The Iowa caucuses finally took place last night, after months of Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns criss-crossing the state. Polls were volatile heading into caucus night.
1) Ted Cruz, Take a Bow
Ted Cruz won Iowa handily, despite taking fire from all sides in the waning weeks of the campaign. Donald Trump threw everything — everything — he had at the U.S. senator from Texas, resorting to slurs about Cruz’s citizenship that were fueled by an eager media. In the last debate, Cruz was on the receiving end of attacks from every other candidate on stage.
But there is no substitute for having teams of people who know what they’re doing and can organize caucuses. The Cruz campaign is agile, strong, and — unlike nearly all other GOP campaigns — not distracted from the fundamentals. Investing in Iowa was a smart strategy, and it was well-executed.
2) Hillary Clinton, You Are a Horrible Candidate
Hillary Clinton couldn’t have more advantages. No one has more establishment credentials, from former first lady to U.S. senator to recent secretary of State. She brings in money from all of the establishment donor groups. The media have all but coronated her. Her only opponent, essentially, is a Democratic Socialist senator who is older than she is.
Yet she at best eked out a victory with the tiniest of margins. Her “victory” speech was the most depressing of the night. The body language on the stage said it all. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea gave her a comforting — almost pitying — hug. Clinton’s husband Bill looked sad and had trouble keeping his mouth from sagging. The crowd was dejected. Clinton herself was tense, yelling at voters in seeming anger. She’s just a terrifically bad candidate who will also lose in New Hampshire. The establishment Democrats have much better control over their party than the GOP’s establishment does, but her campaign is deteriorating even as Bernie Sanders’ is improving.
3) Trump’s Loss Is Significant
It’s not the end of the road for Trump, not by a long shot. He’ll likely win New Hampshire next week. He has a path to the nomination. But had he won tonight, he would have been extremely difficult to defeat.
4) No, Rubio, Third Place Is Not a Win
Listen, that Marco Rubio came very close to beating Trump should humiliate the New Yorker. But Rubio’s campaign was claiming that nearly any placement in Iowa could be seen as a victory. The fact is that Rubio could have won if he’d been organized instead of just spent a ton of money. He definitely could have placed second. This third place isn’t a moral victory, unless it’s part of a risky strategy to show steady improvement (third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina). Triumphant third place speeches to the contrary, let’s tone down our claims that such expensive placement is equivalent to a victory. Trump spent less than Rubio did and beat him. Let’s calm down.
5) Get Ready for Donors to Exert Major Pressure
Not that it hasn’t been clear for months now, but Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush will start being pressured to exit the race and make room for others. Donors will likely move en masse behind Rubio and will have less cash to throw at money-wasting campaigns. Bush spent $25,000 per Iowa voter, for 3 percent of the vote. Everyone can stay in the race for New Hampshire, but unless one of these guys ekes out a second place finish there, the pressure to leave will be overwhelming.
It’s worth noting that even if Trump accomplishes nothing else, he really deserves significant credit for keeping Bush in low single digits. And remember that Bush’s entire Iowa campaign — for which he spent more than all the other candidates — was to depress Rubio’s support heading into New Hampshire.
6) Trump’s Relationship to Polls Finally Hurts Him
Ever since he got into the race, Trump’s main case for why you should vote for him is that he’s a “winner” who’s at the top in all polls. He wasn’t leading in these polls in Iowa until late in the race, at which point he was topping nearly all of them. It set up expectations for him to perform very well. Folks wondered if maybe pollsters hadn’t even under-counted his support. In the most important poll of the race thus far — one that actually counted — Trump lost. He’ll likely win in New Hampshire, a state that loves picking different candidates than Iowa.
7) Media Completely Out of the Loop
The media narrative during the past week was that Clinton would win but that the GOP candidates would have a fierce battle. All of the last 13 media polls had Trump winning. Instead, Cruz handily won Iowa while Sanders and Clinton tied.
