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Eye On Candidates
February 2, 2016

What Do the Caucus Results Mean – and What’s Next?

The Iowa caucuses are over and done, and now the candidates (most of them, at least) are moving on to New Hampshire. Two candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ended their campaigns after disappointing results, and it is possible one or two more will pull the plug within the next few days.

Aside from pushing a few candidates out of the race, what will be the impact of the Iowa caucuses on the Democratic and Republican nomination contests? There are a number of thoughts being offered this morning, beginning with this from Politico:

5 takeaways from the Iowa caucuses

  1. Meet Ted Cruz, your new frontrunner. The Texas tea party favorite has run a nearly flawless three-step campaign: 1) Keep out of Trump’s way to avoid the incessant abuse, 2) Quietly marshal the support of evangelical voters, and 3) Offer targeted attacks on [Donald] Trump late in the caucus campaign to let voters know you can’t be bullied.

Cruz faced a moment of truth last week when a wily Trump picked a phony fight with Fox to take a powder on the last pre-Iowa debate. At the time this seemed like a tactically canny maneuver — in his absence, the other candidates savaged Cruz on immigration and other issues. But his controversial attack on Trump’s “New York values” — while roundly criticized by the media — hit the mark with religious plains conservatives, and he eked out an impressive 28 to 24 percent win over the heavily-favored developer.

  1. Hillary Clinton isn’t a very good presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders… understands, with a Cruz-like ear for his party’s base, that the politics of grievance are the politics that will succeed — at least in a primary in state like Iowa, where 43 percent of voters self-identify as “socialists.”

Yet whatever virtues Sanders possesses, it’s hard to discount the role Clinton’s political ineptitude — and tin ear — played in his rapid rise. President Obama charitably described her to me as “rusty” when she first began campaigning in mid-2015. The problem for Clinton is that she’s never quite stripped it away.

It’s ironic that she rails against the big drug companies, because there are times when a Clinton speech sounds like a read-aloud pharmaceutical disclaimer — with policy proposal piled upon policy proposal with parsimonious dollops of anecdote or personal revelation. Sanders is no Lincoln, but his spiel is sharply focused on income inequality, and is seductively simple enough for any progressive, no matter how uninterested in politics, to understand.

Roll Call describes what may be ahead for Clinton and Sanders:

As for Bernie Sanders, who raised $20 million in January, there is no reason why he won’t still be in the race until, at least, the June 7 California primary.

By every measure, Hillary Clinton should have romped home easily in Iowa…. And yet Hillary Clinton is locked in a long-haul race against a 74-year-old left-wing senator — a legislator who has little interest in the niceties of politics or the ideological blandness supposedly necessary to prevail in big-time politics. Hillary’s plight is a reminder that no one (aside from incumbent presidents) has been handed a nomination without a fight since Richard Nixon in 1960….

Despite her high approval rate, there is a lingering enthusiasm gap. Her campaign so far has been a theme-less pudding of Democratic applause lines punctuated by occasional attacks on Wall Street designed to woo Sanders voters. It is telling that her strongest moment since she declared her candidacy last April was her ability to survive the 11-hour House Benghazi hearing without giving ground to the Republicans.

Whatever the final numbers from Iowa (and Democratic caucus arithmetic requires an advanced degree in calculus), the Democratic establishment has to be a bit nervous about Clinton’s second-time-around candidacy. The furor over her private email server (which she tried to wave away last March with a marathon press conference) looks like it will continue to dog her into a general election campaign. And at a time when the voters crave authenticity, she remains a cautious candidate whose every gesture can appear calculated.

The danger for Democrats who dread the electoral prospects of Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket is that they are operating without a safety net beyond Hillary.

The Hill offers a list of “winners and losers,” putting both Clinton and Sanders in the former, as well as Cruz. Also a “winner”: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio:

Rubio came within about 1 percentage point of pushing Trump into third place, in the process outperforming his opinion poll ratings by a significant margin. 

More to the point, Rubio has copper-fastened his status as the establishment-friendly alternative to Trump and Cruz.

“I think it’s a three-person race leaving here,” his spokesman Alex Conant told MSNBC Monday evening. “If you don’t want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to be the nominee, you better get on board with Marco Rubio.”

Heading the “losers” list: businessman Trump:

The business mogul had led most polls, nationally and in Iowa, for months. But he failed his first real test. Defeat here is a big blow to Trump, puncturing any sense that he could roll over the rest of the field on his way to the nomination.

Trump sought to put a brave face on his loss, looking ahead to New Hampshire and promising he would ultimately win the nomination.

But questions will now grow much sharper over whether the Trump phenomenon is for real. 

Another candidate who had a rough night was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, according to Politico:

The bar was low for Jeb Bush's finish in Monday's Iowa caucus. He failed to clear it anyway.

After a blowout defeat that landed him in sixth place with just 2.8 percent of the vote, Bush's campaign is now directing top aides and surrogates to highlight the lack of emphasis the one-time front-runner placed on the state – and to make the case that he has far higher expectations in New Hampshire….

