Well, there we have it folks! The votes are tallied, the caucuses have caucused, and the Microsoft App didn’t crash: Ted Cruz is President! We can all go home secure in the knowledge that we don’t have to deal with politics again… that is, for the three hours of sleep the candidates get before heading to campaign hard in New Hampshire.
So, let’s discuss what happened in Iowa and what it means. We’ll try to break through a little of the spin and do a bit of predicting as well.
First: Ted Cruz’s win was impressive, but it wasn’t a home run. Frankly, it couldn’t be a home run for Cruz in Iowa. Regardless of whether you think that Donald Trump was the candidate to beat, Iowa was a must-win for Cruz. His win was decisive and strong, but if he had lost, his campaign would have been in turmoil. His ground game paid off (as did his faith in Iowa voters). As we have talked about here for a while: Cruz’s campaign has been one of calculated gambles.
Where does Cruz go from here? The breaking news last night that South Carolina Senator Tim Scott planned to endorse Marco Rubio should sting Cruz. While it wasn’t an endorsement that was likely to come Cruz’s way in the end, Cruz could have hoped that Scott would have waited until after New Hampshire to support an “establishment lane” candidate. Cruz may have enough support in the Granite State to pick up a third place. His goal should be second (unless polls really skew in favor of Rubio and show a Trump collapse– unlikely for reasons we’ll talk about later). Cruz will then wager everything on Super Tuesday (South Carolina will be tough for Cruz).
Second: Trump came in second. This should not be that surprising for folks. Given that Cruz had superior organization and Trump’s support was being drawn from newer voters, the billionaire’s support was always going to be soft. The surprise, if there is one, was just how soft the Trump numbers were. Most analysts thought that high turnout would favor Trump. It turns out that late deciders broke primarily for Rubio (and then Cruz). With turnout numbers shattering records, we should have expected to see stronger figures for Trump. This should concern Trump to the extent that it shows there may be an electoral reaction to his campaign (people deciding to go out to vote against Trump rather than for someone else). This “anti-Trump” vote clearly coalesced around Marco Rubio.
Trump’s concession speech seemed humble, genuine, and optimistic. When you have had people in the past (Howard Dean) collapse after a bad speech (and other technical reasons, of course), there was nothing that hurt Trump in the management of the loss. In fact, Trump has begun to sound increasingly like a mainstream politician rather than someone putting on an act.
The test for Trump will be, first, putting his tail between his legs and returning to the debate stage this Saturday with ABC in New Hampshire. Next, Trump will have to win New Hampshire. With some polls showing him up on the rest of the field by double-digits, if his lead collapses and he loses to Rubio, that would be a very bad night for Trump.
Third: The story of the night is actually Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator outperformed expectations and finished a close third behind Donald Trump. There was a slight possibility for part of the night that Rubio could actually come in second, but he wound up a few thousand votes shy. Regardless, Rubio has a degree of momentum headed into New Hampshire. If Rubio can marginalize his establishment rivals and consolidate support, he is hoping that he can make a run at beating Trump outright.
What we learned from Iowa is that voters saw Rubio as the counter to Donald Trump. This is a powerful message going forward. If that view holds, there’s a chance that Rubio could get to the top of the polls in New Hampshire. However, unlike in Iowa where there was no real chance of any establishment candidate taking on Rubio, in New Hampshire, there are three major stumbling blocks: Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. While some in the Party may call for the consolidation of support behind Rubio given his success in Iowa, there’s little chance that any of the other establishment candidates are going to have any interest in giving up ground.
Fourth: Saturday’s New Hampshire ABC debate is going to be exciting if anyone watches. The night before the Super Bowl, the Republican candidates (Trump would be really dumb not to show up) will gather for another debate. Basically, this will be “closing arguments” for New Hampshire. While candidates’ gut instincts may be to go after Trump while he’s vulnerable, you can expect Marco Rubio to be the candidate wearing the target. Anything but first or second for Rubio is a major setback to his strategy. Certainly anything less than third would send his team into panic mode. However, if early indicators are right, Rubio has a strong case for second place (unless there’s significant attrition for Trump).
Fifth: Will Iowa have picked the nominee? Given the last two GOP Primaries, Iowa hasn’t been an accurate predictor of the actual nominee for the Party. Conversely, when Iowans pick someone who becomes the nominee, that person has had a strong bid for the Presidency. Regardless of traditions and anecdotes: does the victory for Cruz actually translate into the nomination? It’s still too early but the preliminary numbers say no. It’s not that Cruz won’t win the nomination, it’s just that the relative sample in Iowa wasn’t necessarily representative of the overall Republican electorate. Evangelicals in Iowa turned out in large numbers and wound up breaking for Cruz. While evangelicals make up a sizable portion of the Republican electorate, they are a majority in Iowa. This does not hold true for the rest of the nation. Cruz’s decidedly faithful self-presentation went over well in Iowa and copied quite a bit from the successful campaigns of Huckabee and Santorum. However, as both Huckabee and Santorum learned, that message doesn’t carry strongly into subsequent contests.
Cruz, it appears, is a stronger candidate than either Huckabee or Santorum, but Cruz made the decision to run a faith and values message in Iowa. He will have to push a more policy-driven campaign soon or risk being marginalized like both Huckabee and Santorum.
Sixth: Cue the brokered convention discussions. Yes, it’s far too early to say that this primary cycle will wind up being decided at the convention (just look at 2012 where you had a 3-man finish in Iowa), but the fact that each of the major candidates got our of Iowa without too much damage means that the coverage of the race will focus on them for the next week. If there’s a repeat of the same “top three” in New Hampshire, you can expect to see that story continue to grow.
So, what does this mean and what should we watch for? If New Hampshire goes Trump-Rubio-Cruz, then the fight will be on over who can win the winner-take-all by district/statewide contest in South Carolina. Unless Cruz falls considerably in South Carolina, there is really no chance that the three-way narrative doesn’t continue into Super Tuesday. While the big delegate winners should be Cruz and Trump (given current numbers), Rubio could pick up “bluer” states and get his first outright wins.
Fast-forwarding the race beyond Super Tuesday, as long as the narrative remains a three-man race and poll numbers/outcomes generally reflect that story, there’s really going to be no reason for Trump, Rubio, or Cruz to exit the race. Even if, for instance, Rubio leads the delegate math by the late-game, it is unlikely in a three-way race that he could secure the nomination outright.
Seventh: The Democrats’ race is a bit of a nightmare. Still too-close-to-call, it’s funny that Martin O’Malley’s 1% possibly played the spoiler for Bernie Sanders’ big win. Basically, O’Malley was in the race just to deny Sanders a definitive win in Iowa. Then he dropped out. Stopping Sanders from getting the PR/morale victory over Clinton in Iowa may have just gotten him some position in Clinton’s cabinet.
Eighth: Ben Carson drew in about 10% support. This could mean that his supporters are just die-hard in his favor or that they are particularly unwilling to defect to Ted Cruz. While this may not effect the race in any significant way in New Hampshire, there are clusters of Carson supporters around the country. If they break for Rubio instead of Cruz, they could be problematic for the Texas Senator.
Ninth: Rand Paul’s fifth place finish was generally in-line with expectations. He may stay in the race through New Hampshire and maybe even Nevada to try to get his message out in more debates, but he has a growing Senate race at home and will be pressured to go and defend his seat.
Tenth: Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race last night. We would project that Santorum would have done the same, but that didn’t happen. Expect most candidates who finish under 10% in New Hampshire to bow out.
Finally: Remember, this is just the beginning of a particularly long road. Buckle up.