Who Really Won Iowa? (And Other Post-Caucus Thoughts)

It was a busy day dealing with media inquiries and preparing for my weekly politics luncheon with students and local residents. Today’s lunch topic, not surprisingly, was the impact of yesterday’s “game changing” Iowa caucus (which was anything but) on the presidential race. Perhaps not surprisingly to my regular readers, my takeaway regarding Iowa differs a bit from the dominant day-after media narrative. Here, in no particular order, are my immediate thoughts regarding what happened yesterday.

1. Guess what – the polls underestimated Ted Cruz’ support! A lot of the media buzz today centers on the failure of polls to anticipate Cruz’ victory over Donald Trump, and on their inability to foresee the late rise by Marco Rubio, which brought him within shouting distance of The Donald. But really – should we be surprised that the conservative Republican candidate over performed the Iowa polls? In 2008 and again in 2012, the pre-caucus polls underestimated the vote received by winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, respectively. In retrospect, we probably should have anticipated that Cruz was likely to do better than the polls indicated. Hindsight is 20/20 of course but still….

2. Similarly, most pollsters understated the magnitude of Rubio’s late surge. And because he beat media “expectations”, he is being hailed today as one of the two “winners” from yesterday’s event, along with Cruz. Many media talking heads say he now leads the “establishment lane” of Republican candidates, and is positioned to consolidate that vote in New Hampshire, which pundits now see as a three-person race between Trump, Rubio and Cruz. Count me as unpersuaded. If you attend their rallies, it is hard to group Rubio alongside Bush, Christie and Kasich as party establishment favorites. (That assumes we can agree on what constitutes the “establishment”.) Rubio’s views are actually quite conservative compared to the others, and he spends a good deal of time during campaign appearances talking about his fealty to Judeo-Christian values and pushing back against the separation of church and state.  While that played well among a Republican electorate consisting of some 64% evangelicals in Iowa, I’m not so sure how it will be received in New Hampshire, particularly if a large chunk of the roughly 44% of unaffiliated New Hampshire voters decides to participate in the Republican primary. Keep in mind as well that Rubio is now going to have an even bigger bull’s eye on his back during the next week.

3. Along with Rubio “winning”, the other dominant media theme-du-jour was that Trump “lost” yesterday in Iowa. Again, that’s not my read. I actually came away very impressed that someone on his third marriage, who mistook a communion plate for an offering plate, and who quoted from “Two Corinthians” was able to finish second in a race dominated by evangelical voters.  According to exit polls, 45% of those voting yesterday in the Republican race were first-time caucus goers, and 30% of them went for Trump, compared to only 23% for Cruz and 22% for Rubio.  So he was a big draw for political newcomers. It seems  clear that Trump is here to stay, but that like all the candidates, he has certain strengths and weaknesses based on his own particular constituency of economic populists and secular conservatives. That’s not a coalition that is easy to put together in Iowa, but it may resonant a bit more broadly in New Hampshire, and will certainly play well in future contests.

4. On a related note, it is customary for the media to attribute a candidate’s victory to their superior ground game, even if there’s no independent evidence to corroborate that claim beyond the vote totals. We see this happening again in Iowa, where the chattering class is unanimous in arguing that Cruz’ victory shows he out-organized The Donald. But it is also the case that Cruz’ supporters were probably more inclined to come out for him in any case, and that there were more of them to start with. Caucus states generally reward intensity of support, and yesterday’s results were no different. For what it is worth, among the roughly one third of Iowa voters who reported some personal contact with a candidate’s campaign organization, Trump finished second to Cruz.  In short, Cruz may have been more organized, but I am reluctant to draw any more general conclusions based on the outcome of a caucus state regarding the relative efficacy of Trump’s “air game” versus Cruz’s “ground game.”  It may be that Trump’s fly in-fly out big rally strategy will play better in the larger primary states, particularly on Super Tuesday.

5. On the Democrat’s side, if I’m Bernie Sanders I have to be secretly disappointed that I only fought Clinton to a draw in a state tailored-made to reward a partisan candidate with intense supporters. In this regard, I think Clinton’s post-Iowa “victory” speech, in which she acknowledged, “As I stand before you tonight, breathing a big sigh of relief – thank you Iowa!” was probably the most genuine statement she has made in years. Turnout among Democrats, while strong, did not come close to matching the 240,000 who participated in 2008 when Obama overcame Clinton’s early polling lead to win the state. Entrance/exit polls indicate that Clinton easily bested Sanders, 58%-34% among the 9% of Iowa voters who were non-white, something that does not bode well for Sanders past New Hampshire. In short, so far at least, it does not appear that Sanders is recreating the Obama coalition. Keep in mind that exit polls from the Democrat caucus in 2008 show that Iowa was the whitest and most liberal state in the nominating process, with the exception of New Hampshire and Vermont. If Sanders cannot kill the Queen on such favorable terrain, it is hard to see how he will do so when the terrain grows more difficult for him. After yesterday, Hillary and her people have to be quietly confident going ahead. Of course, this isn’t going to stop journalists from arguing that yesterday’s results indicate that Hillary is in for a tough race.

