IowaForget corn and Christians. Iowa’s most famous export might now be hubris, delivered by tractor to the loading bay doors of Donald Trump’s 757 late last night.

Trump downplayed the loss of the first election for the Republican presidential nomination and, in fairness, Iowa was always going to mean little to the maths. The game is about winning delegates for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and the score so far has Trump on one fewer delegates (7) than Cruz (8).

Trump taking any delegates in Iowa would normally be the headline. The Midwestern state was always a stretch for the brash New Yorker who should struggle to attract rural, evangelical votes. Yet enough happened last night to make us question how well we’ve been reading the Republican race. The polls had promised Trump so much more. Even the final poll for the Des Moines Register, much maligned by Trump in previous months, had begrudgingly given him a five point lead over Cruz. Polls, as you’ll know, mean a lot to Trump. Details are sorely lacking at Trump rallies but the exception is when he take out his big list of national numbers. He leads them all like he apparently led in Iowa. On the night, a five point lead turned into a three point loss. That’s a swing of eight points. Suddenly, those ‘huge’ leads elsewhere look eight points weaker.

What obviously happened is that we saw the first evidence that the Trump vote is soft to the point of being flaccid. The Trump bombast might be projected over vast auditoriums filled with huge crowds but they are crowds comprising both fans and the fascinated. Trump provides spectacle, a fun day out for all the family (though cover the infant’s ears when he promises to ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’). Yet many in the crowd are there to be there. They are unlikely to vote for Trump. Even Trump ‘voters’ probably won’t vote in a system as time consuming as an Iowa caucus. Less obvious, but also a factor, is that Trump earned his national leads by being provocative. He provokes liberals and a few peaceniks and bean-eaters were no doubt sitting in those Iowa halls last night, savouring their chance to vote against the man they’ve come to despise more than cluster bombs and battery-caged chicken.

Yet if Trump didn’t win last night, Ted Cruz’s victory was at the lower end of expectations. The wisdom was that if Cruz couldn’t carry Iowa, he wouldn’t win anywhere. Three percentage points was a win but not enough to justify a ‘hoot’ or a ‘holler’, both which cowboy Cruz has been practising since renouncing his Canadian citizenship two years ago.

The only point of optimism for the Cruz camp is that the voting figures didn’t break the way most commentators had predicted. Cruz did well with traditional urban blue collar Republicans, less well with the evangelicals. Trump, on the other hand, did well with the evangelicals but didn’t carry the traditional blue collar. This was contrary to expectations and, on the evidence of last night, Trump could be struggling where previously thought strong and Cruz could be stronger where he was previously thought weak. But who said guessing this race would be easy?

In terms of the Cruz/Trump dynamic, Iowa really means little in terms of the maths but is significant to the way we predict the future. Iowa was always an odd place to start: rural, Christian, and with a caucus system that gives a real advantage to those candidates with the best teams on the ground. Not much of real value would normally be gleaned from last night’s result. Except there was the small matter of the third place finish for Marco Rubio who also leaves Iowa with seven delegates and trailing Trump by a one percent point.

Rubio was always certain to come third but finishing the night with six points more than his polling suggested means that he is suddenly the story of the Republican race. Trump might well have gifted him the headlines. The Donald’s absence from the last Fox News debate raised Rubio’s profile and might have contributed to this boost.

The race had, of course, been waiting for the moment a moderate candidate emerged from the pack. Voters unimpressed by the antics of Trump and Cruz needed an alternative. It’s just that nobody expected one to emerge so quickly. Jeb Bush had already admitted defeat before the caucusing began in Iowa (he emerged with a single delegate) and he was away campaigning in New Hampshire. For any chance to improve on his dismal 2% he needs other candidates to drop out. In the race for the long haul, Jeb was preparing to step up. That plan made sense until Rubio timed this surge to perfection. Now it’s Rubio going to New Hampshire representing the moderate right, not simply in terms of the Republican party but in terms of the looming general election. Rubio against either Sanders or Clinton is an exciting contest. Winnable too. Trump might provide novelty but he would be unlikely to produce a win. Cruz would be wiped out in a national vote.

If the Republican race has been the most fascinating since the nomination process began, last night did produce a few sparks of interest in the fight for the Democrat nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The gap was less than half a percentage point, much closer than expected and, even though Clinton emerged the victor, Hillary will be uncomfortable going to New Hampshire where Sanders currently holds a double digit lead. In another couple of weeks, Clinton could be chasing Sanders with the Vermont senator having momentum going into Nevada, South Carolina, and then the first ‘Super Tuesday’ on 1st March. We’re still at the stage where votes matter less than perceptions. If people see Sanders as a viable candidate, a powerful narrative starts to be written in which Clinton again loses to a candidate from outside the political mainstream. In a perverse twist, her best hope might yet be found in the Republican race.

The two battles are linked in the minds of the electorate. Republicans, especially, are voting with one eye on the general election. Could Rubio beat Clinton? Cruz beat Sanders? Who beats Trump? Many voters will vote for the more pragmatic candidate (Rubio, Clinton) if they perceive that opposition are doing the same. Sanders gains if Republicans are seen throwing their weight behind Cruz or Trump. Rubio gaining traction in the Republican race should help Hillary who is seen (rightly) as the Democrat’s best chance of retaining the White House in a race between moderates.

