Iowans are fickle — and other lessons of caucus night

REUTERS/Brian C. Frank
Sen. Ted Cruz speaking at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, after winning the Iowa caucus.

Maybe I’m just worn out, but I can’t assign much meaning or significance to Monday’s results in Iowa, so with your indulgence, I’ll just review the facts and the most obvious points of meaning.

On the Repub side, Ted Cruz’s victory is a big blow to at least the growing aura of inevitability around the Donald Trump candidacy. He didn’t blow Trump out, and Trump starts the next race in New Hampshire with a much bigger lead in the polls. Perhaps this shuts down whatever possibility existed that Trump’s amazing run from clown to frontrunner would soon eliminate all opposition to his nomination.

Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish, far surpassing any expectations based on recent polls, is also a huge jolt of energy for his chances. In the run-up to the results, I heard David Brooks say on “PBS NewsHour” that Rubio need to get 16 percent or more to help himself. (And I thought to myself: Where do these guys get these numbers and the confidence to announce them on air?) Anyway, Rubio got 23 percent, almost tying Trump for second place. The universal view of the TV talkers was that Rubio had drawn a lot of support that had formerly leaned toward Trump, which is a major explanatory factor in the top three finishers and Cruz’s surprising win.

Rubio’s big late surge, perhaps at Trump’s expense, was the biggest surprise of the night on the Repub side. Pressure will be brought to bear on the other so-called establishment Republicans in the race to get out, in favor of Rubio, which could turn this into a more manageable three-way race before too long.

I note in passing that Ben Carson scored 9 percent last night, which is a big comedown from his brief fling with front-runnership. This put Carson in fourth place, but he seems destined to disappear soon. If a key to Carson’s appeal is a bit on the evangelical side, that could represent an area of potential growth for Cruz, the current king of the evangelical candidates.

Mike Huckabee shut down his long-hopeless campaign last night. Rick Santorum was a non-factor.  (Just as an aside, they were the only two guys in the huge field who had previously won Iowa, and surely they thought their past glory would give them some kind of leg up. They were wrong. Iowans are fickle.) Their departures would free up some more religiously oriented support that, according to the theory above, might also strengthen Cruz going forward, except that they apparently have so little support. Huckabee scored 1.8 percent. Santorum scored 1.0. This led to a cruel but true headline that read: “God’s still not dead, but Mike Huckabee’s political career sure is.”

But the establishment “lane,” as all analysts have come to call it, is still crowded and several establishmentarians — Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie — who believe that a strong showing in New Hampshire will enable them to yet become the establishment choice. The longer they all stay in, the harder it will be for anyone representing that wing of the party to end up controlling the nomination.

Rand Paul has the true libertarian lane almost to himself, yet he finished fifth with just 5 percent. I’d be skeptical that he can last much past New Hampshire unless he pulls a big surprise there. I’m surprised at his failure to make an impact to this point. Caucus states were kind of a specialty for Paul’s father, Ron Paul, back when he was the official libertarian. Not so the son, apparently.

Trump’s concession speech was amazingly unamazing for Trump. Totally gracious. Congratulated Cruz. Showed no anger or even pique. Insulted no one. Predicted he would win New Hampshire (which is still generally expected). This Fox News analysis piece suggests that Cruz beat Trump because, while Trump polled best on a question about which candidate “says what he thinks,” Cruz crushed the field on the question of which candidate “shares my values.” A lot more Iowa Republicans said it was more important for a candidate to share their values than to say what he thinks. Trump wasn’t in the top three in “shares my values.”

Cruz’s victory speech was a mind-numbering 30-plus minutes long. The first two sentences mentioned God. If you would like to watch the full speech, it’s here.

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton led in the counting all night, but not by much, and Bernie Sanders kept creeping up. By the time I shut off the tube, her lead was well under 1 percentage point and none of the networks had declared a winner. Also, on the Dem side, they don’t report an actual vote count, but only the way support translates into delegates to the state convention, which I gather leaves unknowable which candidate had more backers at the caucuses. As of this morning, the vote is Clinton 700, which tentatively translates into 23 delegates to the national convention, and Sanders 692, for 21 delegates.

