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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!



Dueling Strategies In Iowa

No one – least of all me – knows what’s going to happen in Iowa tonight. But as the first real voting (in a manner of speaking) to take place during the current electoral cycle, the results are going to be hyped by the media to a far greater extent than the meager delegates totals at stake would seem to justify. . Indeed, no actual party convention delegates will be chosen at all tonight – that won’t happen until later in the spring – although it may be possible to make a rough approximation regarding how the 44 pledged Democratic and 27 pledged Republican delegate are going to be apportioned based on this initial round of voting. But it’s not the delegates that matter tonight – it’s the perception of who over- and under-performed the media expectations game. There’s a reason why Iowa, along with New Hampshire, will attract the lion’s share of the media coverage during the nominating process.
Already the media has blanketed the airwaves with a breakdown of polling trends, and detailed discussion of the likely geographic breakdown of candidates’ support. Can Cruz replicate Santorum’s 2012 showing in the more rural western counties that contain a healthy portion of the state’s evangelicals? Will Sanders’ support be overly concentrated in the student strongholds, rather than spread more efficiently to increase his delegate haul? What about Rubio? Recent polls suggest he might exhibit the last-minute surge that characterized Huckabee’s unexpectedly strong performance in 2008 or Santorum’s equally surprising climb from sixth place in the polls one week out to victory in 2012. Can Rubio replicate Romney’s 2012 strong showing among moderates and non-evangelicals in the eastern portion of the state. All this will be chewed over heavily by the talking heads tonight as we wait for returns to trickle in. (Caucusing begins at 8 p.m. eastern time).
But in addition to all those other questions, here’s why I think Iowa is important. Look at this chart based on data gathered by the Des Moines Register documenting the visits and campaign events conducted by the various candidates in Iowa this election cycle.

                    Days in  Total
Candidate            Iowa    Events
Martin O'Malley       68      191
Bernie Sanders        60      155
Hillary Clinton       50      106
Rick Santorum         95      293
Mike Huckabee         81      222
Ted Cruz              56      152
Carly Fiorina         61      138
Rand Paul             42      120
Ben Carson            47      110
Marco Rubio           48      100
Chris Christie        36       80
Donald Trump          37       57
Jeb Bush              27       51
John Kasich           15       23
Jim Gilmore            2        2

As you can see, the moderate Republican candidates – Bush, Christie and Kasich – spent relatively little time in Iowa, preferring instead to concentrate on New Hampshire where the electorate is viewed as perhaps more ideologically compatible. On the other hand, Santorum and Huckabee have staked their candidacies on replicating their previous success in this state (Huckabee won in 2008, and Santorum in 2012.) If they perform as poorly as polls suggest they will, they are likely to be winnowed from the field as neither is expected to do well in New Hampshire. Cruz has also spent considerable time in Iowa, and he appears to have absorbed most of the Huckabee/Santorum coalition of more rural, lower-income evangelical and conservative voters.

Now look at the Donald’s visits. As befitting his fly-in (and over) big rally strategy, he’s only made 37 trips to Iowa and held a relatively scant 57 events. And yet polls indicate that he and Cruz are running neck-and-neck among likely Republican caucus goers. It is clear that The Donald is counting heavily on first-time caucus goers to turn out for him. The traditional approach to winning Iowa, and to generating that type of turnout, is to run the type of door-to-door campaign that Santorum conducted in 2012, when he visited all 99 Iowa counties. But The Donald is banking that his focus on a relatively fewer number of “huge” rallies will generate the same type of caucus turnout. Cruz, on the other hand, seems to have pursued the more traditional country-level strategy in an effort to replicate Santorum and Huckabee’s success.

One thing that Trump has going for him is that the delegate allocation rules are far simpler on the Republican side in Iowa than they are on the Democrat’s side; Republicans allocate their delegates in rough proportion to the total number of votes each candidate receives. So Trump is not going to be penalized the way a Democrat might be if his support is heavily concentrated in a few areas.

So far, The Donald’s strategy seems to have paid off, at least based on polling. But will it translate into actual votes? Stay tuned.  Caucusing begins at 8 p.m. eastern time tonight.

Meanwhile, for Vermonters, I’ll be on Channel 3’s The :30 tonight sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m. to preview the caucuses. and then I’ll be back on blogging later tonight.