What we learned from Iowa

Now that it is all said and done in Iowa, it is time to look ahead and see what the fallout will be from the first caucus of the 2016 presidential primary race. As I anticipated in my pre-Iowa rundown, Senator Ted Cruz put in the strongest performance in Iowa, followed by Mr. Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio in second and third place respectively. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton barely held off a surprisingly strong challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders.

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Cruz took first, Trump tumbled, and Rubio surged. (NBC News)

What surprised me the most about the events of Monday night was how quickly they seemed to return the wild Republican presidential race to normalcy. Mr. Trump, who had come to be regarded by some as the “inevitable” nominee, lived up to none of the hype, losing to Sen. Cruz even after leading nearly every Iowa poll in the weeks leading up to caucus day by a significant margin. Marco Rubio, ostensibly the leading establishment candidate, nearly edged past Mr. Trump into second place after experiencing a near double-digit surge in the final 48 hours of the race. This strong result came in spite of the fact that Sen. Rubio faced down a barrage of negative advertising—over $22 million worth—in the critical final weeks of the Iowa campaign. Ted Cruz’s victory also was hardly an anomaly. Sen. Cruz rode strong evangelical turnout and his anti-establishment credentials to a first place berth, just as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee did during the 2012 and 2008 Iowa caucuses.

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Marco Rubio addressing supporters after his strong showing in Iowa. (Fox News)

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the results from Iowa have raised fresh concerns that a long and brutal nomination battle between Clinton and Sen. Sanders might be in store. Though Secy. Clinton’s campaign is a juggernaut in every organizational respect, the momentum and enthusiasm behind her populist opponent do not seem to be fading. On the other hand, though Sanders is comfortably ahead of Secy. Clinton in New Hampshire, she still maintains a significant lead in the South—home to several critical primary states—and nationally.

Main takeaways from the GOP Iowa caucus

1) Donald Trump is toast.

We have to win in Iowa…you know, a lot of people say, “Donald, just say you’ll do well in Iowa.” I say I can’t do that.

Donald J. Trump

99 percent of the importance of the Iowa caucus results rests in the discrepancy between popular expectations for each candidate and the ultimate result of the caucus vote. Winning in Iowa is all about expectations, and no one has done a worse job of managing expectations in this race than Mr. Donald Trump.

For nearly the entire duration of this presidential race thus far, Mr. Trump has couched his appeal on his skills as a businessman and, as he puts it, a winner. Winning is a recurring theme in Trump’s speeches. With his typical bombast and energetic hand motions, Trump often declares that his presidency will bring such great success and “so much winning” that the American people will “get bored with winning.” The real estate mogul also predicted victory in Iowa multiple times in the days and weeks preceding the caucus vote. He constantly pointed to his high poll numbers in Iowa and nationally as evidence of the unassailability of his tremendous campaign. The media circus in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses did not help either, playing up Trump’s lead in the polls as evidence of a revolt in the Republican Party, a backlash against years of control by the so-called establishment, or the symptom of an unstoppable popular movement behind Donald Trump’s candidacy.

And then he lost. The big poll numbers evaporated.1 The record-smashing turnout failed to push him past the finish line. The invincible Donald, vanquished.

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Donald Trump overhyped himself and thus sacrificed his best opportunity to prove his seriousness as a candidate for president. (ABC News)

For a typical presidential primary frontrunner, a loss in Iowa would not be a big deal. But Trump’s base of support comes from a narrow slice of the GOP electorate rather than from the broad conservative coalition which past Republican nominees have enjoyed. With his momentum and his monopoly over national media coverage diminishing quickly, Trump needs a miracle to revive his campaign, but his weak performance in Iowa demonstrated that this miracle is quite far from reach. Barring mass amnesia, the unfavorable sentiment toward Donald Trump within the Republican Party and beyond will continue to hamper his efforts at the ballot box. And as candidates begin to depart the race, Trump’s only chance of winning the nomination—a completely fragmented, disorganized Republican field—grows ever slimmer.

2) Marco Rubio really won Iowa.

On the opposite side of the expectations spectrum is Marco Rubio. The young Florida senator’s polling average did not rise above 15 percent until January 30th, only two days before the Iowa caucus. Yet after a shocking final surge, Sen. Rubio finished just behind Donald Trump, the ostensible front-runner, with 23 percent of the vote.

