Bloomberg/Register Iowa Poll: Cruz vs. Trump in home stretch

Less than three weeks before Iowa caucus- goers cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential election, the Republican contest in the crucial first heat has boiled down to two neck-and-neck races, one between Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Donald Trump and another between Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

A new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows Cruz and Trump, the two fiercest anti-establishment candidates, locked in a tight race for first place, well ahead of the rest of the pack. Following at a distance are Rubio and Carson, battling for third place.

None of the other contenders can muster more than 5 percent support from likely Republican caucus-goers. A number of those candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have given relatively short shrift to Iowa as they focused their efforts on New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

The survey, conducted Jan. 7-10 by Selzer & Co. of West Des Moines, Iowa, included 500 likely Republican caucus participants. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

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Cruz has the support of 25 percent of those likely to attend the Republican caucuses on Feb. 1, closely followed by the billionaire real estate mogul at 22 percent. The poll indicates that while Trump’s supporters are more committed, the firebrand junior senator from Texas appears to have more room to grow his support.

Still, Trump’s ability to close the 10-point gap that Cruz had opened up over him a month ago is more due to Cruz losing altitude than Trump gaining it: Trump is up 1 percentage point since the poll was last taken in early December; Cruz has dropped 6 points during a period when he was under almost constant attack from Trump and other rivals, as well as Iowa’s powerful corn-based ethanol industry. In the last two weeks, Trump has aired 2,324 ads in Iowa, far more than any of his rivals, according to data compiled by the media tracking company Kantar/CMAG.

The race for third place in Iowa is equally tight, with Rubio distancing himself from other establishment candidates at 12 percent, closely followed by Carson at 11 percent.

In a presidential race that has been unpredictable from its start, the Iowa contest seems to be coming into some clarity, with Trump and Cruz currently the only candidates positioned to win. The intensity has increased in recent days, with both men boosting their personal appearances and advertising.

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“It’s hard to say Donald Trump is back, because his support grew only one point,” said J. Ann Selzer, founder of Selzer & Co. “It seems more a matter of slippage for Cruz. He has upside potential, for sure. But so does Trump, just in different ways.”

Trump’s most recent line of attack against Cruz-questioning his legal eligibility for the presidency because he was born in Canada to an American mother-doesn’t appear to have much punch. Just 15 percent of likely Republican caucus participants say they’re bothered that Cruz was born outside the United States, with about half of those being Trump’s own supporters.

When first and second choices are combined, Cruz leads Trump 48 percent to 33 percent. That means he has a higher potential ceiling of support, if he can convince those backing other candidates to shift his way and also if he isn’t diminished further by attacks from Trump and others.

Rubio, who has long been a popular second choice, is at 28 percent when first and second choices are combined, followed by Carson at 19 percent. Half of Rubio’s supporters say they’re backing someone they consider an establishment candidate, while 27 percent say they’re supporting an anti-establishment one.

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So far, Cruz hasn’t responded to Trump by directly attacking him, and the poll suggests that avoiding head-on confrontations with Trump is strategically sound: 47 percent of Trump supporters say Cruz is their second choice. Trump is the second choice of just 25 percent of Cruz backers, though, so the businessman isn’t likely to gain a massive number of new votes knocking down his top challenger.

The former reality television star leads Cruz by the highest margins among those who say disrupting government is their top or major consideration (31 percent to 26 percent), Catholics (28 percent to 20 percent), first-time caucus-goers (26 percent to 19 percent), and those with household incomes of $100,000 or more (25 percent to 20 percent).

Cruz bests Trump by the biggest margins among those who consider themselves very conservative (39 percent to 20 percent), those 65 and older (30 percent to 22 percent), born- again evangelicals (37 percent to 17 percent), tea party supporters (34 percent to 25 percent), and those who attend religious services at least once a week (29 percent to 17 percent).

Likely Republican caucus-goers want government disruption from their candidate, with 42 percent saying it’s a major consideration and another 6 percent saying it’s most important in their decision-making.

On that count, Trump easily beats Cruz, with 71 percent of all likely Republican caucus participants saying that between the two, the businessman would be the most disruptive to government. Even among Cruz’s supporters, 59 percent say Trump is more disruptive.

“He speaks his mind and he’d probably be a good change from the establishment politicians that we have had who haven’t done anything useful,” said Trump supporter Richard Kniseley, 60, a pharmaceutical auditor from Ft. Dodge, Iowa. “It might be a bit of a risk, but I think we need to do something different.”

