The real winners and losers in IowaPolitically Aware Thursday, February 4th, 2016
Commentary: Politically Aware
Monday night, Iowans cast the first votes in the 2016 presidential election. Sen. Ted Cruz won a clear, if somewhat small, Republican victory. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Sen. Bernie Sanders by a razor thin margin to take the Democratic win.
The vote tally, however, has only a small role in determining a candidate’s position in the primary pecking order post Iowa. More important are how the candidates performed against expectations and what it projects for the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9 and beyond. By those measures, Sen. Marco Rubio won the Iowa caucuses by finishing third among Republicans.
Rubio clearly beat expectations. He was rising in the polls, but not to 23 percent and a near tie with Trump. Rubio didn’t just beat the other “establishment” candidates (Govs. John Kasich and Chris Christie and former Gov. Jeb Bush) – he tripled their combined total. New Hampshire polls have been split between Rubio and Kasich as the establishment choice, likely in third place behind Donald Trump and Cruz. Rubio repeating in third place in New Hampshire might get other establishment candidates to drop out; coming in first or second would make him the prohibitive favorite from that group. Either way, the endorsement of Sen. Tim Scott gives him a much needed boost in South Carolina Feb. 20.
Thanks to the media and Sanders, Clinton won the expectations game in her narrow Iowa victory and laid the groundwork for an irrelevant day in New Hampshire. Sanders’ late surge in Iowa, including polls showing him ahead, started a discussion of “What happens if Clinton loses in Iowa and New Hampshire?” Those talks had two conclusions: Sanders needed to win both states, and Clinton could probably survive losing both. Sanders has now lost Iowa, and is so far ahead in the New Hampshire polls that anything less than a 20 point victory will be underperforming. Clinton now has Iowa in her pocket, can’t really underperform expectations in New Hampshire, and has already risen from the dead there once (beating President Obama in 2008).
Cruz played Iowa to an expectations draw. His victory was good enough, but not the resounding win anticipated when he first rose to the top of the polls. He scored only one more convention delegate (8) than Trump or Rubio (7), and didn’t crack 30 percent. Sanders similarly finished about even. Twin wins in Iowa and New Hampshire wouldn’t have given Sanders much of a chance of overcoming Clinton’s establishment support. Now he has the same smaller opportunity he had months ago when he was a good bet to win New Hampshire and lose Iowa.
If there is a loser among the top candidates, it’s Trump. Not because second place is terrible, but because he’s thrown the “loser” label at so many people that his competition, and Fox News, will turn it on him mercilessly.
Conventional wisdom says that Trump needs a solid victory in New Hampshire to keep his campaign afloat, but conventional wisdom didn’t predict any of the Iowa results a few months ago.
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