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Marco Rubio exceeded expectations in Iowa, but he will need to deliver a strong performance in moderate New Hampshire to prove his broad appeal. (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

Rubio has long claimed that he is more electable and has a broader appeal than the other candidates in the race. As the argument goes, he is a conservative stalwart who can appeal to the grassroots of the party while also tapping into the support of more traditional Republicans, moderates, and the youth and Latino vote. Yet for months, Sen. Rubio’s poll numbers were lukewarm at best. Even as Iowans stood in line to caucus, the Florida senator polled at several percentage points below his eventual finish in the state. By delivering a strong performance, Marco Rubio proved that he really does have the potential to bring together the assortment of ideologies and dispositions within the Republican Party and capture the nomination.

Of course, it is not over for Sen. Rubio. In order to maintain his tentative position as the GOP’s coalition candidate, he must perform better in New Hampshire than his main competition for the Granite State’s moderate vote—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, to be precise—and demonstrate his ability to attract supporters from the more moderate wings of the party. A strong finish would prove Rubio’s broad appeal and consolidate the moderate wing of the party behind his candidacy. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine someone other than Marco Rubio winning the Republican nomination.

3) Cruz has much more to prove.

Thanks to strong turnout from evangelical voters, Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus by a sizable 6,000 vote margin. This victory does hold some meaning; it shows, for example, that Sen. Cruz has a deep appeal among a highly motivated bloc of conservative voters.

Iowa, however, is an anomaly in the Republican primary process. Its electorate is whiter and less educated than those of the average primary state. Additionally, the lengthy, exhausting caucus process in Iowa discourages the participation of moderate, less politically-inclined voters, many of whom will participate in the less demanding primaries and caucuses2 to come. Iowa also has a highly motivated bloc of evangelical voters, which broke heavily for Cruz in Monday’s caucus. But the evangelical vote becomes much less influential once the primary process moves to northern and coastal states, which dominate the delegate counts in April, May, and June.

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Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have both cultivated deep but narrow sources of support. It remains to be see whether these ostensible political outsiders can broaden their support to the more moderate electorate which they will encounter after Super Tuesday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Beyond Super Tuesday, moderate voters from populous blue states dominate the calendar. New York, Pennsylvania, and California combined constitute a whopping 338 delegates, which amounts to over a quarter of the delegates required to clinch the nomination. Also, due to some mathematical quirks, the Republican National Committee’s delegate allocation rules weighs votes in moderate and liberal states more heavily than those in the earlier, more deeply conservative primary states.3 Both of these factors will combine to make the primary race much more difficult for Sen. Cruz, who is popular among those who identify themselves as “very conservative” but has thus far been unable to gain traction among the more moderate segments of the party.4

Unless Sen. Cruz can broaden his support among moderates, he will have a very difficult road to the nomination. If he fails to sweep the South on Super Tuesday, it will take a miracle for Cruz to retain a delegate lead as the focus shifts to the more heavily weighted coastal states at the rear of the GOP primary calendar.

The future of the Democratic race

Bernie could win this race, but a lot needs to change.

With the departure of Martin O’Malley from the race this week, the Democratic presidential primary has become a head-to-head race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders from the state of Vermont.

Seeing the enthusiasm surrounding Sen. Sanders’ White House bid, it is tempting to say that Sanders has a good chance of winning this race, but I am not yet willing to go that far quite yet. Bernie Sanders does have a chance to clinch the Democratic nomination, but whether he does or not depends almost entirely upon how far he is willing to go to exploit his opponent’s fundamental weaknesses.

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Sen. Sanders needs to exploit the untrustworthiness and lack of transparency of his opponent in order to become competitive in this primary race. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Of course, I will preface this discussion by saying that Clinton’s nomination is partially contingent upon whether any kind of criminal prosecution is brought as a result of her email scandal. (For those who do not know what scandal I am referencing, click here.5) If the Justice Department does bring an indictment against Secy. Clinton, it is hard to imagine that she survives long in the primary race, even among her staunchest supporters within the Democrat Party.

But even if no indictment is forthcoming, Hillary Clinton is vulnerable on the issue. A national Quinnipiac poll conducted in November indicated that only 36 percent of the general election electorate view her as honest and trustworthy. Among Democrats, she does not fare much better. In fact, according to a poll conducted last week by the Washington Post, only slightly more than a third of Democratic primary voters view Secy. Clinton as being more honest than Sen. Sanders.

By almost every metric, Bernie Sanders is losing this presidential race. He is viewed as less trusted than Clinton on virtually every issue except income inequality, and according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, he is losing the horse race nationally by over 15 percentage points.

