It’s hard to swing a cornstalk in Iowa without hitting a Republican presidential candidate. (Sorry for the obvious cliche, Iowans. Change that to stick. Or maybe swing a pork chop on a stick.)
In truth, even though nearly a dozen GOP hopefuls are vying in the Feb. 1 caucuses, the race here really amounts to three separate contests among three different constituencies.
The competition breaks down roughly along these lines:
The Outsider Lane
Businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina are competing in this category, with Trump in seemingly the strongest position. Carson has repeatedly stumbled over national security questions, a heightened concern after the Paris terrorist attacks. Fiorina’s moment, tied to two strong debate performances, seems to have passed.
The big question is whether Trump’s support, measured by the large crowds he has attracted around the state, can translate into support at the caucuses, an hours-long investment of time that requires a whole lot more commitment than showing up to a rally.
The Evangelical/Social Conservative Lane
This represents the largest and most dominant voting bloc in the GOP caucuses, and the leader for now appears to be Ted Cruz. He passes the ideological test, has racked up significant endorsements and also boasts a formidable fundraising base that few rivals can match. The freshman senator from Texas also benefits from being a new face compared to the others running in this lane, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the winners of, respectively, the 2008 and 2012 caucuses.
The Establishment Lane
Many analysts doubt the winner of this category will actually win Iowa. In effect, the main contestants — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — are running to finish ahead of one another and stamp themselves as the establishment favorite going forth. This appears to be the most competitive lane, with Rubio’s recent momentum offset by lagging efforts on the ground in Iowa. Bush and Christie, though trailing in polls, are seen as having far superior campaigns in the state.
The Remaindered Candidates
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is making scant effort to compete in Iowa, staking his campaign on the primary eight days later in New Hampshire. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has failed to capitalize on the extensive network built by his father, former Texas Rep. Rand Paul, who finished a strong third in 2012; much of that support has gravitated to Cruz.
The most important thing to bear in mind when assessing Iowa is how quickly things can change. Two weeks before he won the 2012 caucuses, Santorum was trailing far behind the pack, polling in single digits.
It’s a long way from here to Feb. 1.
MORE POLITICAL COVERAGE