So what happened in Iowa last night? In truth, not a great deal but they were the kind of subtle shifts that can eventually become quite seismic.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.

 

Democrat

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

8 Comments on "What just happened in Iowa?"

  1. David, Even with an eight point swing against the polls Trump will still win comfortably in New Hampshire and it would take more than an eight point swing for him not to win in South Carolina so I think there is a lot of wishful thinking driving the excitement this has caused in the US media. As for Sanders, well he really needed to win BOTH Iowa and New Hampshire to create the conditions for an upset, once the race moves down to the Southern states he is going to be on the wrong side of a thrashing I’m afraid, I believe Clinton leads him by 30 points in South Carolina and 36 in Florida.

    • That’s true, Rob, but do you believe the polling around Trump? Doesn’t feel right. I think his numbers are soft and softening. I’ve always said he will be the greatest danger to himself. Suggesting that people in the crowd beat up anybody daring to throw a tomato (he said he’ll pay the legal fees) shows that he’s beginning to believe his own hype. Don’t think skipping the debate helped him and some of his rhetoric lately has been too driven by his own certainties. Not saying he won’t be winning things but Iowa revealed a weakness in the Trump belly. I also think he might have a upper limit which will be short of 50% and which will hurt him as the field narrows. Rubio’s increased vote hints at something else. Not a fan of Rubio in that the more I see him the more bland he appears. Yet he’s the first real challenger to Trump to present reasonableness as a virtue.

      Again, agree about Sanders but at this stage it’s more about message and narrative and closing the gap on Hillary is important going forward. This isn’t quite such a done deal and Hillary doesn’t respond well to threats. Not forecasting an upset but the next few months will be fun if, like me, you love following American politics. Previously thought it would be Clinton vs Trump. Now feeling it could be Clinton vs Rubio. There’s a bland predictability about that outcome.

      • Hard to tell with polls nowadays isn’t it David?, I think you are right about the danger of a narrowed field to Trump, the longer it takes for the others to drop out the more it benefits him, if they decide enough is enough early doors (and let’s face it excepting Cruz and Rubio they may as well) then you may see problems for Trump but I will stick to my guns and stay with my prediction of a Trump victory. I can see it being effectively over for Sanders by mid March.

        • My gut tells me a Trump victory because the others, even Rubio, don’t quite have his ability with a crowd. My brain, though, thinks Rubio might make it. I’ve had this feeling about Rubio from the beginning but thought him still a little too young. Plus I don’t see how Trump can keep saying the same things to every crowd before people start to get a bit bored and demanding actual policies.

  2. In the very early voting states, much is made of how you did compared to expectation; less important is how you did with regard to your opponents. In that respect, Marco Rubio was certainly the ‘winner’ in the Republican contest, simply by doing a lot better than most thought he would. As everyone’s front runner, who then didn’t win, Donald Trump was the night’s ‘loser’. Ted Cruz performed basically to expectation.

    Going into New Hampshire, it might suit Rubio to downplay his chances (if they get talked up too much). I suspect a strong third again will suit him just fine – particularly if the outcome of the NH primary is to cause someone like Chris Christie to drop out, and Rubio can start to become the natural home for moderate Republicans.

    • Thanks Dan. I agree. As I said, it’s currently about perceptions rather than votes, though I don’t think Trump was much of a loser except by his own boasting that he’d ace everything. Really, Iowa wasn’t his best chance and he performed reasonably well. I do think he made a mistake about the debate (he even admitted as much himself last night). However, him and Cruz had been fairly equal on most polls going into Iowa. Given the strange nature of the caucus system and Cruz’s strong ground operation, the result makes sense. Agree about Rubio, though it will be interesting to see how Cruz’s vote holds up.

  3. Just thought I would say for those who like boardgames and want to get into the spirit of the presidential race I can recommend 1960: The Making of The President by Z Man Games. It’s out of print at the moment but can be had for about £50-60 second hand. It’s a two player game that simulates the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, in a nutshell it’s a card driven game where the player has to decide whether to use his cards to campaign or instead trigger the events they cause in a bid to win the electoral college while trying to minimise the impact of cards which give a benefit to his opponent. It has a nice flavour of the campaign with cards such as Nixon Egged In Michigan simulating him being pelted with eggs and tomatoes while campaigning in the state and Lazy Shave referencing his makeup disaster during the TV debates. What is notable when playing is how the electoral college has changed over time, in 1960 winning New York and Pennsylvania would give you 77 votes whereas California and Florida would have given you 42. In 2016 it this has changed to 49 for NY and PA to 84 for CA and FL. Most likely of no interest to anybody but there you go.

    • Thanks Rob. Of interest to me and if somebody could turn it into a computer game I’d be all over it. Something only need have hints of Nixon-era politics in America and I’m hooked.

      PS. Thanks for the AJP Taylor recommendation. Been reading it all morning and really enjoying it.

Leave a comment

favorites.png
Comments are moderated before they are published. Please consider if you're contributing to the discussion before you post. Abuse and general negativity will not be allowed to appear on the site. This might be the Internet but let's try to keep things civil.
 

Your email address will not be published.


*


*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.