Iowa only succeeded in providing less, not more, clarity with its surprising results. Neither the victors nor the losers can take anything for granted going into the next debates and Tuesday’s primary, although it should be less crazy the Iowa’s zany caucus.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 4, 2016
AMMAN —Wow, Iowa. Thanks for making everyone’s job harder…
The scenario that would have virtually sealed the Republican nomination for Trump was a clear Trump win, with a big gap between him and Cruz, and a big gap between Cruz and Rubio. The scenario that would have virtually sealed the nomination for Clinton would have been a clear Clinton win by more than just a few points.
Instead, we got scenarios that provided for about as unclear a nomination process as possible. When I wrote earlier that America was suffering from political chaos and wild-card candidates, I sure wasn’t wrong about that, even if I incorrectly predicted Iowa to go for Trump (see my explanation at the bottom). Much of the discussion below relies on these entrance polls (you can also see Democrats’ and Republicans’ info separately).
On the Democratic side, both surviving candidates have reason to feel good, but also cause for concern, though Clinton is still easily the favorite.
Clinton: The Good:
A win is still a win, no matter how close. Just ask President Al Gore. As explained earlier, except for Vermont, Bernie’s home state, and New Hampshire, no other state was more suited politically and demographically for a Bernie victory than Iowa, which also shared this position with Massachusetts and is is the only of these states outside of New England, Bernie’s backyard. Clinton’s well-run campaign competed with a well-run Sanders campaign on territory exceptionally tailor-made for a Bernie win and eked out a win for Clinton. Her organization was, therefore, slightly better and succeeded in turning out more Clinton supporters by the slimmest of margins than her rival’s campaign. After New Hampshire, almost every single state will be more favorable to her, so if she was able to do as well as she did last night in Iowa, she has little reason to panic, even if she loses in New Hampshire by a wide margin. Clinton won more delegates from the Iowa caucus process, both at the state level in the number of delegates Iowa’s caucus process will send to the national convention, so for all the false talk of a “virtual tie,” Clinton is indisputably a winner, if only by the narrowest margin in the history of Iowa caucusing.
Clinton The Bad:
Clinton won, but it would be virtually impossible to have won by less. A sizable win would likely have been a knockout blow against Sanders in the first round; that Bernie did so well and that the two were are virtually tied is most certainly going to be part of the narrative going into Bernie’s backyard, New Hampshire, where she is trailing Bernie currently by huge margins. That is a part of the narrative that Team Clinton would have preferred not to have had to grapple with at all. If Clinton wants to keep Sanders from having a shot at broadening his thus-far-narrow-support to other groups and to keep him from having a chance at chipping into her sizable lead in South Carolina and in other important states after New Hampshire, she will have to at least partially close the massive gap between her and Bernie in New Hampshire. In particular, Clinton would have to hope that any major negative revelations about her e-mail situation do not occur at a time when she needs to dominate in certain states like South Carolina and others going forward, and though it is unlikely such revelations will unfold, it is not impossible that this would happen.
Sanders: The Good
Sanders has a lot to be proud of: his insurgent campaign in a matter of months came from being extremely far behind Clinton in Iowa to coming painfully close to beating her. Bernie will be getting a lot of attention and money as a result of his strong performance there, more than enough to keep him in the race for a while and possibly as long as he wants to stay in since it is likely he will win New Hampshire also and will thus have a steady stream of positive coverage and donations coming in for weeks, enabling him to remain a presence for the foreseeable future. Bernie also clearly dominates among young voters by an overwhelming margin, and his remarkable ability to bring new young voters into the process is also something that all Democrats can celebrate if those voters are willing to be team players in the long-run and are not just “Bernie-or-bust.” Whatever the result of the nomination process, Bernie has helped the liberal wing of the Democratic Party roar back to life in a way not seen in a generation even if they still remain a minority within the party; because of Bernie, their voice has been heard loud and clear and they can be pleased with their candidate and their movement even for just that.
