For the next few hours (or days, or weeks), pundits will be sure to cite the latest polling out of Iowa — the first state to vote in the presidential nominating process — to show that the Republican electorate has made up its mind about Donald Trump.
At first glance, those pundits might sound right: Just after his debate performance, CNN's poll of 544 likely Republican caucus-goers showed that if the contest were held today, Trump would win with 22 percent of the vote; Ben Carson would likely trail in second with 14 percent. (The margin of error is four points, so conceivably, they could tie at 18.)
When CNN asked participants if they have "definitely decided" whom they'd support in the Iowa caucuses, 66 percent said they were "still trying to decide."
And on several major policy fronts, the real-estate titan slaughters his fellow Republicans. When asked which candidate "would best handle" particular policy issues as president, Trump dominated on the economy (37 percent, with second-place Carly Fiorina at 10 percent); illegal immigration (35 percent, with Ted Cruz coming in at second with 12 percent); and terrorism (21 percent, with Cruz next at 13 percent). Only on the subject of abortion was Trump not in first place. These issues-based questions each had an MOE of 4 points as well.
Trump is now defying the laws of political gravity, remaining buoyantly popular when others would have crashed — spectacularly, in mind-dazzling flames — to the ground. After weeks of controversy since his announcement, and in the days after his tete-a-tete with Megyn Kelly at the first GOP debate — Trump hasn't lost the favor of those Americans for whom his grandiosity and brash politics strike an appealing chord.
But for those who may look at those numbers and think Trump's momentum will inevitably keep going, consider this. When CNN asked participants if they have "definitely decided" whom they'd support in the Iowa caucuses, 66 percent said they were "still trying to decide." Women, especially, are still on the fence: 74 percent of those polled said they were unsure (compared with 60 percent of men).
And the gap between Trump and his fellow candidates narrows when it comes to which candidate "best represents the values of Republicans like yourself" and "who has the best chance of winning" the general election. On the former question, there's little separation between Trump, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Cruz, and Scott Walker. On the latter, Trump comes in at 22 percent, the highest percentage, with Jeb Bush in at 16 percent. Those figures, with an MOE of 4 points, don't show runaway support.
And those numbers are also a convenient reminder of what some national pollsters have been asserting in recent weeks: that putting too much stock in polling this early on in the election cycle — including when it comes to debate setup — is a mistake. Not only are likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa looking particularly flexible — 66 percent! — they also don't find Trump wildly electable compared with an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush.
There was one question asked of the Republican voters, though, that does seem spot-on in its results. CNN asked which contender would be "most likely to change the way things work in Washington." In this category, Trump trounced the rest of the GOP field, with 44 percent. (Carson came in second, with 9 percent.) Considering Trump's antics — the name-calling, the disregard for normal political decorum — and the fact that he's never held elected office, we think that's a reasonable assessment.
Those likely Republican caucus-goers seem to be itching for someone with outsider status. In fact, they don't seem to require prior political experience at all as a prerequisite for their vote: If the election were held today, Trump, retired surgeon Carson, and former executive Fiorina would rake in a combined 43 percent of their support.