But Clinton’s vulnerabilities in this race are quite clear. If I were Sen. Sanders’ campaign strategist, I would have the following advice for him:

  1. Talk about trust: Hammer home the point that Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted. Continue striking at her evolving stances on issues, but expand your attack to encompass her email scandal and her lack of transparency in addressing it.
  2. Go negative: A positive campaign is nice, but if you are not going to take money from super PACs, you need to do the dirty work yourself. Clips of Secy. Clinton’s misleading statements from the campaign trail about her email scandal should be running in every state where you are in striking distance.
  3. Crack her Southern firewall: Clinton is counting on strong African-American turnout in the South to help her hold the line against you as the Democratic primary process unfolds. Prove to this demographic, on the ground and over the airwaves, that you are much more committed to their success and prosperity than your opponent.
  4. Emphasize your experience: Hillary Clinton is viewed as being far more experienced than you, yet you have had a long career in the Senate. Discuss your accomplishments, particularly in the foreign policy realm, to bolster the popular image of your political experience.
  5. Hammer electability: With an email scandal hanging over her head, Clinton is a dream-come-true for any candidate that the Republicans nominate. You carry no risk of being indicted by the Justice Department, and you have a long and distinguished career fighting for liberal principles. Prove that Clinton is much less electable than she claims to be.

If Sen. Sanders takes my free advice, I think he can be a much more formidable adversary for Secy. Clinton in the Democratic primary. His strengths—among them strong favorability, trustworthiness, and the ability to connect and empathize with voters—position him well to diminish Clinton’s credibility as a candidate and question her electability in light of her email issue. The only question now is whether Sen. Sanders, famous for declaring that the American people were “sick and tired of hearing about” Clinton’s “damn emails,” will take the gloves off and impress upon voters the danger of nominating a dishonest candidate who may very well be indicted by the United States Department of Justice, guaranteeing a Republican victory in November.


Footnotes

  1. Four of seven of the polls in the week before the Iowa caucus showed Mr. Trump with over 30 percent of the vote. Five of seven, including two of the last three to be taken, showed Mr. Trump with a statistically significant lead over Mr. Cruz. ^
  2. In Iowa, the vote for the candidates is prefaced by speeches from representatives for each of the candidates. In the Nevada caucus, there is no such advocacy period. Voters may walk in, vote, and leave, just as with a primary. ^
  3. On average, this weighting makes a vote from a blue state worth about twice as much as a vote in a red state. In the most extreme case, a Republican primary voter in the 15th District (Bronx-area) of New York has 43 times the voting power than a voter in the reddest part of Alabama. (For a more extensive analysis, see David Wasserman’s piece on FiveThirtyEight entitled “The GOP’s Primary Rules Might Doom Carson, Cruz And Trump.”) ^
  4. According to the exit polls in Iowa, Cruz crushed the other candidates among “very conservative” voters, but struggled among the demographics with greater importance in later states. Though the most conservative voters gave him 44 percent of their votes, nearly double those of his nearest competitor (Mr. Trump, 23 percent), Sen. Cruz lost big among moderates (34 percent to 9 percent) and among “somewhat conservative” caucusgoers (29 percent to 19 percent).Education is another difficult demographic for Sen. Cruz. He won 31 percent of voters who did not graduate from college. Marco Rubio won among college graduates and postgraduates, pulling 27 and 29 percent of the vote in each of those categories. Unfortunately for Mr. Cruz, moderate coastal states—bound to be friendlier to a more moderate candidate to begin with—have a higher percentage of college graduates than Iowa has. ^
  5. In 2013, a hacker illegally accessed an account of Sydney Blumenthal, a former assistant to former President Bill Clinton. This account contained several communications between Mr. Blumenthal and Secy. Clinton, which the hacker revealed to have contained sensitive information about American foreign policy. Not a big deal…except that Clinton had these sensitive conversations with Mr. Blumenthal over an unsecured, unsanctioned personal email account on her own private server. It was later discovered at various points in 2015 and in mid-January of this year that she had sent and received classified information over her personal email, a clear violation of federal statutes governing the handling of sensitive, classified information. Most recently, it was revealed that Secy. Clinton’s personal email contained some information with a classification above top secret.
    I personally suspect that Secy. Clinton would have been indicted a long time ago if she were a run-of-the-mill government employee who had maintained highly classified information on his or her private email account as Clinton did. There are high security standards for government email accounts which regularly handle classified information, designed for the express purpose of ensuring the safety and security of the sensitive information which must be conveyed within the government. Maintaining a private server completely negates these protections and makes sensitive information susceptible to view by foreign governments or hackers (as with Mr. Blumenthal’s account). Moreover, federal record-keeping rules govern how messages from government email accounts are preserved so that any oversight by Congress may be fully complied with. By having a private email, Clinton avoided these oversight mechanisms and has made it difficult for Congress to obtain all of her emails, some of which might contain information which impugns her credibility or opens her to federal prosecution. ^

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