Sanders: The Bad:
If Bernie’s candidacy was going to have any serious viability, he should have been able to beat Clinton in a state that is basically tied for being the third-most favorable state in the nation to him based on political and demographic identity. That he did not increases the already substantial doubts about his ability to be a viable candidate and to win over significant numbers of people who are not white liberals. Bernie’s performance in Iowa does not bode well for the prospects for his campaign after New Hampshire. If anything, it suggests that Iowa and New Hampshire will be the peak of his performance and will likely be the only time throughout the race he is even close to Hillary in the delegate count. Bernie also did terribly with older voters, who tend to be more reliable voters than younger ones. Bernie also promised his supporters that he would win if there was a high turnout, and there was a high turnout, but he lost, even if barely. Finally, with O’Malley mercifully withdrawing, there will be much more time for public scrutiny of Sanders, especially during debates, a scrutiny to which he has not yet been subjected and with which Clinton is very familiar.
Both Hillary and Bernie did well enough to be able to hold their heads high and not be dogged by a negative narrative going forward. Bernie performed admirably against a formidable foe in Hillary Clinton, but unless something drastic happens, Hillary’s far stronger support among moderates and minorities means that Sanders has a statistically verysmall chance of winning the nomination. His best bet would have been a sizable victory in in Iowa followed by the same in New Hampshire; that would have given Bernie a dominant and overwhelmingly positive narrative for at least three weeks in February, and Clinton would have been dogged by a negative, losing narrative. Since that has not happened, the long-game does not look good for Sanders. Bernie should win in New Hampshire, a state in his own backyard and with similarities to Vermont’s electorate, but if his margin of victory shrinks significantly between where the polls have him now and where the results have him Tuesday, that would be the equivalent of his political obituary as it allows Clinton to credibly sell a narrative of momentum; if Bernie only wins by a slight margin or somehow manages to lose to Clinton (the latter seeming not likely looking at current polls), expect a very clear public narrative that he is done as a candidate.
On the Republican side, the results of Iowa may not (as usual) be terribly indicative of what is to come. Apart from the death of some of the bottom-tier campaigns, the race changes little for the rest of the candidates, with the possible exception of Rubio.
Cruz: The Good
Without a doubt, Ted Cruz surprised a lot of people. He put together a top notch organization and out-campaigned and out-politicked his opponents, and had one of the most efficient ratios for money spent per vote. Even when a national audience and the national media questioned some of his decisions, they played well with Iowans. Cruz also managed to win when virtually everyone—his rivals, Republican elites, and the media—were questioning his record and behavior. He even managed to win with two scandals relating to his personal loans and his eligibility to run for presidentdogging him. To be able to come out on top with so many negatives weighing him down is, objectively, a remarkable feat. Cruz also dominated among conservatives. In addition, unlike recent past Iowa caucus winners, Cruz has a solid organization and is well funded, and this status is only likely to improve as a result of his win; he has already raised $3 million since his victory. He also won his key demographic—Evangelicals—by 12 percentage-points, getting 34% to Trump’s 22%. In addition, Cruz was able to bring in a substantial number of new people into the process: 23% of all first-time caucus-goers, second only to Trump. He also did the best by far with Iowans on the issue of terrorism, and also led on the issue of government spending.
Cruz: The Bad
Make no mistake about it, Cruz’s victory was a dirty one. He doubled down on insulting “New York values” and it played well with enough voters In Iowa; he mailed out deceitful, lie-filled flyers to scare and shame his supporters into caucusing; his campaign even falsely suggested that Dr. Ben Carson had dropped out of the race while the caucuses were still happening, drawing the rare anger of Dr. Carson directly onto Cruz; and he played and pandered as much as possible to religion in a nation that is supposed to have secular governance. At the same time, Cruz only got about a third of the Evangelical vote, more than any other candidate, but such a divided Evangelical constituency is something that is a troubling sign for a candidate who is banking his entire campaign on dominating this group. Cruz also did terribly with moderates. All of this suggests that Cruz’s ability to broaden his support and to win in states that are not heavily conservative and/or religious is weak, making him a weak candidate and a possible one-state wonder (or just a few at most). He is also now one of everyone else’s biggest targets after his win in Iowa (and was so was even in the week before), and it is extremely unlikely that Cruz will be able to build momentum that will help him in New Hampshire, as there are very few Evangelicals there and it is not terribly conservative. It is very possible, maybe even likely, that he will come in third or worse in New Hampshire, something that would weaken him going into the primaries in the South, where he needs a strong showing for his chances of winning to survive.
