Iowa Caucuses Could Be a Bloodbath for the GOP
Policy + Politics

Iowa Caucuses Could Be a Bloodbath for the GOP

Iowa seems like a friendly sort of place, but for a large number of the Republicans currently contending for the GOP presidential nomination, the cornfields have a distinctly hostile feel these days. Many are disliked by the Republican electorate – some pretty intensely – and the majority of them face large segments of the GOP who report that they would “never” support them in a general election.

Winning the Iowa caucuses has never been a prerequisite for winning the eventual Republican presidential nomination – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the victor in 2012 and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won in 2008 – but the size of the Republican field and the apparent antipathy Iowa voters have toward some of the candidates raises another question: What happens to candidates who are utterly rejected in the first vote of the primary?

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With the caucus a little over five months away, it’s a question a number of GOP candidates need to be asking themselves. Going back to 1976, the eventual GOP nominee has never taken less than 13 percent of the vote in the Iowa Caucus (John McCain in 2008). This time around, though, there are a number of candidates who currently look likely to come away with tallies in the low single digits.

A new poll by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics finds that real estate billionaire Donald Trump continues to lead the pack, with 23 percent of voters listing him as their first choice. He is followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with 18 percent. When voters’ second choices are counted, Carson and Trump are tied at 32 percent.

The field falls off sharply after that, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz both tied for third with 8 percent in the Register/Bloomberg survey.

The real news though, is the predicament that a number of high-profile candidates find themselves in with Hawkeye State voters.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, are both viewed unfavorably by 59 percent of likely Republican caucus goers. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is viewed unfavorably by 50 percent of likely caucus participants, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is right behind at 49 percent.

Graham is currently polling at less than one percent in Iowa, while Christie is barely eking out 2 percent.

Bush is at 6 percent, which puts him in the top half of a field in which the median is 4. But that is no place for the consensus establishment candidate to be five months before the voting starts – especially as it puts him in a tie with first-term Senator Marco Rubio, also of Florida.

What’s more, an awful lot of Republicans likely to participate in the Feb. 9 caucus say that they would be unwilling to support many of the current candidates should they be the eventual nominee. Graham and former New York governor George Pataki do particularly badly in this regard, with 57 percent of Republican caucus goers saying they would “never” support them in a general election. Christie faces 48 percent who say they would never support him, while 43 percent say they would refuse to support Rand Paul, and 39 percent would not support Jeb Bush.

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(The feeling is markedly different in the Democratic field, where all but one of the five declared candidates have positive favorability ratings. The exception is former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is virtually unknown to 80 percent of the electorate. Democrats are also much more receptive to the idea of supporting an eventual nominee who is not their first choice, with only Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb topping more than 25 percent in the “never support” category.)

Again, history shows that for Republican candidates, the winner of the Iowa caucus will not necessarily be the eventual nominee, and losing the caucus is not a death sentence.

However, going back 40 years, no candidate who has come out of Iowa with votes in the low single digits has ever won the nomination.