Eight days before the 2012 Iowa caucus, eventual winner Rick Santorum lagged in sixth place in the Real Clear Politics polling average, with about a third of the support of front-runner Ron Paul. Four years earlier, Barack Obama, who went on to defeat Hillary Clinton by 8 points, still trailed her by about 2 with eight days to go.
So no, the opinion polls don’t necessarily tell us what is going to happen Feb. 1, when Iowans give us the election’s first concrete results. But one of the latest ones, released by CNN on Thursday, offers a couple of clues as to why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are statistically tied for the leads of their respective Iowa races.
Clue No. 1: Unsurprisingly, just 3 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers believe the federal government “very well” represents people like them. But the number of likely Democratic voters was astoundingly similar: just 4 percent. As has long been said about this election, people are quite unhappy with the status quo. (Bonus clue: Even Democrats were evenly split as to whether they’d continue Obama’s policies or chart a different course.)
Clue No. 2: The poll showed Trump at 37 percent and with an 11-point lead among all likely GOP voters surveyed, but among those who actually caucused in 2012 he was at 28 percent and trailed Ted Cruz by 2 points. Similarly, Sanders had 51 percent and an 8-point lead over Clinton in the broader field of Democrats, but fell to 38 percent and a 17-point deficit among those who showed up in 2008.
That last set of numbers confirms one bit of conventional wisdom — and turns another bit on its head.
Yes, there appears to be a great swath of the electorate that hasn’t been politically active before but may be roused by its distaste with the way things are. But this group of voters aren’t more moderate than their more active neighbors who have been pushing politics toward the poles. If anything, they might be more radical.
For if Republicans who stayed home four years ago are more likely to back Trump, and if Democrats who sat out the 2008 race are strongly attracted to Sanders’ message, then the two parties may be moving apart even faster than we thought.
Consider some examples. Our liberal friends argue Trump’s support is built on the loose rhetoric of Republican politicos. Yet, if we are really to buy the idea that The Donald’s emergence is built on antipathy toward immigrants, the logical conclusion is that past Republican candidates actually spoke too cautiously about the issue.
Likewise, if Democrats really have been laying the ground for a true American socialism, Sanders’ popularity suggests their voters have been hankering for something still more extreme. Like the label of “bigot,” “socialist” may have lost some of its sting due to overuse.
Let’s take a deep breath, and a step back. There remains the possibility, perhaps a strong one, that the polling success of Trump and Sanders reflects a kind of protest vote, a message to more mainstream candidates that they aren’t cutting it right now. If so, we should expect their actual results in Iowa to fall closer to those lower numbers above.
But if Iowans do turn out in larger numbers, and do make Trump and/or Sanders victorious? Well, we might be in for a much rougher ride than we thought.