Ben Carson may not win the Iowa Republican caucuses, but the one-time front-runner in the state still could play a significant role Monday: spoiler.
Since topping the Iowa polls with support as high as 32 percent in October, Carson's standing in the state that kicks off the presidential nominating process has slid dramatically. Still, the retired neurosurgeon has not completely vanished. As the latest Real Clear Politics polling average shows, he's stalled out at roughly 8 percent in Iowa, which is still good enough for fourth place.
If Carson pulls that level of support on caucus night, as many Iowa Republicans expect, that could cause problems for the candidate who has taken the evangelical mantle from him, Ted Cruz. The senator from Texas is running neck-and-neck with Donald Trump, and he needs to solidify social conservatives—a critical portion of his base there—to come out on top.
"The better Ben Carson does, the worse Ted Cruz will do," said Jamie Johnson, an Iowa pastor who worked on Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign. "I still have talked to people this very week—they love Ben Carson, and they're going to caucus for him. And that does not bode well for Ted Cruz."
Recent polling suggests Carson, who remains extremely popular among GOP voters even if he's no longer their top pick, is eating more into Cruz's potential base of support than Trump's. Cross-tabs provided to National Journal from a mid-January Loras College survey of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers showed 37 percent of Carson backers saying Cruz was their second choice, compared to 27 percent for Marco Rubio and 10 percent for Trump. And nearly half of Carson's supporters said they were absolutely committed to caucusing for him.