What to Watch For in Iowa, And It’s Not What You Think…

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I’ve been reading all manner of predictions that focus almost entirely on the horse race that is Donald Trump v. Ted Cruz. At this point, 27 hours from the Caucus start, it appears that either can win. Expectations are that they will finish one and two in a close race. And while the order of their finish will affect their fortunes in N.H. — and more importantly in S.C. — the X-factor for the remainder of the Republican field is Marco Rubio.

It’s no secret that Iowa tends to break late. Both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have been beneficiaries of that unique aspect of the caucus system. Impress at the eleventh hour, and you could have headlines using your name the next day. But I’m not predicting a Rubio victory. Rather, I’m suggesting you watch where he finishes to know how quickly this contest becomes a three- or four-candidate race.

Marco had, by most measures, a remarkable debate. Four days out from the Caucus, that’s a significant plus for undecideds. Reliable polling is now showing him surging (peaking…?) at the right moment for Iowa.

A fresh poll out Sunday by OpinionSavvy.com of those “definitely” attending a caucus has Rubio tied for second:

  • Trump: 20%
  • Cruz: 19%
  • Rubio: 19%

The Emerson College Poll of registered voters taken over the weekend shows the Rubio surge, something his supporters have labeled “Marcomentum”:

  • Trump: 27%
  • Cruz: 26%
  • Rubio: 22%

Trump is expected to win by a small margin. Cruz is expected to contend strongly for second or even win by a smaller margin. But what will surprise is how strongly in third Rubio finishes. I anticipate a close third by Rubio will become the subhead to every major article on the Caucus results.

Rubio can then capitalize on his ‘stronger-than-expected’ showing to solidify donors, rally supporters, and encourage undecideds in N.H. and S.C. that he will emerge from the bloodbath at the top of the field and coalesce the support from candidates like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina who are most likely to drop out next.

Sure, third is not first . . . but in this crowded field, it’s wind in the sails for Marco Rubio.

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.