More broadly, the media have been absolutely obsessed with populist Trump. Some 60 percent of their news coverage of GOP candidates is given to Trump. Yet in Iowa, the populist GOP candidate only got 25 percent of the vote. The populist Democratic candidate — Sanders — received 50 percent of the vote. Why are the media obsessed with the GOP’s populist candidate, when 75 percent of GOP voters in Iowa voted against him?
8) Trump Fans Now Have More Accurate Picture of Their Size
Placing second in Iowa isn’t the end of the world for Trump, particularly as he’ll likely win New Hampshire. But many Trump voters seem to think that they’re far more numerous than they are. They suggest that any skepticism of their candidate should not be countered so much as ruthlessly mocked with taunts about how everyone needs to get on the Trump train. That Trump fought so hard in Iowa and had the benefit of near-constant media coverage, and only got 25 percent of the vote should be a wake-up call for Trump fans. Not that he can’t win the nomination, just that his message isn’t currently resonating with a majority of GOP voters. It’s not even close, in fact. He gave the best speech of the night in Iowa, however, showing his trademark communication skills and some newfound humility.
9) Sorry About Your Big Losses, Branstad and Ethanol
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad campaigned hard against Cruz, saying he thought Cruz would and should be defeated on account of his opposition to federal ethanol subsidies, which benefits some Iowans at taxpayer expense. Cruz didn’t back down on his position even when taken to task at the last debate. By winning in Iowa, he’s shown GOP candidates that they don’t need to bow before Big Corn to win there. And Branstad’s intervention in the race doesn’t look so hot in retrospect.
10) What Do Those New GOP Voters Mean?
Turnout was significantly bigger than in past years. Many pundits thought that if turnout were high, it would be thanks to Trump. In fact, Trump may have driven voter turnout but not his voters so much as those inclined to ensure he didn’t win. That Trump effect of higher turnout — and where that higher turnout goes — needs to be monitored. And a quick note on Ben Carson. More than 17,000 Iowa GOP voters chose him over all the other candidates they could have chosen. Why? What does Carson’s fourth place finish signify for the race going forward? And will Carson voters coalesce behind Cruz?
11) Let’s Get Ready to Rumble South Carolina
Cruz won Iowa handily. Trump is on track to trounce in New Hampshire. Rubio needs to consolidate all establishment support behind him as he heads into South Carolina. And South Carolina will be a battle royale. By the end of South Carolina, the race — barring some fancy work by Rand Paul or the establishment candidates — will be a three-way race for the GOP. Such a race would benefit Rubio, with Cruz and Trump splitting somewhat similar voters. It’s this dynamic, though, that might keep other candidates in the race even if Rubio performs well in New Hampshire. Cruz, by the way, should consider just moving straight to South Carolina to build his ground game there, skipping unfriendly New Hampshire altogether.
As for the Democrats, Sanders will win in New Hampshire but Clinton should do well in the southern states. Her performance thus far — even without regular revelations about closely held government secrets being on her private email server — is certainly giving Democrats palpitations.
12) Demographics Is Destiny
Between Cruz, Rubio, and Carson, 60 percent of Republican Iowa caucus goers voted for a minority candidate; zero percent of Democrats voted for a minority candidate.
13) Best and Worst Speeches
Cruz gave a lengthy, if interesting, speech that was so long all networks cut away from airing it. Fox News gave up after 32 minutes. Clinton’s speech seemed angry and impotent and was given to a deflated crowd. Sander’s Full Communism speech was terrifying to students of liberty and economics, but given before an exuberant and pumped-up crowd. Rubio’s speech for placing third was given as if it were something of a victory. It was standard and stump, but his standard stump speech is not bad.
To the surprise of all, Trump’s speech was the best of the evening. It was sweet, humble, gracious and short. His beautiful family respectfully stood with him and he didn’t insult anybody even once.
But perhaps the best speech moment was this:
I don’t know who let sticker boy stand behind Hillary Clinton, but it was the best moment of the evening.