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Takeaways from Iowa

Iowa caucus Cruz

Finally, some real votes, rather than polls.

Going into Iowa, Donald Trump led in the polls and dominated the media coverage, and he hoped that Iowa would be the start of a stampede across the country. That didn’t happen: Trump came in second with 24% of the vote, losing to Ted Cruz with 28%. On the Democrat side, the polls indicated it would be a close match, and it ended up being as almost as close as it could be. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended up in a near-tie, with Clinton squeaking it out by 49.9% to Sanders’ 49.5%.

What does Iowa mean for the race? Here are some initial observations.

Republicans

  • Return to traditional Iowa dynamics. The Republican who wins Iowa traditionally does so by winning the Christian/evangelical vote. This held true this year, as that is exactly the group that Cruz targeted and won. It was rumored that Trump had started to win over these voters, but it didn’t happen in Iowa.
  • Ground game trumps celebrity. Cruz’s organization was impressive, with lots of campaigning boots on the ground and ties with local influencers, like church pastors. The Republican turnout was very high, up a huge 50% on 2012. That is a testament not only to the unusual, Trump-circus, and up-for-grabs contest among Republicans this year, but also to old-fashioned mobilization. There was something heartening about seeing Cruz's grassroots organization beating Trump’s media-led, celebrity-driven campaign.
  • Republican establishment is back in it. The Republican establishment doesn’t like Trump or Cruz, and, before Iowa, polls showed the vote was split among the candidates they do prefer. They will therefore be pleased that Marco Rubio had a strong showing in Iowa: he came in third with 23%, beating expectations and almost catching Trump. They will now hope that the mainstream Republican vote will consolidate around Rubio, and make him a strong challenger to Trump and Cruz. At the same time, I wonder if the establishment will quickly pivot from sigh of relief to overconfidence. In particular, you can almost sense a relief that they can return to ignoring all of the working-class Trump voters and their concerns, and go back to talking about tax cuts and standing up to Putin.
  • Cruz has narrow appeal. Iowa is a good first step in Cruz’s attempt to corner the Christian/evangelical and Tea Party market. But he is narrow, often sounding like he wants to be President of the South. It is hard to see him broadening his appeal, even within a Republican party that has turned more conservative over the years. And, as many have pointed out, Iowa has not been a great predictor for the eventual nominee.
  • Trump is not invincible. Iowa is a blow to Trump’s self-promoted image as an unstoppable “winner”. He should come out on top in New Hampshire (his lead is 22 points – yes, “yuge”), but a narrow victory or surprise loss would be damaging, perhaps fatally. Trump has brought new voices of society into the political process – in particular, workers without a college education. But this group is also one that hasn’t voted in recent elections, so it remains to be seen if they will follow-through for Trump. Moreover, this group, while important, is not enough for Trump to build a majority on.
  • Rubio is still unproven. While the establishment will try to rally around Rubio, it remains to be seen if he can deliver on that. One week from now we’ll see if in New Hampshire he can break from the establishment pack of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. For what it’s worth, I also believe he is over-rated as a candidate. The Republican elite love him due to his demographics (young, Latino) and for espousing their favored policy positions. But he strikes me as an inexperienced and untested figure, seeming to always speak in the same over-caffeinated, slightly manic way, and coming out with much-rehearsed soundbites. Of course, he could improve over time in that regard, but a good part of the reason Trump has gone this far to date is down to people being unimpressed with more conventional Republican candidates, including Rubio.

Democrats

  • Enthusiasm matches the machine. Sanders didn’t win, but the fact that his campaign came to a virtual tie with Clinton is still impressive. Not that long ago, he was behind by 40 points. Clinton has built a vast political machine, which has lots of money and a lock on the traditional Democratic Party public policy and interest groups. It was a question, before the Iowa caucuses, whether Bernie would be able to get all of the college students that supported him to come and vote, and it appears he did.
  • Clinton’s weaknesses are exposed. Hillary will try to make the most of her narrow win in Iowa, saying a win is a win. But think about it: she drew to a virtual tie with a 74-year old, pretty obscure, self-described socialist. That shouldn’t happen to someone who is supposed to be undergoing a coronation. Some might say that Bernie’s attacks on her ties with Wall Street struck a big blow, but that’s not the half of what ails her. She offers little inspiration, brings lots of baggage from the past, and is dull on the stump (and still has a little problem of an FBI investigation into her personal email server). Clinton offers more of a direct continuation of the Obama administration as it is today; but Sanders speaks to the Democrats who had their expectations raised by Obama the “yes we can” candidate, and were disappointed in how he didn’t deliver on that in office.
  • Sanders has a big hill to climb. Her weaknesses notwithstanding, Clinton still has to be considered the favorite over Sanders. He really needed a victory in Iowa to set her back; his likely upcoming win in New Hampshire will be put down to a home-field advantage (he’s from Vermont, the neighboring state). While Sanders may be more inspirational, there is a large section of the Democrats – especially those in groups that depend on government largesse – that simply want to win, and believe Hillary is the safe choice. In addition, Sanders has support among the youth and the “progressive” wing of the party (including some of the media, celebrities and business types that make up the party’s gentry clerisy), but it remains to be seen whether he can expand on that. In particular, Clinton did better with women in Iowa than Sanders (and her acolytes keeps hitting at the “Berniebros”, accusing them of being sexist – an unfair accusation). And no doubt, the Clinton backers will say that he only did as well as he did in Iowa because it is largely white, like his backers. As the campaign turns to South Carolina after New Hampshire, Bernie will make a big push to try to win over the black vote. That won’t be easy, but Hillary sometimes appears that she takes black support for granted, and that could backfire on her. Still, it is a big task for Sanders, especially when you look down the road and see that Clinton has all of the Democrats “super-delegates” locked up – in other words, if the primary voting ends up being close by the summer, Clinton wins because of the party’s rules that allow additional delegates. It feels like Hillary's coronation will be an ugly slog.

Iowa is just the start.

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