Iowa Caucuses shift 2016 election terrain
The 2016 presidential nominations are supposed to be all locked up. Secretary Hillary Clinton is supposed to sail to the Democratic nomination untouched. After months of hoping beyond hope, pundits have finally resigned to businessman Donald Trump’s surprising inevitability. There’s only one problem: nobody told Iowa.
On Monday, the Iowa Caucuses didn’t quite go as planned. Despite a Quinnipiac poll the day of the caucus showing Trump seven points ahead of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Cruz cruised to an easy three-point victory. Trump barely finished second over Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who performed surprisingly well. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Clinton were deadlocked all night. In fact, Clinton wasn’t declared the victor until the next day, and some precincts were even decided by coin flip. It was literally a toss-up.
In terms of nominating delegates, Iowa is almost meaningless. Thanks to his win, Cruz now has eight delegates for the Republican nominating convention this summer. Trump and Rubio both have seven. They need 1,237 to win the nomination. Clinton has 23 delegates and Sanders has 21. They need 2,382 to win their party’s nomination. Iowa’s real significance comes from the media coverage it generates. As the first presidential primary election in the nation, the Iowa Caucuses aren’t about where a candidate places. Rather, what matters is how candidates perform relative to the expectations surrounding them.
Trump was the night’s big Republican loser. Expectations surrounding him were huge. He looked weak in Iowa for a while, but he had surged there the week before the primary, buoyed by high-profile endorsements and effective attacks against Cruz. So when Trump barely escaped with second place, his campaign seemed to have drastically underperformed, and suddenly he didn’t look so invincible.
Coming in first was a big win for Cruz, especially when the most recent poll showed him down in the polls significantly. However, Cruz was long considered the favorite in Iowa, thanks to his evangelical bona fides and Iowa-centric campaign strategy, so he didn’t exceed expectations so much as meet them.
Despite coming in third, Marco Rubio was the GOP’s biggest winner. Rubio, who is Catholic, while most Iowa Republicans are evangelical protestants, wasn’t polling well in Iowa. Considered one of the race’s relative moderates (if such a thing exists in today’s GOP), Rubio was vulnerable in Iowa thanks to his voting history on immigration and his lack of campaign infrastructure in the state. When Rubio outperformed polling and nearly overtook Trump, he far exceeded expectations, he emerged as the clear front-runner among establishment Republicans, and he dominated the news cycle. Now it looks possible, if not probable, that Rubio will be the Republican nominee.
Virtually tying with Hillary Clinton was a huge win for Bernie Sanders. Three months ago, Sanders was 20 points behind Clinton in Iowa. The day before the caucus, polling still showed him four points behind. By tying with Clinton, Sanders proved that he is a viable candidate with the campaign infrastructure needed to actually get the vote and win. By generating higher-than-average turnout, he showed that he can generate real excitement and convert that excitement into actual votes. Sanders defied expectations, as he has done this entire campaign.
Now, he has built up serious momentum. After tying with Clinton in Iowa, Sanders announced that he had out-fundraised Clinton by $5 million in January, powered by thousands of small-dollar donations. On Friday, a new Quinnipiac poll showed Sanders just 2 percent behind Clinton nationally, erasing a 30 percent lead that Clinton held in the same poll just six weeks earlier.
Polling twenty points ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire, Sanders is poised to take an early, commanding lead in the race. With key endorsements pouring in and lifting his chances for performing well among minority voters in South Carolina and Nevada, the electoral math keeps looking more and more promising for Sanders.
If the Iowa Caucuses were the only point of reference, the presidential election would look significantly different from how it has been portrayed in the media. Inevitable candidates don’t tie with their rivals. Unstoppable candidates don’t come in second, almost third. The Caucuses were a huge turning point in this race because they threw all expectations out the window. You had one job, Iowa, and you blew it. Now, this election might just be interesting after all.