WASHINGTON — Donald Trump made a late play for evangelical voters in Iowa's Republican presidential caucus, but he ultimately couldn't wrest the group away from winner Ted Cruz, according to
entrance polls taken at Monday's caucuses.
The polls, conducted for national media including The Associated Press, also suggest that late-deciding Iowans trended toward Cruz and third-place finisher Marco Rubio, who almost nipped Trump for a surprise second.
And perhaps the most perilous indicator for Trump: He got just one out of 20 votes among caucus attendees who said their top priority was a candidate who shares their values.
The Iowa results don't necessarily point to an eventual nominee: Just twice in 40 years has the GOP caucus winner gone on to the claim the nomination in campaigns with no incumbent Republican president.
But the details behind Cruz's victory and Rubio's climb raise new questions about Trump's turnout operation and his ability to turn his consistently front-running poll numbers into actual votes. That increases pressure on Trump to deliver a victory next Tuesday in New Hampshire or risk damaging his strategy of campaigning as the inevitable nominee at the head of a fractured field.
Trump showed little concern Tuesday. "Because I was told I could not do well in Iowa, I spent very little there — a fraction of Cruz & Rubio. ... Brought in record voters and got second highest vote total in history," he wrote on Twitter.
Indeed, that's true. But it glosses over some important details that Trump must avoid if he hopes to maintain his strength through what could become a lengthy slog of primaries and caucuses.
Sixty-four percent of Republican caucus participants in Iowa identified as born-again Christians. Cruz eclipsed Trump 34 percent to 22 percent among that group. Cruz also finished well ahead of Trump among caucus-goers who identified as "very conservative." And, potentially worrisome for Trump, Rubio came close — 33 percent for Trump to 27 percent for Rubio — among those who consider themselves "moderate" or "liberal."
The potential good news for Trump: He outpaced Cruz by more than a 2-to-1 ratio among caucus-goers who said they wanted an outsider in the Oval Office. Yet Cruz and Rubio — both senators — buried the billionaire businessman among voters who say they prefer political experience: 39 percent for Rubio, 35 percent for Cruz, 3 percent for Trump.
Yet those two pools of voters each made up about the same proportion of the Iowa GOP electorate, making the results a net loss for Trump.
Among the 45 percent of caucus-goers who said they decided who to support in just the final week, 29 percent supported Rubio, 27 percent supported Cruz and just 14 percent supported Trump.
Among the 36 percent of Iowa caucus-goers who were contacted by someone asking them to come out to support their candidate, Cruz had a 31 percent to 23 percent advantage over Trump.
Those numbers together suggest Trump must improve in delivering his identified supporters and in swaying undecided voters. Continued inability to do that indicates that Rubio and Cruz have considerably more room to grow their support as the race continues.
A potential avenue for Trump success could be in attracting new voters. Forty-five percent of caucus-goers said they were attending their first caucus, and they appeared more likely to support Trump than Cruz, 30 percent to 23 percent. But among previous caucus participants, Cruz held a 32 percent to 19 percent advantage.
The Rubio campaign, meanwhile, told its supporters in a Tuesday memo to pay attention to the choice of caucus-goers who prioritize picking someone who can "win in November."
That was about a fifth of Monday's caucus crowd; Rubio attracted 44 percent of them to Trump's 24 percent and Cruz's 22 percent.