Thank goodness for the Iowa Caucus.
I’ve gotten used to dismissing Iowa as a bit of an oddball event without much significance, at least for the Republicans. The Iowa GOP has a history of being much more dominated by the evangelical vote than the rest of the country, and that is how they’ve ended up voting for the person who appeals most to that faction — Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 — but who doesn’t have strong support nationwide.
But this year was different. The big story of this year’s Iowa Caucus is that Republican turnout soared to 182,000 people; the previous record was 122,000. The conventional wisdom going in was that higher turnout would massively favor Donald Trump. A large number of his supporters are infrequent primary voters loosely affiliated with the Republican Party, and the question was whether they would really show up. High turnout seemed to imply that they showed up.
And they did. The number of votes Trump received in Iowa would have given him a clear win in any other year. But not this year, where he came in well behind Ted Cruz and barely beat Marco Rubio. Consider that for a moment. In the year that is supposed to be the huge “outsider” wave, when opposition to immigration and “amnesty” is supposedly the driving issue, Trump should be crushing Rubio. Instead, he was only 1.2 percentage points ahead.
What happened? Trump voters turned out — but so did the anti-Trump voters. Thousands and thousands of Iowans were motivated to go to the caucuses specifically to vote for somebody other than Trump.
I’m going to take this as a little vindication, as evidence that I got something right this time around. (It’s compensation for 2012, when it seemed like I got every election prediction wrong.) I had pointed out that, while Trump has the fanatical support of one faction of voters, he also has the most negatives, the most Republican voters who hate the whole idea of him. Iowa bears that out. Trump doesn’t just motivate people to vote for him; he also motivates a lot of Republicans to vote against him and for somebody else.
The main beneficiary of this was Ted Cruz, who had put the most effort into the state and had the biggest ground game operation to get out the vote. He demonstrated that Trump has not actually rewritten the rules of politics and that a lot of the traditional campaign rules still apply.
That’s why Iowa was so important this year. Trump’s big advantage was his total dominance of national media. But Iowa was the one place where this advantage was most likely to be neutralized. Iowans are used to learning about candidates through outlets other than the national media: local media, direct mail, and actually meeting the candidates themselves, who make extensive pilgrimages there. (It’s like the old joke from New Hampshire where one guys asks another whether he’s voting for a particular candidate, and the second guy replies, “I don’t know, I’ve only met him once.”) So this was the best opportunity to expose the underlying weakness of Trump’s celebrity-driven campaign.
The other big winner coming out of Iowa was Marco Rubio, who needed to post a strong second- or third-place result, and did. I have explained why this counts as a win for him. He doesn’t need to beat Cruz or Trump. He needs to beat Jeb Bush and Chris Christie and a bunch of the other people down at 5 percent or below in the polls. Nearly half of Republicans don’t back either Trump or Cruz. If Rubio can become the one candidate those voters rally around, he becomes a top contender. So he needs this to become a three-man race. I would certainly expect that after tonight, Rubio will be hauling in huge amounts of money as the big “establishment” donors rally to him — if they have any money left after wasting $100 million on Bush. And in a sane year, we would find some satisfaction in this, because he’s the least establishment “establishment” candidate we’ve had in a long time.
Probably the biggest advantage Rubio will have coming out of Iowa is a lessening of Trump’s media dominance. If the story can’t be about Trump winning Iowa, then it has to be about the person who actually did win Iowa, which favors Ted Cruz. Or it has to be about the person who did unexpectedly well, which is Rubio. And while Cruz was already getting a lot of media as Trump’s closest rival, Rubio was still struggling to break out of the pack. He did that last night. He had the most need for greater exposure, so we can expect he will benefit most from it.
He is certainly seizing his opportunity. Rubio made the smartest media move last night, coming out with the first speech after the results were announced — capturing the audience when it was tuned in and ready to listen. His speech was relatively short, upbeat, and did a good job of advertising his main selling points: his modest, up-by-the-bootstraps background, and his skill at going after Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in the general election. And of all the speeches last night, the third-place finisher’s looked the most like a victory rally — which for him, it was.
By contrast, Trump’s speech was perfunctory, suppressed, and — how shall I put this? — low energy. Cruz’s victory speech was a massive wasted opportunity. It came fairly late, was addressed primarily to the volunteers in attendance, and ignored the television audience, and droned on and on without much structure, as if Cruz didn’t have a victory speech ready and just decided to go up and riff for the better part of an hour. That was a surprise to me, because this is the sort of speech I would expect Cruz to be better and more disciplined at giving.
As it was, most television channels dropped his speech to cover Hillary Clinton’s, and even Fox News bailed out on him when he had gone on for 32 minutes and showed no sign of wrapping it up. It’s not the lead-in he needs for the next round.
Predictions are hard, and even more so when it comes to presidential primaries. But we just got a reminder of why we hold actual elections and don’t just let pollsters and the media anoint a winner. Because no polls predicted the breadth and depth of the Anybody But Trump vote that came out on a cold February night for the Iowa Caucus.
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