After more than six months of nonstop campaigning, serial debates and interminable polls, on February 1st Iowa voters started the sorting and winnowing process.
1. Clinton wins, but looks weak. Hillary Clinton still has a lock on the Democratic nomination. She carried more moderate and older voters in Iowa to survive the Bernie Sanders challenge with a tie. Adding them to minority voters, which she carries by 30 to 40 points, and toss in 400 already committed super delegates, will get her to the 2,382 delegates needed for nomination.
But Iowa confirmed what months of campaigning displayed. She is not very good at it, and her older voters are mostly practical, instead of passionate, in their support. She will be a weak candidate for the general election, and is likely to only win if the Republicans offer an even less attractive choice.
Clinton thought she would wrap the race up by the March primaries, but Sanders’ strong Iowa showing and likely New Hampshire win suggests the race will go deep into May. (See blogs: Clinton Struggling in Iowa and New Hampshire But Strong Beyond, Jan. 19, 2016; and Clinton Expects to End Contest March 1st Super Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.)
2. Trump underperforms his polls. Live by the polls, die by them. According to the polls, Donald Trump became the Iowa frontrunner a few weeks before caucus day. He believed them and raised the expectations that caused his campaign a crisis on caucus night that could leave him in a long-term defensive position.
The real benefit from quality polling, of which there was some in Iowa, including a poll as voters entered their caucus, is that it illuminated the Republican Party’s major factions and their alignment with each candidate. They also described what happened on caucus night with late deciders and new voters.
The fierce contest, the Iowa ground games and Donald Trump drew record turnout. It has long been speculated that Trump has a ceiling of public support. And, indeed, the caucus results appear to confirm it. His record-high unfavorability led many new voters to the caucus to vote against him. Also, his famous boorish behavior finally caught up with him. Late deciding voters broke strongly against him. Boycotting the debate not only hurt him, but his absence created the platform that gave Marco Rubio a push and brought him within one percentage point of catching Trump. Finally, the results confirmed what was suspected about a celebrity candidate with no organization – they can’t convert polls to votes. That flaw could be fatal and will be tested quickly in New Hampshire and South Carolina where polls have put Trump in the lead for months. In fact, even a win in New Hampshire, if it is substantially less than his polls, will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. (See blog: Republican Rush to Iowa and New Hampshire, Jan. 6, 2016)
3. The establishment lane needs to clear out. New Hampshire should reduce the Republican race to three candidates – Trump for the angry, Cruz for the devout and rigidly conservative, and Rubio, if he can ride his Iowa momentum, for the practical, electability voter. Rubio left Iowa looking like a good candidate for the general election, demonstrating crossover ability for attracting some religious and some angry voters. But, he will have to emerge convincingly from the New Hampshire primary, where three governors are fighting for their political lives. Unfortunately for the governors, experience is less valued this year among Republican voters.
Iowa convinced Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to withdraw. After months of effort and attacks on Marco Rubio and each other, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie need to either become the strong third candidate (assuming it’s not a tie for second or third post the New Hampshire debate) or get out after New Hampshire. John Kasich may have the New York Times, but if he can’t become a player in New Hampshire, it’s over. (See blog: The Winnowing Has Started, Jan. 20, 2016)
4. The long game keeps lengthening. Iowa could have ended both parties’ races quickly. Had Clinton held her early lead, Sanders would be seen as the usual Democratic far left candidate isolated to the most liberal states. But Iowa highlighted the party’s close division on its future and voter’s attitudes toward Clinton’s tedious, desultory style. The Democratic race is likely to be a long story, even if Clinton has an advantage.
Had Trump won Iowa, he would have been catapulted into a very strong position for subsequent events. Now, the Republican race is still far from even becoming a three-person contest, and it is not yet clear which combination of party factions can sufficiently unite behind a candidate to reach the 1,236 delegate majority. (See blog: The Counting Begins, Jan. 28, 2016)
FiveThirtyEight: Donald Trump comes out of Iowa looking like Pat Buchanan
New York Times: Ted Cruz wins Republican caucuses in Iowa
CBS News: 2016 Iowa caucuses: Two races decided by very different factors
NBC News: Iowa entrance poll results: Rubio’s good night
Politico: Democrats lag badly in chase for national security voters
Sabato’s Crystal Ball: What we learned from Iowa
New Republic: Five takeaways from the Iowa caucuses
The Federalist: 13 quick takeaways from the 2016 Iowa caucuses
The Cook Political Report: Making sense of Iowa
ABC News: Schisms carve the Iowa contests, leaving a murky political calculus