Sabato's Crystal Ball

What We Learned From Iowa

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, UVA Center for Politics February 2nd, 2016

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Iowa is in the books, and we already have our first surprise: Ted Cruz confounded late polls showing him sliding and Donald Trump rising. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled to a near-tie. Last week, we asked five questions about what the Iowa results might tell us. What did we learn?

1. How real is Trump’s support?

It wasn’t the night Donald Trump had hoped for. By all accounts, Trump did not have a sophisticated get-out-the-vote machine in Iowa and he did not engage in the tedious, retail campaigning that has defined past Iowa races. That could have cost him the state. Trump was at about 30% in averages of pre-election polls, so he underperformed by about six points. That could be because he did not have the requisite ground game. It also could be because he made a classic frontrunner’s mistake last week: He played it safe and skipped a debate where he would have been a big target. Instead, he opened the door for another candidate, Marco Rubio, to grab some of his votes.

Trump lost despite what was a record-setting turnout of roughly 185,000 on Monday — about 60,000 votes bigger than the previous record set four years ago. Many thought high turnout foreshadowed a Trump win. So this was a disappointing night for Trump. Still, he got about one in four caucusgoers to vote for him. That’s far from the proportion he ultimately needs, but his performance is still much better than anyone would have thought when he entered the race in the summer.

Next week’s New Hampshire primary, where Trump has a big lead over a splintered field of competitors, could be an easier lift for the national polling leader because it’s a traditional primary, not a lower-turnout caucus. But now the candidate who always talks about winning has an electoral record of 0-1, and opinions in the Granite State could shift rapidly, particularly if Rubio can parlay his strong third-place performance into a polling bounce there. Trump simply must win in New Hampshire.

Ted Cruz, the Iowa winner and an evangelical favorite, will also hope for a good finish in New Hampshire, but his campaign effectively now moves to South Carolina, a state that also has a high number of the white evangelicals that powered him in Iowa.

2. How hard will Sanders make Clinton work?

We could hear the collective exhale from the Clinton camp all over the country. It was a very tight race, yet Hillary Clinton quite narrowly jumped a major hurdle by defeating Bernie Sanders in a state where she finished third in 2008. As we’ve been suggesting for months, the two leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire were tailor-made for Sanders because of their liberal, white electorates — Clinton does much better among nonwhite voters. But by holding off Sanders in Iowa, Clinton avoided what could have been an embarrassing 0-2 start in 2016. Even if Sanders wins New Hampshire, as currently expected, Clinton can just write off his victory as a result of regionalism. (Sanders is from neighboring Vermont, and New Hampshire has repeatedly backed candidates in both parties from the Northeast.) As the contest moves to the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, the territory will be friendlier to Clinton. Nonetheless, Sanders has raised loads of small-dollar contributions and has a core of dedicated supporters, so the Democratic race could go on for a while, with Sanders winning here and there, especially in caucus states. However, Clinton remains a huge favorite for the Democratic nomination. Sanders (or any substitute later in the process) cannot defeat her unless scandal knocks Clinton from the race. In that sense, post-Iowa, Clinton’s real opponent for the party nomination is not Sanders, but the FBI.

3. What is the GOP leadership up to?

The story leading up to Iowa was that the GOP leadership was giving subtle support to Donald Trump because they preferred him over Ted Cruz. Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley both said nice things about Trump in the leadup to the caucuses and bashed Cruz, and the press reported that many high-level members of the party would prefer Trump over Cruz as nominee, even if they preferred other candidates to that pair. But now that Cruz has won, we have to ask — is the GOP establishment ever going to get anything they want in this race? One positive sign for Republican leaders is that Marco Rubio had a strong night — he actually finished closer to Trump than Trump to Cruz. If Rubio can repeat that in New Hampshire he can start pushing establishment competitors Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich toward the exits.

4. Which candidates are on the chopping block?

We speculated last week that Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley were not long for this race, and both quickly suspended their campaigns on Monday night. Rand Paul and Rick Santorum followed. Ben Carson had to fight off rumors he was exiting the race on Monday night. Carly Fiorina is an afterthought, and Bush, Christie, and Kasich need good showings in New Hampshire after combining for just about 7% of the vote — which, combined, was less than Carson’s fourth-place showing. Fiorina only got about 2% herself.

So long, Martin, Mike, Rand, and Rick. You’ll have more company on the sidelines of this race very soon.

5. What’s the future of the leadoff contests?

Iowa obviously can’t answer this question by itself — the rest of the states will either confirm or reject the choices made in both parties’ caucuses in the Hawkeye State. Clinton’s victory, while extremely thin, gave a win to the Democratic frontrunner for the nomination. Should she go on to carry her party’s banner into November, Democrats in Iowa will give themselves a pat on the back for being right for the fourth consecutive cycle where no Democratic incumbent ran. National party leaders may not be so kind; the state has weakened the frontrunner and propped up a 74-year old socialist with little chance to win the general election. The GOP situation remains murky. Cruz’s triumph could portend a third consecutive cycle where Hawkeye Republicans backed the wrong horse, should Trump, Rubio, or someone else claim the GOP nomination. Rubio’s strong third-place showing will help him make the argument to donors and insiders that he is the best bet to take on Cruz and Trump. And although we can’t know just how New Hampshire Republicans will react to Trump’s loss, he’s had large leads there. Cruz’s win potentially boosts him in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary (though Sen. Tim Scott’s new endorsement of Rubio cuts the other way), and Cruz will also be emboldened to compete strongly in the South on March 1. These states have Republican electorates that look somewhat similar to Iowa’s, at least in terms of the influence of evangelical Christians.

Just below the surface among party elites, the Iowa caucuses have thin backing. Many would love to see the state dislodged from its first-in-the-nation status, and Democrats are confronting the same questions about vote counting that Republicans faced four years ago. We’ll have to await the nomination and general election results before seeing whether a powerful enough coalition exists in either party to send Iowa further back in the queue.