Neither Clinton nor Sanders actually declared victory in their public remarks. Clinton did say that she was very “relieved” by the result. Sanders called it pretty much a dead heat. Four years ago, the final winner on the Republican side of the Iowa Caucuses (Santorum) wasn’t declared until several days later.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third candidate in the race, dropped out after the caucuses.

Sanders’ strength in general is with younger Democrats and last night he scored big in college towns. Clinton did well in the most populous county, Polk, which contains the biggest city, Des Moines.

In her remarks, Clinton described herself as a “progressive who gets things done for people,” which seemed like a subtle dig at Sanders, but sooo subtle. She said she was “excited about engaging Senator Sanders in a debate about the best way to move forward.”

She was much tougher on the Republican candidates, although not mentioning their names. She said she has “followed their campaign closely,” she “understands what they are appealing to” (which she called “divisiveness”) and pledged to “stand against it” and not let it “rip apart the progress that we’ve made.”

Sanders congratulated Clinton, thanked O’Malley and then claimed that the results of the evening send a “profound message to the political establishment, the economic establishment and the media establishment” that “it’s just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.” He made his usual references to “millionaires and billionaires” and the disproportionate share of political and economic power they hold and how much they hog almost all the wealth for themselves and use their wealth to “buy elections.”

It was actually pretty mild compared to his normal stump speeches.

It’s hard to say what impact this dead heat will have on the Dem contest. The most common assumption is that Sanders will win New Hampshire, where he has a substantial lead in recent polls. But Clinton has a big lead in the next state, South Carolina.

It is a common analysis point that Clinton polls much better than Sanders among non-white Democrats. Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest states. So, according to this analysis, Sanders is advantaged in the first two contests but may do less well later. If Sanders had won Iowa and then won New Hampshire, that might have given him momentum that might help him in the later states, but now that Iowa is a tie, I don’t know where that thinking stands.

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Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 08:38 am.

    Wow, to think Hillary had 50 point lead on Bernie months ago. She is in straight panic mode, much like 2008, when the support started to leave.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/02/2016 - 08:38 am.

    The Republican results point to much difficulty for establishment Republicans–over 2/3 of the votes cast are for candidates that do not fall in establishment-land.

    Now who can we thank for that ?

    What to say about over 160,000 votes in the Republican caucus vs. 1,400 in the Democratic ?

    1,400, really?

    How much money and effort went into those few voters–hard to imagine.

    I would guess enthusiasm and expectations are low in the Democratic side.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/02/2016 - 09:39 am.

      Not sure where you got your numbers.

      The WaPo says that the Democratic turnout in Iowa was 170,000.
      Were you referring to delegates, by any chance? The procedure is convoluted.
      from the NYT:
      “*The vote totals for the Iowa Democratic Party are State Delegate Equivalents, which represent the estimated number of state convention delegates that the candidates would have, based on the caucus results. At the county level, The Associated Press inflates numbers by 100, as state delegate equivalent numbers for some candidates are often very small fractions.”
      The “Vote Totals” (1398) match your numbers — the actual turnout would be about 140,000.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/02/2016 - 09:42 am.

      From another site

      (‘Bustle’, which I’d not heard of before)
      “early Tuesday morning, the Iowa Democratic Party announced that 171,109 Iowans participated in its caucuses. That’s a fall from 2008, which saw 239,000 Iowans vote in the Democratic caucuses throughout the state. 2016, however, is a dramatic improvement to 2012, which saw numbers dwindle to 25,000.”

      • Submitted by Tim Smith on 02/02/2016 - 10:40 am.

        of course

        in 2012 they had no reason to attend a caucus when the incumbent was from their party and no challenger. I would find that drop from 2008 – 2016 alarming considering the stakes. Maybe Hillary needs to bring in Oprah?

