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Don't count Ted Cruz out in Iowa

Before the Donald Trump freight train gets too far down the tracks, here's a word to the wise: Don't forget Ted Cruz, especially in the Hawkeye State.
Senator Ted Cruz leaves his rally in Ames, Ia., Jan. 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Senator Ted Cruz leaves his rally in Ames, Ia., Jan. 30, 2016. 

As the first 2016 nominating votes near, Donald Trump's strength as GOP front-runner seems only to grow - nationally and in Iowa, where he's led in five of the last six state polls. But before the Trump freight train gets too far down the tracks, here's a word to the wise: Don't count out Ted Cruz, especially in the Hawkeye State.

The Texas senator has one big advantage over Trump, he occupies the social conservative lane in the GOP primary field, and that lane tends to over perform in Iowa.

Consider the 2008 and 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses. In both years, the social conservative candidate won the state - former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum - and both men got a big bump in the final tally compared to polls.

Going into the 2008 caucuses, Huckabee led Mitt Romney by about 3 points - 29.7 percent to 26.7 percent - but in the final results Huckabee won by more than 9 points, 34.4 percent to 25.2 percent.

In 2012, Santorum had not led in any polls in Iowa going into the caucuses. Yet, the night of the vote, he eked out a .1 point victory over Romney.

RELATED: Cruz: Trump win in Iowa would propel him in N.H.

The point here is not all coalitions and supporters are the same. The caucuses are about who turns out in gyms, classrooms and assembly halls on what is usually a cold winter night in Iowa. And social conservative voters have a solid history of showing up. That suggests Cruz has an advantage.

For instance, a Quinnipiac Poll released on Tuesday shows Mr. Trump with a small 31 to 29 percent lead over Cruz. But in that poll, Cruz leads with "very conservative" voters by 20 points.

In 2012, "very conservative" voters made up 47 percent of the Iowa Republican caucus electorate, according to entrance polls. The question is will the 2016 caucus turnout look like 2012 or will they look different.

Trump needs them to look different.

There are some points working against Cruz in the numbers.

Momentum is an obvious factor. Just a few weeks ago the Texas senator was leading in most Iowa polls. Now Trump tends to have the better numbers there.

And there is the possibility that the social conservative vote will be fragmented between Cruz and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who himself had a solid lead in Iowa back in November. Carson now sits at about 7 percent in the Iowa polls.

Overall, however, in a close race, don't discount the power of Cruz's social conservative bona fides and Caucus Day surge those candidates tend to get.

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