Two weeks from today, Iowans will gather at caucus sites around the state in the first formal balloting of the 2016 presidential election. As the candidates make their final pitches, voters in the early states will solidify their choices – if they haven’t already – and the rest of us will finally be able to point to real results when assessing a candidate’s appeal.
Heading into these crucial final weeks, here’s a look at where things stand according to the polls.
In Iowa, new CNN Poll of Polls averages find no clear leader on either the Democratic or Republican side, while nationally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump continue to hold solid leads over their top competitors.
Those figures reflect the state of the race over the last few weeks, but much can change in the final weeks of a campaign. Even in Iowa, where the campaign has been a focus for longer than almost anywhere else in the country, the latest Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll shows 4-in-10 people likely to attend the Democratic caucuses say they could still change their minds before they cast a ballot, as do a majority of Republican likely caucusgoers.
The tightening Democratic race
The Democratic race, long expected to be less competitive than the GOP race, is tightening in the home stretch, both nationally and in Iowa.
The Iowa CNN Poll of Polls, which incorporates the first polling conducted in 2016, finds Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders running dead even, with 45% each, while former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley languishes in single digits. The same analysis conducted using polling released in December yields an average of 52% support for Clinton to 37% for Sanders.
The O’Malley factor
Despite O’Malley’s slim support, the Democratic Party’s rules for allocating delegates mean his backers could ultimately sway the contest in favor of one of the two front-runners.
The caucus process for Democrats is a two-stage affair: After an initial count of each candidate’s support in the room, those whose chosen candidate has the backing of less than 15% of those in the room must either choose someone else to support or elect to remain uncommitted.
Given his low support statewide, it seems unlikely O’Malley will hit the 15% threshold in many caucus locations, making his supporters a potential source of an edge for either Clinton or Sanders.
While polling among O’Malley’s backers has too small a sample size to get a read on which side they would choose, the numbers from the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll suggest O’Malley’s backers are more open to reconsidering their choice than are those behind Clinton or Sanders.
When likely caucusgoers were asked if they “could still be persuaded to support another candidate,” 40% overall said they could be swayed, compared with only about 3-in-10 of those behind Clinton and Sanders, suggesting O’Malley’s backers were a bit more apt to say their minds could be changed.
The national picture and the long game
Nationally, Clinton continues to maintain a significant lead over Sanders, yet here too, the contest has tightened, though not as dramatically as in Iowa. Overall, Clinton tops Sanders 54% to 36% across polls conducted between mid-December and now. Conducting the same analysis on polling released earlier in December, Clinton topped Sanders 56% to 31%.
For Clinton and her campaign, the continuing breadth of her lead nationally has to be reassuring. Should Sanders top Clinton in Iowa, he would likely take both of the first two contests.
Most recent polling in New Hampshire has found him well ahead of Clinton there, a neighbor state to his home state of Vermont. But after that contest on February 9, the race shifts to South Carolina, Nevada and a wide swath of southern states that vote on March 1.
Looking ahead to those contests, the demographic makeup of Clinton’s national support – including a massive lead among the non-white voters who will make up large chunks of the vote in many of those states – suggests defeat in the first two states to vote may not guarantee the demise of the former secretary of state’s campaign.
GOP deadlocked in Iowa
On the Republican side, national front-runner Donald Trump has maintained a strong advantage overall as the campaign rolls toward its final days, yet he faces stiff competition for the hearts of Iowa caucusgoers from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The CNN Poll of Polls average in Iowa finds Cruz with 27%, just ahead of Trump at 25%, with Marco Rubio at 14% and Ben Carson at 10%. The rest of the field stands at 5% or less. That’s less of a change since December than the averages suggest on the Democratic side. Averaging polls of Republican likely caucusgoers released in December, 26% said they backed Cruz, 25% Trump, virtually the same as the January figures.
The turnout factor
What could break the tie? Those backing Trump would argue his enthusiastic supporters will be certain to show up, just as they do to hear him speak, packing arenas across the country.
The Quinnipiac poll in Iowa found that 66% of Trump’s supporters say they are more enthusiastic about this caucus than they have been in the past, a little above the 57% of Cruz’s supporters who say the same. And the businessman-turned-politician has won over Republican voters looking for a strong leader on their most important issues: Quinipiac’s poll in Iowa found Trump broadly ahead of his competitors as more trusted to handle the economy, immigration and terrorism. And 81% said they consider him a strong leader.
Cruz’s best bet in Iowa rests on reliable turnout. His support comes more strongly among the groups who have tended to be more reliable voters in the past – evangelicals, those with more formal education, and those who describe themselves as “very conservative.”
The big picture for the Republicans
Nationally, Trump’s lead stands at 14 points in the Poll of Polls, with Trump at 34%, Cruz at 20%, Rubio at 12%, Carson at 10% and the rest of the field at 4% or less. Compared with averages from earlier in December, before the final GOP debate of 2015, Trump has held steady while Cruz has gained a few points over that time. Cruz averaged 17% across five national polls conducted just before that debate, held on December 14.
Looking ahead, there’s been little polling elsewhere that’s found anything other than a Trump lead, and in New Hampshire, Trump’s support in recent polls has been among the highest of the cycle.