The poll’s findings suggest that Trump is inspiring new interest in the Republican caucuses: 29 percent of those in the survey say they’ll be attending the caucuses for the first time. That’s the highest number recorded for that category by the poll this election cycle. A month before the 2012 caucuses, the number of those saying they’d be attending Republican caucuses for the first time was 21 percent.

Roughly a third of Trump’s supporters say this will be their first caucus, compared to 22 percent for Cruz, 25 percent for Rubio and 41 percent for Carson. Those numbers suggest Trump and Carson have a greater challenge in turning out their supporters because veteran caucus-goers tend to be more reliable.

Numbers of first-time caucus-goers can be the barometer for an upset, however. A month before the 2008 caucuses, which saw freshman Sen. Barack Obama upset establishment favorite Hillary Clinton, 36 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers told the Iowa Poll they’d be attending for the first time. By caucus eve, that number had risen to 60 percent.

The race remains fluid, so anything could still happen. Just 42 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say their minds are made up. Trump and Cruz supporters, at 64 percent and 51 percent respectively, are the most likely to say they’ve decided.

Majorities of Rubio and Carson supporters say they could still be persuaded to back someone else. That offers a potential opening for Cruz because of his strength as a second-choice candidate and overlap with those interested in Carson.

Those who have no first-choice candidate, or have a first choice but say they could still move to another candidate, are more likely not to support the Tea Party movement, have college degrees or post-graduate education, and have household incomes of $70,000 or more.

Cruz beats Trump, 28 percent to 23 percent, among those who say they’ll definitely attend the caucuses (a subset of the larger sample that also includes those who say they’ll probably go).

“I really believe he will do what he says he will do,” said Jeanette Davis, 47, a Cruz supporter from Parkersburg, Iowa. “He’s anti-establishment and he’s not afraid to stand up to anyone, whether they are in his party or not.”

Davis, a homemaker who caucused for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, said she supports Cruz’s limited- government message. “I like that he wants to do away with a lot of these government infringements on our lives,” she said.

Cruz leads the field in favorability ratings, with 76 percent of likely caucus participants viewing him positively, up 3 percentage points since December. Carson and Rubio closely follow at 73 percent, both slightly higher than in December. Trump’s favorability headed in the other direction, down three points since the last Iowa Poll, to 54 percent.

Reflecting the strong religious bent of likely Republican caucus-goers, 57 percent reported going to services at least once a week. Among that group, Cruz gets support from 29 percent, followed by Trump at 17 percent, Carson at 13 percent, and Rubio at 11 percent.

Likely Republican caucus-goers find it more unattractive (42 percent) than attractive (37 percent) that Cruz wants to phase out the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets the minimum amount of ethanol and other biofuels that must be included in the nation’s gasoline supply. Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of ethanol. Even so, Cruz supporters appear to like his willingness to take on one of Iowa’s sacred cows: 56 percent of them find his anti-RFS stand more attractive than unattractive.

A majority of 58 percent find it attractive that Cruz has angered fellow members of Congress, including 80 percent of his supporters. More than three-quarters of likely Republican caucus-goers find it attractive that he’s guided by Christian values in opposing abortion and gay marriage.

Almost two-thirds of likely Republican caucus participants find it attractive that Cruz has opposed any path to legal residency for people living in the U.S. illegally, while 75 percent say that about his decision to generally avoid criticizing Trump. Sixty percent, meanwhile, find it unattractive that he has little foreign policy experience.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere, national security is rated as extremely important by 79 percent of the likely Republican electorate, above the 72 percent who say that about the economy. Social issues like abortion and gay marriage are prioritized that highly by 47 percent, followed by 46 percent who say that for taxes.

Overall, those likely to attend the Republican caucuses say the election is more about leadership than about the issues, 52 percent to 40 percent. Values matter more than confidence in a candidate’s ability to win a general election, with 72 percent saying values are extremely important, compared to 55 percent who say that about winning.

In terms of social media, 38 percent say they already follow candidates or expect to do so, while 23 percent say that about posting positive comments about candidates. Twelve percent say they already have or expect to post negative comments.

Among likely Republican caucus-goers who could recall who they caucused for in 2012, supporters of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, opt for Cruz over Trump, 26 percent to 22 percent.