6. Iowa, as I repeatedly reminded my students, is not a very good indicator, particularly among Republicans, of who will win the party nomination. What it does do, however, is help winnow the field. Two candidates – Martin O’Malley and Mike Huckabee – formally fell by the wayside yesterday. I expect Rick Santorum to join them shortly, unless he feels like he has enough money to stay in through South Carolina. (He’s not bothering to campaign in New Hampshire.) Looking ahead, New Hampshire will likely prune the Republican field even more, with Carly Fiorina the next likely victim. I expect Carson to hold on through South Carolina. The key question, in my view, is whether any of the group of three – Bush, Christie or Kasich – is going to be able to emerge as the “establishment” alternative to Trump. This assumes, of course, that I am right that Rubio does not easily pass as the moderate alternative.  For what it is worth, Trump beat Rubio among the 14% self-described moderates in Iowa, 34%-28%. History suggests that the social conservative candidate does not win the Republican nomination when confronted with a party united behind a more moderate Republican. Of course, it is not entirely clear that history is a very good guide to what we are seeing during the current election cycle!

7. A final thought: when does Bernie go negative and start talking about Hillary’s emails?

Before I go, I want to pass on best wishes to regular politics luncheon contributor and strong Hillary backer Holly Burke, who is slated to graduate from Middlebury this weekend!  I expect to see her working on someone’s political campaign in the very near future.   Congratulations Holly, and don’t forget the little people (including professors) on your rise to the top!




  1. Here’s my question. Isn’t the media being right or wrong in interpreting the caucuses different than a political scientist being right or wrong? The media has the privileged position of affecting (not completely but not trivially either) the outcome of their prediction. If the media (pretending for the moment that there is one dominant voice called “the media”) says that Rubio won the day yesterday, some people will believe that he won the day. They will look more closely at his candidacy. If some of his opponents believe it, they will attack him more vociferously. If his campaign believes it, he will campaign like someone who won yesterday (or maybe he will just cynically take advantage of that perception). All of this could turn the media’s interpretation into a self-fulfilling interpretation.

    If a political scientist had that kind of power (well of course you would use it judiciously) might we see a different path forward out of Iowa?

  2. Stuart,

    You raise a great point. I agree that media observations can influence events in ways that make that observation more likely to come “true”. I guess I am arguing, however, that the initial media observation is not based on “truth”. In this case, Rubio finished behind Trump, declarations of victory notwithstanding. I don’t deny that the “expectations” game comes into play, and that it is the media that determines who exceeds or fall short of expectations, but my nerdy poli sci side persists in believing that if enough people point out the “truth” to journalists, maybe they will catch on! I know, I know – I’m hopelessly naive!

  3. Regarding the regular underestimation of conservatives in Iowa polls, could it be that some group of voters–Evangelicals, perhaps–consistently resists talking to pollsters?

  4. Would talking about Hillary’s emails play well to a Dem primary electorate? I can see it appealing to one segment, good-government voters uneasy about all things Clinton, but surely they are already in Bernie’s camp. Other Dem voters, especially those more ‘tribal,’ might just be antagonized.

  5. Rick – You may very well be right. It would also undercut his previous claim that he wouldn’t go negative and, by contradicting his earlier statement to “forget about her damn emails” it would have more than a whiff of campaign desperation. However, the counterargument is that he needs to do something to expand his coalition, and that he could argue that recent revelations on this topic make it clear she’s unelectable in the general, so for the good of the party, etc., etc. I’m anticipating that he would go negative after NH, of course, on the assumption that he’s going to hold on there. In any case, I’m not necessarily recommending it as a strategy so much as pointing out that campaigns often do go negative when all else fails and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if Bernie does. On second thought, this is why he needs a SuperPac!

  6. Scott – Good point! I bet it would be possible to tease out some tentative answers by parsing the polls by interview method – comparing automated polling vs. live interviews, for instance. If I get a chance I’ll look into that.

  7. Yep, and he still won 22% of the evangelical vote in Iowa, second only to Cruz, and ahead of Rubio! Praise the Lord!

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