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Iowans are fickle — and other lessons of caucus night

I can’t assign much meaning or significance to Monday’s results in Iowa.

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

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.

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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.

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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.