That by itself was unusual: Since 1976, the first race fought in a primary system broadly similar to today’s process, Republican contests have almost always quickly consolidated into a two-person competition. As I’ve written before, in almost every race since then, only two candidates generated enough support to carry as many as three states or more. The sole exceptions came in 1988 and 2008. And even then, the “third man” in the race (televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988 and Mitt Romney in 2008) fizzled far short of victory.
But this year’s Iowa results etched the outline of a possible race shaped by candidates drawing on three distinct pools of demographic support. In Iowa, Cruz led among evangelical conservatives, while non-evangelical voters divided along class lines: Trump carried those without a college degree while Rubio lead among those with a four-year degree or more.
Rubio’s tough night in Saturday’s debate, which left him literally sweating under pressure, was a reminder that for all his gifts, the Florida senator has often struggled on the field to match the expectations of his boosters. Rubio inexplicably repeated a sound bite criticizing President Obama four times—even as Christie was deriding him as overly scripted. It was a moment nearly as dramatic as when Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic race staggered Gary Hart, another polished younger rival ascending in the polls, with the withering question: Where’s the beef?
Heading into the debate, almost all Republican analysts believed that Rubio was better positioned than the three governors to emerge as a top-tier competitor to Cruz and Trump. Yet Rubio’s erratic performance is sure to rekindle fears among GOP leaders that no one will sufficiently consolidate the party’s center-right block, leaving Cruz and Trump as the favorites.
The possibility of a rare three-way Republican race is rooted in the limits of the appeal that all of the major candidates have displayed so far.
Cruz won Iowa behind the model that worked for Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in the past two Republican caucuses: consolidating evangelical Christians and maximizing their turnout. In Iowa, Cruz carried 34 percent of evangelical Christians, according to the entrance poll conducted on caucus night. That placed him about even with Santorum’s total in 2012 and behind Huckabee’s 46 percent in 2008. Cruz swelled evangelical turnout even beyond the levels seen in 2012 and 2008. That augurs well for Cruz’s ability to compete for evangelical voters elsewhere—and to become the candidate to beat in Southern and border states where evangelicals comprise a majority of the GOP electorate. That list that ranges from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi, to Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
But just like Santorum and Huckabee, Cruz failed to win voters in Iowa who were not evangelicals. Cruz only carried 18 percent of those voters—actually not much better than the 14 percent of non-evangelicals that Santorum and Huckabee each attracted in their victories, according to entrance polls. In each case, those results foreshadowed the inability of each man to expand beyond his evangelical beachhead: in all the states that followed Iowa, Santorum won fewer than one in five voters who were not evangelicals and Huckabee only one in ten, according to the cumulative analysis of exit polls results from each race conducted by ABC pollster Gary Langer. Although Santorum and Huckabee each emerged, in effect, as the principal runner-up in their contests, that wasn’t enough to seriously compete for the nomination.