  3. Submitted by Craig Johnson on 02/02/2016 - 09:05 am.

    The Angry Contingent

    With 55% of the Republican caucus support going to Trump and Cruz, Clinton’s comment about the divisiveness in the Republican party is significant. As either Trump or Cruz drops out, where does the angry mob go? It seems likely they will move to the other anti-establishment candidate, creating a larger and more troublesome crowd.

    Whatever the outcome, the GOP is in serious disarray. It seems to me they must rebuild and shed the extreme right segment – let them start their own party. We are all advantaged by a vigorous two party system. But both parties have to have a realistic core.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/02/2016 - 09:26 am.


    Rubio was exuberant last night because he can do the math. The top three republican finishers got 75% of the vote. When the others drop out, where will the remaining 25% go? I’m betting it won’t be to Trump or Cruz.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 02/02/2016 - 10:37 am.


      The big winner last night was Rubio. His numbers in Iowa surged in recent days and he finished a very close third. Cruz had huge help from evangelicals which isn’t always going to the case, Iowa is sort of unique that way. The preacher dropped out, Carson, Fiorina et al will probably drop next week and those votes will mostly go to Rubio. This will be a long fight.

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 02/02/2016 - 11:00 am.

        Not so fast

        Carson got 9%; Cruz is in better shape to get those votes. Huckabee may lean to Hair Trump. For those fake-Christian votes Rubio must ramp up the God & Jesus references. I used to worry about him as one of those Elmer Gantry in River City guys who will fool a lot of people. Now I see him as a flavor of the season which GOP elitists will savor as long as he can clog up the paths of Trump and Cruz. Result? A 3-way showdown at the Convention where Paul Ryan saves the day.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/02/2016 - 05:03 pm.


          I suspect that Trump will pick up the biggest chunk of Carson’s 9% — it’s the know-nothing outsider vote.
          Rubio might pick up Jebbie’s 2%, but that won’t help much.
          I don’t think that Paul Ryan can blow the right dog whistles, but if things get desperate enough ….
          What I’d watch for is someone totally out of the woodwork.

  5. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/02/2016 - 09:31 am.

    He can’t be President anyway….

    Since all of the Cruz supporter’s see room to parse and interpret the actual intent of these words:

    “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.”

    How much parsing and interpretation of these would they allow?

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

    I didn’t think so.

    Once again, the hypocritical political right takes the part of the constitution they agree with and treat it as if it is on stone tablets in the Arc of the Covenant and the ones that don’t fit their needs are valued like a 90 day free membership contract at a local health club.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 10:22 am.

    Interesting how little of the Independent vote Hillary received. She was crushed in the age 18-39 vote and the Independents broke hard to Bernie. Very hard to win a national election when you can’t get Independents to vote for you.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/02/2016 - 11:27 am.

    You have to declare your allegiance to the party in question before you can legitimately participate in a party’s caucus. So talking about “independents” with regard to the Democratic caucuses in Iowa is not to speak of those who belong to some movement. It simply reflects that there were numbers of Iowa Democrats who didn’t strongly support either Clinton or Sanders before the actual caucus night when they had to express a preference, finally.

    And oh! are we ever making far too much of a small, white, mostly rural state’s caucus-goers, in the larger scheme of things!

    • Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 11:42 am.

      The folks who were interviewed at polling stations that stated they were truly independent voters, but chose to vote in the Democratic caucus, voted 70% with Bernie. That showed they didn’t support Hillary and DID support Bernie. As I stated, very concerning to establishment democrats and the Clinton machine in a national presidential election where more Americans are becoming Independent voters.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/02/2016 - 12:21 pm.

        Reality Check

        So the independent voters who supported Senator Sanders will do what if he does not get the nomination? Stay at home? Unlikely, as caucus goers seem more likely to vote than the average person. Vote for the Republican nominee? Sure, that’s what is going to happen.

      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/02/2016 - 01:23 pm.

