Published January 19, 2016
Cyclones, as any Midwesterner knows, are devils. They pop up out of nowhere, wreak havoc and destruction, and leave just as suddenly as they came. They are more than the nickname for Iowa State University’s sports teams: they are the perfect metaphor for what can happen in the final two weeks of the Iowa caucus.
Just as John Edwards and Rick Santorum popped up out of nowhere to destroy the Presidential dreams of Dean, Gephardt, Gingrich, and Perry, so too might someone emerge this year to damage or destroy Ted Cruz’s, Donald Trump’s, or Marco Rubio’s dreams. Who might that person be, and can we predict their rise beforehand?
Just as cyclones arise out of predictable weather patterns, so too do political cyclones arise because of consistent electoral phenomena. When two or more front runners start to engage in political combat, that gives an opening for someone else to emerge as the positive alternative. That positive alternative can become the Iowa Caucus Cyclone if he or she plays their cards right.
The end of the Cruz-Trump detente is the necessary climactic precondition for the cyclone warning to be issued. Now that the two front runners are hammering each other, soft supporters of each man will have reason to defect. If they do, when they do, they will look for someone who shares their values but has avoided the taint of negative campaigning. That person can become this cycle’s cyclone.
Marco Rubio clearly hopes to be that man. In fact, his campaign has banked on it. His campaign and its Super PAC have reserved the bulk of Iowa airtime, especially in the Cedar Rapids market that covers the eastern, less conservative part of the state. He has stepped up his appearances in Iowa, shrewdly targeting the eastern part of the state where “somewhat conservative” and moderate Republicans dominate. (See my article on Iowa’s political demography, “State of Play: Iowa,” for the nerdy but important details.) He’s even started to focus more on social issues and faith, clearly an effort to make himself acceptable to voters rethinking their support of Cruz or Carson. Rubio seems to have the best shot of being the 2016 GOP cyclone.
If not him, then who? Cyclones tend to be candidates who have not yet had their day in the sun, people who have not been examined and found wanting. That pretty much rules out a Carson or Fiorina revival. And Jeb Bush’s favorability ratings have been sinking for months in every Iowa poll.
Evangelical voters rethinking Cruz might find Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum more palatable if they are worried about Carson’s lack of experience, but the real space for a cyclone is if Trump declines. His voters tend to be more moderate and clearly like a strong personality. If Trump starts to take on water, and if Rubio isn’t the main beneficiary, don’t be surprised if Chris Christie rises from the dead to close fast.
A Christie win in Iowa seems fantastic to contemplate, a bridge too far, and I doubt he would pull it off. But then again, at this point in 2012 Rick Santorum was running sixth in most Iowa polls. Iowa might not be heaven, but for some candidates it is the place where dreams come true.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.