- - Monday, July 20, 2015

2016 Iowa caucuses: Did Trump implode, has Jindal arrived?

The biggest pre-election event prior to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the just-concluded Family Leadership Summit, has come and gone.

Hosted by the Family Leader, the most influential conservative group in the state, the event drew a sell-out crowd of thousands of activists, hundreds of media and 10 of the Republican presidential candidates. Those 10 (out of 15 declared candidates) were interviewed by Frank Luntz of Fox News, and the event helped cement the environment the candidates will confront while on the campaign trail.

Here are the top 10 things we learned from the event:

1. Conservatives are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Beyond just the typical red meat usually served up to the base at these sorts of events, there is a sense of rebellion in the air. Most of the conservative base in Iowa isn’t just interested in beating Hillary Rodham Clinton next year but in defeating all of Washington, D.C. – including GOP leadership. Even if you’re a movement conservative within the 666 area code, you probably have no idea just how fed up people in the cheap seats truly are.

2. Donald Trump may have become the Howard Dean of 2016.
He’s been the man of the moment, but now he might turn out to be our first flavor of the month. Mr. Trump was the one candidate who came into the event with the audience wanting to be sold on his candidacy. Mainly because he best embodied the overwhelming frustration I just referenced. To be sure, things started strong for Trump, and even his answer to Mr. Luntz’s question about John McCain’s criticism of him was on the right track at first. Mr. McCain’s name is mud to the average conservative activist, so they were relishing Mr. Trump slamming him. But when Mr. Trump took it too far by attacking Mr. McCain’s POW history, you could feel the balloon pop. Then Mr. Trump awkwardly tripped over a question about his faith right after that and the room fell silent. Skeptics had been waiting for Mr. Trump to take things too far, and it’s possible that day has arrived.

3. Rand Paul made a strategic blunder not showing up.
Mr. Paul has made it a habit of bypassing many of the major events on the campaign trail, and his mysterious strategy appears to be trying to win without competing for the majority of people who actually vote in the early states that winnow the field. So there he was over the weekend holding a fund raiser in Texas – a state he has almost no hope of winning – instead of building support in Iowa, where he inherited a substantial support base from his father that is now suffering from erosion. Ironically, several former supporters of his father were at the event. They were helping to stage a pro-life demonstration outside the auditorium demanding the defunding of death merchant Planned Parenthood. The protest drew three times the number who attended the Rainbow Jihad protest against Christian involvement in the public square across the street. In fact, one angry atheist (I apologize for the redundancy) actually called the cops on the pro-lifers for protesting “outside a designated free speech zone.”

4. Ben Carson has been studying up.
Mr. Carson authored one of the most detailed and thorough discussions of the Islamic State and foreign policy. That’s something he couldn’t have done several months ago. He came across as informed and ready to lead. He could stand to be the biggest beneficiary of Mr. Trump’s meltdown because there’s probably only room for one outlier candidate in the race, and Mr. Trump had owned that ground in recent weeks. And since he had the longest book signing line of all the speakers, it’s clear he has his admirers.

5. This may have been Bobby Jindal’s breakthrough.
By all accounts he even surpassed activist favorite Ted Cruz in standing ovations, and he represents a nice mix of Mr. Cruz’s courage of conviction and fellow Gov. Scott Walker’s resume of accomplishments. If there was a straw poll at the event he would’ve finished in the top three at the very least — maybe even won it. He’s still lagging behind organizationally and may end up being left out of the debates, but his message is a winner. Now he just needs to get Iowans to buy into the messenger.

6. Marco Rubio still knows how to connect with people.
Many of the activists in that room see him as the face of the amnesty they vehemently oppose. Yet when the topic turns to other issues, Mr. Rubio connects with the average voter as well as any candidate in this field. Even in a room full of conservative skeptics he is a gifted politician, so if it doesn’t work out for him this time his future is still bright.

7. Mr. Cruz’s impressive fund-raising haul is getting the right people’s attention.
In a crowded field of candidates, conservatives are looking for “tie-breakers” — some kind of intangible that separates GOP presidential hopefuls who possess similar worldviews/messages. For example: Mr. Cruz reporting he raised the most hard-money in the party last quarter, and trailed only Jeb Bush and Mrs. Clinton in overall resources. Folks I talk to are mentioning that a lot.

8. The Ricks are getting rolled.
There’s no nice way of putting this, but Iowans just don’t seem to be taking a serious look at Rick Santorum and Rick Perry despite their impressive resumes.

9. Huck seems stuck.
Mike Huckabee’s candidacy is riding on Iowa and he knows that. Iowans still really like him, which was made obvious again on Saturday. On the other hand, among the scores of activists who shared their thoughts with me about where the race stands, his name almost never came up. The warm fuzzy is still there but the buzz is not. And now with Mr. Jindal’s star potentially being born, Mr. Huckabee’s got more than just Mr. Cruz to worry about vying for the evangelical base.

10. Opinions are divided on Walker.
Mr. Walker owns perhaps the most impressive policy resume of any GOP governor that has ever run for president, and no one can take that away from him. He’s won fights most Republicans run and hide from. Yet I consistently hear conservative concerns about his staffing and messaging. For example, the day before speaking to thousands of evangelicals in Iowa, Mr. Walker was telling voters in New Hampshire that social issues “aren’t what I’m running on.” The early polls that are never right about Iowa say he’s the current frontrunner, but right now he’s not the strongest candidate with either the evangelicals or the business class. And if you’re not the strongest candidate with at least one of those groups you never win Iowa — ever. No matter how much money you spend or where you were polling the summer before.

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