Trump’s meteoric rise was unpredicted and unprecedented, partly because his celebrity status and his mastery of traditional and social media has “taken the oxygen away from everyone else.”
But now that Trump sits atop the field, things are unfolding as political observers might expect.
“Cruz can no longer sit back and let Trump be there without criticism, and Trump has clearly turned his sights on Cruz,” Redlawsk noted. Also Bush has gone directly after Trump, in part because any association with Trump has a spillover attention benefit for a candidate who otherwise is struggling to get traction.
“It would put him in the category of a presumably viable candidate if Trump is bothering to go after him,” Redlawsk said.
Goldford said Bush’s lackluster performance in the campaign “has been a little surprising, but, on the other hand, Republicans as well have Bush fatigue. He just never took off.”
Huckabee and Santorum are trying to recreate past victories, while Iowa voters “are looking for something new,” Goldford noted.
He said Fiorina remains a long shot, and Christie “really hasn’t shown” in Iowa, partly due to a distrust among tea-party, evangelical and social conservatives of a Republican governor who has won in a blue state like New Jersey.
One of the “royal rumble” encounters came during a debate when Christie and Paul clashed over foreign policy and national security concerns as those issues rose to the top of 2016 voter concerns.
Paul has touted that his Iowa grass roots effort has the support of more than 1,000 precinct captains — spread among nearly 1,700 precincts statewide — heading into the Feb. 1 caucuses. But, Goldford said, Paul is “the wrong guy to show up in a time of national security and terrorism threats because the Republican brand is being tough and interventionist ... so that undercuts him.”
Siegrist called 2016 an “odd year” on the Republican side and that may be because the large number of candidates has made it difficult for Iowans to focus.
“You look at Rubio, who is a Republican Barack Obama — not that much experience but a great speaker, very eloquent, a good guy, and he’s getting some traction,” said Siegrist. “Cruz is just appealing to the red-meat crowd to a degree but not much experience there either. And then you have the governors who have some experience, and they seem to be downgraded for having the experience.”
The last rumble before Iowa’s caucuses comes when the GOP candidates debate in Des Moines on Thursday — a high-stakes encounter that potentially could move poll numbers, depending on how well or how poorly a candidate performs, he said.
“There’s still,” he said, “a lot of volatility.”