Trump: The Good
With a candidate who operated in the manner that Trump did, it was inevitable that so many of his rivals and in the media would pummel him for coming in second. But Trump has more to be pleased about than should worry him. For one thing, Trump spent less money than any other candidate per vote in Iowa and still came in second. He also spent significantly less time in Iowa than Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and other rivals, meaning there is easy room for improvement, plus he still did better than all those candidates except for Cruz. Likewise, he kind of winged it when it came to his on-the-ground campaign organization in Iowa, and still managed to come in second, and he has time to adjust tactics. And, like Cruz and third-place Rubio, he won thousands more votes than any candidate had ever won in an Iowa caucus before 2016. That means that even half-assing it, Trump was able to bring in record support and hold his own in a crowded field against everyone else except for Cruz. Trump also managed to bring in more new caucus-goers than anyone else by far, 31% to Cruz’s 23%. Furthermore, from the beginning, Iowa was described as territory naturally hostile to Trump: it was rural and super religious and Trump was big-city and hardly known for his religiosity, like Cruz and Carson; yet somehow, Trump was able to only lose the state by less than 4%. In addition, he did well with Evangelicals, taking 22%, more than anyone else except Cruz. Moving into much more favorable territory, he can boast that he dominated moderates to New Hampshire, a moderate state where he is leading all other candidates handily. Trump’s support also remained the most steady of any candidate, with by far the highest portion of supporters who had decided earlier on their candidate rather than later. Additionally, Trump was the candidate who by far dominated on the issue of immigration and was most thought of as the candidate who could get stuff done. Also, to people paying attention to the details, Trump has demonstrated growth as a candidate, able to be more restrained when he chooses to be, and also showed he would not tolerate a level of public disrespect from Fox News when he boycotted the last debate, a sign of toughness many Republicans nationally will appreciate regardless of how it played out in Iowa. Trump has created a national movement largely built on media exposure and has barely begun to bring any of his substantial personal resources to bear in this race, and a second-place finish in Iowa will hardly mean the disappearance of this movement as he campaigns in New Hampshire, where he still has a huge lead.
Trump: The Bad:
A large portion of Trump’s campaign narrative that is fueling his success and dominance in media coverage involves the two pillars that he is 1.) leading in almost every poll and 2.) is, therefore, “winning.” Well, both those pillars took significant hits with the Iowa loss, but while the idea that these two pillars have crumbled and that the Trump Tower of Babble is going to imminently collapse, is premature, it puts the candidate in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. Being a “loser” in Iowa is still not where Trump wanted to be. In particular, his campaign came off as not particularly organized or intense on the ground there. Among voters who made their minds up in the throughout January, Trump significantly underperformed compared to both Cruz and Rubio, suggesting Trump may have problems winning further support among undecideds beyond those who have already declared in favor of him. He also did terrible in the metric of voters feeling that a candidate shared their values. Now, the pressure on Trump to do well in New Hampshire is the highest pressure he has yet faced as a candidate. A stumble in New Hampshire might not be fatal for Trump’s campaign, but there is a good chance it would knock him out of the top spot nationally and threaten his top spots in key winner-take-all states like South Carolina and Florida.
Rubio: The Good
Nobody exceeded polling and expectations in Iowa more than Sen. Marco Rubio. Before, he seemed to be the distant-third to Ted Cruz and only marginally ahead of Dr. Carson, with multiple other candidates chomping at the bit to break into his lad; with his strong third-place showing only about 1% behind Trump, he is in a position to potentially dominate all the other remaining candidates after Trump and Cruz and to turn the election into a virtual, three-way fight between himself and Trump and Cruz; in such a contest Cruz would almost certainly struggle nationally and Rubio would essentially be in a two-way race with Trump. At the very least, this positions him to be a favorite for a vice presidential slot and/or to be the heir-apparent to run again for president as a favored candidate four years from now. Not bad at all for a young, freshman senator from Florida. In many ways, his rise is not dissimilar to Barack Obama’s: both were ethnic-minority state legislators who won a U.S. Senate seat and then ran for president during their first senate term, though apart from that the two men are very different people. Rubio has indicators coming from Iowa that he can also boast of: he did respectably well with the key Evangelical demographic (with 21%, almost as well as Trump, who came in only behind Cruz), and was by far seen as the most electable candidate; perhaps most surprisingly, he led among all candidates, even Trump, on the issue of jobs/the economy. He also did the best with independents, and there are lot of them in New Hampshire.
