DES MOINES, IOWA – Ted Cruz rocketed to frontrunner status in Iowa last week after scoring a high-profile endorsement and a ten point lead in one of the state’s most respect polls.
But even with Cruz’s hefty purse of campaign cash, striking ground organization and key supporters, longtime caucus observers and influential conservatives caution that a Cruz victory in the state is still far from a sure thing with more than a month to go before the opening contest of the presidential race.
“Anything could and likely will happen before caucus night. Things happen in the polls in even the final four days in the field,” venerable Iowa pollster Ann Selzer said. “The assignment Iowa is given is to look at the field. And there’s no advantage to lock in, so why would they?”
Selzer’s latest work, a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll released Saturday, found Cruz with a ten point lead over Trump in the Hawkeye State. But Selzer, who accurately polled Rick Santorum’s last-minute rise in 2012 and has predicted several other key Iowa races, told NBC News it’s unlikely that the trends seen in this weekend’s poll will hold the line in polling over the next month-and-a-half.
In the final month before the 2012 caucus, the Republican field shifted in the polls like a Plinko chip.
Just over a month from the caucuses, Newt Gingrich, with 25 percent, led the polls -- up by seven percentage points over Ron Paul. At that time, Mitt Romney slotted in at the third spot and eventual caucus winner Rick Santorum registered with just six percent of support.
“You just can’t call it at this point. The process isn’t frozen,” said Dennis Goldford, a longtime political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “If this was the weekend before the caucus, then, yes, Ted Cruz would win. But it’s not. This is where things get interesting.”
“Anything could and likely will happen before caucus night."
In this election cycle, Ben Carson has already exemplified that. In mid-October, the neurosurgeon held a nine-percent lead over Trump in Selzer’s poll. Since, he’s dropped from top-tier contention, plummeting 16 percentage points in the latest Iowa poll amid scrutiny of his foreign policy acumen.
The Cruz campaign is banking on the momentum of the much-hailed, recent endorsements by U.S. Rep. Steve King of northwestern Iowa and Bob Vander Plaats, the head of The Family Leader, a social-conservative, evangelical organization in the state, as evidence that Cruz is running a more formidable, lasting campaign -- unlike Carson or the array of candidates who fell from atop the GOP polls during the 2012 race.
But outside of Cruz’s circle of support, there’s significant pushback to the notion that conservatives and evangelicals in the state have already made up their minds and coalesced around his candidacy. And there’s skepticism over just how influential the backings of Vander Plaats and Steve Deace, a conservative radio host who endorsed Cruz in August, are among evangelicals.
“To suggest all evangelicals are going to check off all the same boxes and coalesce around one candidate based on the endorsement of an organization or a faith-based leader is somehow suggesting that those voters are not methodical enough in their vetting process,” said Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s committeeman to the Republican National Committee and also the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, another prominent social-conservative, Christian group in the state.
Several pastors noted to NBC News the desire to remain loyal to the candidate they perceive as their best option – regardless of polling or endorsements.
“I’m going to stay with Gov. Mike Huckabee as long as he’s in the race,” said Terry Amann, a politically-active, evangelical pastor at a church in Des Moines, noting the country’s need for a “shepherd’s heart to stand back and listen” amid a divisive culture on Capitol Hill.
In Tiffin, Iowa, a town of 2,500, Pastor Royce Phillips said, “I think you have some deliberative, thoughtful people trying to sort out who the best option is here.”
Phillips founded Tabernacle Baptist church more than 30 years ago. He also served several terms as mayor of the city.
“The polling right now tells you more who the flavor of the day is right now. Going into the ninth inning, [a candidate] may be down four runs – but it’s possible,” he added.
In Selzer’s poll, just 33 percent of Iowa Republicans said they had made their final choice among a field that still has ten candidates registering at least one percent of support in Iowa.
And though most nearly everyone in the state acknowledged to NBC News that the candidates outside of today’s top four have little chance of pulling off a Santorum-esque firework, the weight of support could directly chip into another candidate’s base.
Judy Davidson, the chair of the Scott County Republican Party, insisted Republicans in her eastern Iowa county are still “shopping.”
The Cruz campaign, for its part, feels the past few weeks have solidified the Texas senator has as the top GOP alternative to Trump in Iowa.
Deace suggested on Sunday night that Cruz is “in the perfect position,” arguing that he has “eliminated all the other conservative candidates” in the process with Trump as his only remaining competitor. Deace suggested Marco Rubio’s campaign “isn’t capable of winning Iowa” and said Carson’s campaign is “imploding.”
As for Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the caucus winners in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Deace ruled definitively: “Those guys are all done.”
But Jennifer Bowen, the executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said endorsements from the likes of Deace and Vander Plaats won’t guarantee anything for Cruz come February 1.
“This is a very tough race, so for anyone to say it’s a slam dunk – no one called Senator Santorum this far out [in 2012],” Bowen said. “A lot can change.”