        Different race

        In a race between Clinton & Sanders, the independents chose Sanders. How many of those voters sit it out or switch parties when its clinton vs one of Trump, Cruz or Rubio? My guess is close to none.

  8. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 02/02/2016 - 11:27 am.

    So 2nd place is a loser and 3rd place a winner?

    Frankly, I thought Trump was in this for publicity and would drop out before Iowa. And the idea that Republicans have so much faith in the braggart with no policy knowledge astounds me.

    But I think we shortchange his political skills. His “concession” speech was pitch perfect. Just humble and respectful enough without appearing to reverse his “Trumpiness”.

    And let’s keep in mind this was a state with a heavily evangelical presence and Trump is more likely to buy a church to tear it down for the land than to attend it.

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 02/02/2016 - 11:30 am.


    Few people go to caucuses and they are mostly partisan, attending in support of their candidate. The independent vote means nothing. Actually, the caucuses mean very little.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/02/2016 - 01:29 pm.


      It means more for dems than repubs. The GOP Iowa winner hasn’t been nominated in decades. On the demo side it has been more predictive.

      The Democratic caucuses are more susceptible to a well organized campaign with effective field offices and volunteers. That is predictive of running a viable campaign. For the GOP Iowa is typically won by appealing to the evangelical vote, which is less predictive for national success.

  10. Submitted by Roy Everson on 02/02/2016 - 11:44 am.

    Ole and Lena Sanders?

    Great to have some small evidence that a social democrat — in the mainstream throughout the world of representative democracies — at last has some national momentum in my American homeland. When I lived in Norway I voted in local elections for social democrats (Arbeiderpartiet). Believe me, they are as mainstream as it gets. And they’re to Sanders’ left.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/02/2016 - 01:11 pm.

    My 2¢

    I think Ms. Sullivan has hit upon the most important point in her final, short paragraph. Whether discussing “winners” or “losers” of the Iowa caucuses, it seems useful to keep in mind that Iowa has only 6 electoral votes. My former home of Colorado has 9, and another former home (Missouri) and my current home in Minnesota are tied at 10 electoral votes each. Far too many of us, engaged citizens, pundits of print or television, ideologues of left and right, etc., devote an inordinate amount of attention and energy to this electoral contest in a state that simply doesn’t have much of a resemblance to the rest of the country. Neither does New Hampshire, for that matter.

    I’m surprised by Sanders’ showing, and hope the support he’s garnered in Iowa can be translated into similar support elsewhere, in other caucuses and primaries. I hope the same thing for Ms. Clinton. If they can maintain the same reasonably civil tone – and there’s no guarantee of that – it will benefit both them and the public.

    I’m also surprised by Cruz’ showing, though Edward Blaise has hit on a *very* relevant issue that will surely become part of the ongoing debate as we move farther into 2016. As an independent voter for most of my adult life, Mr. Smith’s commentary regarding Ms. Clinton seems disingenuous. I should also reinforce Ms. Sullivan’s comment about caucus-goers. The one time in my life when I DID register a political party preference was an election cycle when I lived in Colorado. I went to the caucus, passed out literature, knocked on doors, and did all the stuff that campaigns desperately need volunteers to do. My experience was that Ms. Sullivan is right on the mark about who attends a caucus and volunteers for a campaign. They’re often true believers, and virtually always more enthused about “their” candidate than the party or its more generic positions.

    In short, Iowa is not a typical state, and, while not without value, there’s a limit to what can be learned from studying its caucus results and the campaigns that led up to them.

    • Submitted by Mike Worcester on 02/02/2016 - 03:08 pm.

      Agreed, Ray

      Is it finally past time to put aside Iowa and New Hampshire’s out-sized influence and attention garnering role in our presidential candidate process? I love my Iowa pals, heck I have family there, but seriously, we need to move towards a regional primary system that allows each part of the country to have roughly equal say in who the candidates are.

      Though I suppose if I owned a t.v. or radio station in the Hawkeye State, I’d fight that proposal with all my might 🙂

  12. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/02/2016 - 01:13 pm.