Heading into the New Hampshire primary, he is pulling in a lot of cash and garnering a lot of positive media coverage, especially from conservative media. The wind is definitely in his sails nationally more than anyone else at this particular moment, even allowing for his third-place finish in Iowa. In particular, he can be happy that his two biggest rivals, Trump and Cruz, are focusing most of their attacks on each other heading into the next Republican Debate and New Hampshire’s vote on Tuesday. Without a doubt, Iowa made Rubio The Establishment/”moderate” candidate to beat, giving him a boost at the best possible time for his candidacy, which thus far has failed to take off and has not gained traction despite his being a darling of much of the conservative media. If Rubio takes off in any way going forward, his third-place finish just slightly behind Trump will be seen as the moment when it all began. As it is, there are already signs that he may be displacing Cruz for the #2 spot in New Hampshire, which is exactly where the Rubio campaign wants to be.
Rubio: The Bad:
With success comes greater risk: Rubio will be walking into New Hampshire with a huge target on his back and it remains to be seen if he can take the heat. He remains incredibly vulnerable on immigration, an issue of primary concern for many Republican primary voters, and remains vulnerable in terms of his lack of experience when tangling with Bush, Christie (who is now calling him “the boy in the bubble”), and Kasich, all of whom seem ready to go after him in New Hampshire (especially the first two). He is also taking serious heat from Trump and Cruz, and New Hampshire may very well elevate someone other than him to either be in the spot to challenge Trump or perhaps only to weaken Rubio’s chances. On average, he will likely be the main target in the next debate, and Rubio has not yet faced anything so fierce in this contest. His extreme views on abortion are also likely to hurt him in a state like New Hampshire. Rubio has at least as many signs to worry him in New Hampshire as he has to be happy, which is why he may be campaigning so cautiously there. New Hampshire will be a real test for Rubio’s viability as a candidate. If he does not finish second there, it will be difficult to see him having a real shot at challenging Trump, let alone winning the nomination, despite him being a new favorite of The Establishment and the conservative media.
Rest of the Pack and Verdict:
For the Republicans, Trump is still likely to win handily in New Hampshire. If this happens, things do not look good for the non-Trumpers as the race heads to South Carolina. It will be very hard for Cruz to finish in the top two spots in New Hampshire, and he may well finish lower than even third, as what played well in Iowa will not play well with New Hampshire’s different crowd. His best hope for remaining viable is for his non-Trump rivals to keep splitting support fairly evenly among themselves so that none of them can rise to prominence and displace him. Rubio could rise to be second behind Trump, but the three governors—Bush, Christie, and Kasich—could do some damage to and I believe they will go a long way to exposing his weaknesses as a candidate and that he will not do as well in New Hampshire as some are hoping he will. If this happens, who emerges strongest in New Hampshire between Bush, Christie, and Kasich? Having just lost Huckabee, Santorum (winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses, respectively, a fact testifies remarkable to the increasing volatility of modern politics), and Rand Paul, who will be next to drop out? Bush still has a ton of money, so it seems there would be more pressure on Kasich and Christie to drop out if they do not perform well in New Hampshire. Fiorina is irrelevant in New Hampshire and nationally as well, but as a millionaire and the only woman running on the Republican side, she has reasons to stay in the race to at least make a solid audition for being the vice presidential pick. Carson is irrelevant in New Hampshire but is still a strong fourth nationally and has plenty of money in the bank to continue his campaign. His continued presence hurts Cruz the most, who depends heavily on Evangelical support, and Carson remains a darling of Evangelicals nationally. Expect Carson to be just… there, and possibly until the end of the race.
