After a wild week of news, the final polls released before the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first in the nation, show the race tightening between the three front-runners. One poll even showed a statistical tie between Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Atlanta-based pollster Opinion Savvy conducted this poll, which showed that 20.1% of respondents picked Trump, 19.4% Cruz, and 18.6% Rubio, all within the margin of error of +/- 3.2%.
There was then a drop-off to the next tier of candidates, with Ben Carson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) around 9 percent and no other candidate receiving more than 5 percent.
Opinion Savvy polled 887 Iowa Republicans on Friday, January 29 and Saturday, January 30, using both landlines and mobile numbers. The phone numbers were drawn from a list of registered Republican voters, an important screening process in a closed caucus like Iowa’s where only registered Republicans can participate.
Emerson College tweeted preliminary results late Sunday evening from their poll, also showing a tightening race, although not quite as close as the Opinion Savvy poll. Emerson is not releasing the full results and crosstabs until Monday morning, but did report that their poll had Trump at 27%, Cruz just a point behind at 26%, and Rubio a close third at 22%.
However, as many long-time political observers will point out, with polling, it’s not the number, it’s the trend. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg News poll, which the Five Thirty Eight blog noted has a strong track record for accuracy in the Iowa caucuses, showed a bigger lead for Trump with 28%, Cruz 23%, and Rubio 15%, with a margin of error of +/- 4%.
The DMR/Bloomberg poll was conducted slightly earlier than the Opinion Savvy poll: Tuesday, January 26 through Friday, January 29. This is important because of what happened late Friday: news breaking of a controversial mailer sent to targeted Iowa Republicans by the Cruz campaign.
In a story I reported late Friday evening at the Independent Journal Review, Cruz’s mailer was a large card printed to look like a manila envelope and was labeled “VOTER VIOLATION,” warning voters that their “individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record.” The mailer then listed the voter’s name, along with several of their neighbors, and assigned a voting score to each.
There was an immediate backlash to the Cruz mailer, specifically regarding the “VOTER VIOLATION” language, the appearance of being an official government communication, the assigning of grades, and the listing of the neighbor’s names and grades – including the implied threat that your neighbors would be seeing your name and grade on their own mailer.
The story spread more on Saturday, and the Iowa Secretary of State, Paul Pate, chimed in, calling the Cruz mailer “misleading,” “mispresent[ing] Iowa election law,” and “not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa caucuses.”
“Accusing citizens of Iowa of a ‘voting violation’ based on Iowa Caucus participation, or lack thereof, is false representation of an official act,” wrote Pate. “There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting.” Pate also pointed out that his office never “grades” voters.
Sunday morning, news broke that the Rubio campaign had also sent Iowa Republicans a mailer that sought to use the social pressure strategy to encourage them to caucus. As reported by TIME’s Zeke Miller, the “tone” of the Rubio mailer was “sharply different” from the Cruz mailer, with the Rubio effort avoiding the appearance of an official government notice, not mentioning anything about neighbors’ voting records, and simply indicating in which caucuses the voter had participated, rather than assigning any grade.
Additional negative media coverage continued for the Cruz mailer, which continued to be a significant part of the weekend’s political news coverage during the final two days before the Iowa Caucus.
Currently, the Opinion Savvy poll is the only one that’s been made public that includes any polling conducted after the Cruz mailer story broke.
“The change from Friday evening to Saturday evening was stark; Cruz saw a significant decrease, while Rubio gained,” pollster Matthew Towery of Opinion Savvy told Opportunity Lives. “I can’t tell you the precise margin, but it was in the 5-10 point range. Given the timing of the mailer story, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Cruz’s ploy backfired.”
“I don’t think that this will be enough to put Cruz in third place,” Towery said, “but it is a testament to the volatility in this race and the salience of its coverage.”
While Opinion Savvy did not ask any questions about either the Cruz or Rubio mailers, they did ask about the last Republican Debate, which Trump skipped after a much-publicized feud with debate host Fox News and Megyn Kelly. Poll respondents watched the GOP Debate instead of Trump’s competing rally by more than a two-to-one margin: 64.3% watched the GOP debate and 31.7% watched Trump.
Among those who watched the GOP debate, Trump’s support plummets to 10%, with Rubio then capturing 22.8% and Cruz closely following at 21.8%. On the other hand, for those who watched the Trump event, a whopping 90.0% picked Trump.
Two other results from the Opinion Savvy poll are likely to be relevant. First, Cruz was the favorite among respondents who identified as evangelical Christians, who the pollsters expect to comprise nearly 48% of caucus participants. Trump was the second choice for evangelicals, but has faced increasing criticism from some social conservatives opposed to his candidacy for his past pro-choice stances and other socially liberal beliefs. A Sunday story about Trump mistakenly trying to put money on a communion plate at a church visit won’t help matters.
Second, Rubio was the most popular pick when respondents were asked for their second choice candidate – helpful when many caucus goers make up their minds at the last minute. The Rubio campaign has been pushing a “#Marcomentum” message the past few days, and like Trump and Cruz, his final rallies have been packed, spirited events.
Monday evening, we will see what effect the kerfuffle over the mailers, Trump skipping the last debate, the Iowa winter weather, and whatever other twists and turns this roller coaster of an election delivers to us.
Sarah Rumpf is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @rumpfshaker.