    And one who could actually win…

    Would likely need to pass these tests:

    1. Successful executive and legislative experience
    2. Knowledge of DC and how to make your way through it
    3. Favorably regarded by previous and present constituents / voters
    4. Courage to identify and do the right thing
    5. High regard from independents

    And the answer is; John Kasich. Successful experience at the state and federal level, still regarded as favorable by his Ohio constituents. Took a hard right turn upon initial election to Governor in Ohio and then became a rational adult when faced with the reality of actually governing. And while newspaper endorsements carry little weight these days, he has 6 of 7 endorsements from newspapers relevant in NH.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/02/2016 - 01:29 pm.


      two percent of the vote.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/02/2016 - 02:03 pm.

        Not so Fast

        Governor Kasich may be a better fit for the Republican Party than you think. Consider: As Governor, he has

        Signed every abortion restriction bill that came across his desk;

        Expanded charter schools, even though their record in Ohio is rife with fraud;

        Promoted vouchers for private and religious schools;

        Supported Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage; and

        Signed a Walker-esque law stripping public employee unions of collective bargaining rights.

        He took a lucrative job with Lehman Brothers after leaving Congress, and managed to leave just before it all hit the fan in 2008. Governor Kasich balanced the state’s budget by shifting costs to local government, so many taxpayers saw their taxes go up, even if their state tax bills did not. Job creation in Ohio has lagged behind the national average.

        Anti-abortion, anti-union, anti-gay, pro charters and vouchers, turning a public career into a Wall Street gravy train, budgeting gimmicks, and below-average economic performance. Yes, I would say he is an excellent fit for the GOP.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/02/2016 - 02:29 pm.

          Right you are…

          And that is the funny part of it: Kasich is a right winger of the first order; but, unfortunately for him, not a lunatic who has never accomplished anything (ie: someone without a record, the preferred GOP candidate status).

          He did not even try in Iowa and has made it as high as #2 in NH polls. I’m hoping the GOP faithful does not recognize him as someone who can win….

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/02/2016 - 02:47 pm.

          And the key problem is….he

          And the key problem is….

          he doesn’t regurgitate the faux-scandal flavor of the day.

          Therefore, no real traction with the right-wing media outlets.

  13. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 02/02/2016 - 01:47 pm.

    I just don’t see the point …

    … of placing so much importance on the Iowa caucus. The last time Iowa correctly elected a GOP nominee was 2000 (I don’t count 2004 because Bush ran unopposed for Republicans). Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum never had a snowball’s chance of winning a national election. As for the Democrats, there really wasn’t a winner … it’s too close between Clinton and Sanders. It’s too bad O’Malley didn’t get more exposure I would like to see him in more of the debates.

  14. Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 05:59 pm.

    The good old East Coast

    I see where a pundit on TV said Bernie will do much better in New Hampshire because the voters are more sophisticated on the East Coast. I lived and worked on the East Coast for years and they truly feel mid-westerners are hicks. I hope they are smart enough to figure how Bernie is going to solve the problem of concentrated money, power and influence by concentrating more money, power and influence in DC than ever (Bernie will be final arbitrator of all that power). According to both Hillary and Bernie trickle down economics doesn’t work but Top Down government does. It make take an East Coaster to figure that out.

  15. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 02/02/2016 - 07:44 pm.

    Entertainment vs. news

    Apart from their entertainment value (and to some degree how they winnow out a few of the most hopeless candidates), I don’t think the early races mean very much at all. South Carolina will be of some importance as the first major southern state, but the date to watch is the first Super Tuesday on March 1 (which includes Minnesota). That’s when sheep and goats will begin to head to their respective homes.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 02/02/2016 - 09:43 pm.


      Very true. At least the early states force the media to pay attention. It saves us from the latest news regarding the Kardashians and other inane topics.
      If news reports are correct, Clinton will receive 23 delegates and Sanders 21 in Iowa. A victory at this level is not of the magnitude of winning a state narrowly in the November general election.

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