Iowa is not a state that is representative of America as a whole, and, more often than not, Iowa fails to pick the winning candidate on the Republican side. To be sure, candidates at the top should not expect similar results and/or similar margins in New Hampshire. Trump and Bernie are clear favorites, but a win is a much bigger deal for Trump than for Sanders.
Epilogue: Why I Got Iowa Wrong for Trump
If you read one of my last articles, you know that I wrote it was a pretty sure thing that Trump would win Iowa. Without apologizing, I want to explain to my readers where I erred and why I was wrong:
1.) I assumed that billionaire Trump would not skimp on organizing a campaign in Iowa, even if last minute, and that he would dump a lot of money into the state in the final week. I just assumed that the people around him, and that The Donald himself, would not be so cavalier in Iowa. However, those who dismiss Trump as “stupid” neglect his overall spectacular management career. I am not saying that I lean towards what I am about to say, but I also would not be surprised if Trump and his people didn’t mind risking a close Iowa loss to seeing all his rivals tear each other apart because of the results. Right now the focus is all on taking Cruz and Rubio down, and a win in an atypical and small state like Iowa, in the end, is not much of a threat to Trump’s candidacy, especially since Cruz was the victor. If Rubio was trailing him, and not Cruz, in the final days in Iowa, I suspect that Trump & Co. would have had a different approach. So perhaps this is a sly, calculated plan to elevate Cruz and thus make Trump look less extreme and see Cruz and his rivals damage each other to Trump’s benefit. I’m not saying I think this is the case, but that, again, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. After all, this almost certainly had to have been part of the calculus in Trump’s skipping the final debate in Iowa. Either way, Trump is an amateur at political campaigning, but he is learning fast and on-the-fly, and don’t assume he will make the same mistakes with his ground game in New Hampshire and other states as he did in Iowa.
2.) I mistakenly (and naively) assumed that Cruz’s dirty tactics and attacks on Trump’s “New York values” would backfire and help to keep him from winning Iowa; while I am right that they are certainly backfiring on him on a national level, they clearly helped him in the closing days in Iowa. I assumedhis dislikability on the national stage would spill over to the local level in Iowa, and did not give the specific nature of Iowans and the state of Iowa enough consideration when I ended up deciding to favor Trump as much as I did and to not favor Cruz as much as I did. I will admit that I personally find Cruz the most detestable of all candidates, and while I never consciously allowed that to affect how I went about my research, in the future I will check myself a bit more when analyzing him and his campaign to guard against any subconscious factors.
3.) In general, Iowa is difficult to predict; in fact, it is the most difficult state to predict, especially since it holds its contests as wacky caucuses, not simpler, superior, and more democratic primaries. The oft-cited gold-standard Des Moines Register poll, run by polling virtuoso Ann Selzer, was wrong this time on the Republican side; it has only been wrong one other time from 1988 until now. One of the problems is that this poll and most of the other final polls were not conducted in the final days before Iowa, so they missed a late break of momentum for Rubio and other shifts; there was also a surprisingly high Evangelical turnout and over 1/3 of Iowa caucus-goers made their decisions in the final few days and were thus missed by most pollsters. All of these reasons contributed to why the polling in Iowa did not reflect the final result, though it probably did reflect the mood when the polls were actually taken. If the election were held a few days earlier, my prediction, and the picture painted by most pollsters, would likely have held.
Overall, it was a good experience for me. I had a feeling Hillary would beat Bernie, but hesitated in making an “official” prediction since it was so close. I am happy to say that I can learn from my mistakes on the Republican side and hope my errors are understood by my faithful readers. I am confident I can do better in the future (my non-public predictive record in past elections state-by-state has been pretty solid) and hope you will stay tuned as I continue my coverage of America’s 2016 elections, as well as other topics. Also, bonus points to anyone who gets The Hobbit reference…
Here are many more articles by Brian E. Frydenborg. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to him! Feel free to share and repost on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow him there at @bfry1981)