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.