For Bush, the best thing about the Iowa caucuses is that they're over, and now the campaign moves to New Hampshire, where Bush has concentrated his efforts. Further complicating his efforts, however, is a strong finish from Rubio. As the GOP establishment looks for a candidate to beat back Cruz and Trump, Bush will have to convince them that he is a better standard bearer than a rival, who bested him by around 20 percentage points.

The worst news for Bush, and any other Republican candidate not named Cruz, Rubio, or Trump, is that today the media is filled with stories proclaiming some variation of the theme “it’s a three-man race now.” Consider this from National Journal:

Even with Trump’s de­feat, this is now a true three-can­did­ate race. Cruz has ce­men­ted his stand­ing as the can­did­ate backed by the con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots—which should hold him in good stead for a long while. His or­gan­iz­a­tion was the best in the state. He’s now hop­ing to beat ex­pect­a­tions, and more im­port­antly, fo­cus his at­ten­tion on South Car­o­lina, where evan­gel­ic­als play an even lar­ger role in the state’s polit­ics than in Iowa….

Ru­bio couldn’t have asked for a much bet­ter res­ult, either. Ex­pect Ru­bio to use his strong fin­ish to con­sol­id­ate sup­port in the cen­ter-right lane in New Hamp­shire. His quick re­ac­tion to the res­ults soun­ded like a vic­tory speech. His 23 per­cent tally far out­dis­tanced his num­bers in the polls, which put him at roughly 15 per­cent. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich barely re­gistered in Iowa even though the first two spent ample time here in the fi­nal week. (In an Urb­andale pre­cinct once con­sidered a Bush strong­hold, Ru­bio won 152 votes and Bush got 8.) And if Trump con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor pres­ence, he’s poised to hurt Cruz a little more than Ru­bio in the states to come—in par­tic­u­lar, in South Car­o­lina.  

In­deed, Trump will still be a ma­jor play­er des­pite his dis­ap­point­ing show­ing. The biggest ques­tion is wheth­er his col­lapse in Iowa will sig­ni­fic­antly de­flate his num­bers else­where.  There’s reas­on to be­lieve that Trump could lose New Hamp­shire, where he cur­rently holds a com­mand­ing lead. As Ru­bio con­sol­id­ates sup­port, Trump loses some of his.  

But Trump still has a floor of dis­af­fected work­ing-class voters who won’t be go­ing away. In South­ern states, those voters over­lap sig­ni­fic­antly with Cruz sup­port­ers. Against his in­stincts, he gave a gra­cious, brief con­ces­sion speech, show­ing he can learn from past mis­takes. There was no Howard Dean-scream mo­ment here. Trump still has op­por­tun­it­ies to put vic­tor­ies on the board, but in the short term he’s Ru­bio’s best stra­tegic friend.

The “three-man race” storyline obviously doesn’t help Bush, but at least he, Christie and Kasich can point this morning to New Hampshire’s current poll numbers showing them all bunched in a group vying for second place ( currently has Trump at 33.2 percent, Cruz and Kasich tied at 11.5 percent, Bush at 10.3 percent, Rubio at 9.5 percent, with Christie a bit further back at 6.5 percent). All of them can plausibly claim they are positioned for a strong finish in the Granite State that will propel them forward (although it seems likely both Cruz and Rubio start to see their numbers move up following the Iowa results, potentially leaving the three governors behind again).

The remaining candidates, however, are in a tough spot following Iowa. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson finished in fourth, a respectable showing, but his support has been in decline for the past two months and New Hampshire does not appear to be an opportunity for him to reignite his campaign ( poll average: 3.2 percent). He is claiming the Cruz campaign circulated rumors he was dropping out of the race, which suppressed his vote totals:

Carson’s team claimed that Ted Cruz’s campaign deliberately sent emails to supporters to spread false rumors at caucus sites that Carson had dropped out, so his supporters would caucus for other candidates….

Members of Carson’s team furnished evidence of various precinct captains alleging misconduct by the Cruz campaign.

Ryan Rhodes, Carson’s Iowa state director, showed reporters a text on his phone from Barbara Heki, a Mike Huckabee supporter. “The Cruz speakers at our caucus announced Carson was suspending his campaign for a while after caucus. They did this before the vote. Same thing happened at another caucus. Sounds like slimy Cruzing to me,” the text read.

Jason Osborne, Carson’s deputy senior strategist, read aloud another missive, this one an email from their precinct chair in Muscatine: “The guy speaking for Ted Cruz right before the vote, he was supposed to be done, he announced that there was a story on CNN that Ben Carson was taking a break after Iowa, and then stated, ‘So you might want to rethink wasting your vote on him.’”

Carson is still in the race, but it’s likely there will continue to be speculation and rumors of his getting out of the race, especially if he does poorly in New Hampshire. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is another candidate who will likely have to battle speculation and rumors of an imminent exit, following a fifth-place showing in Iowa and poll numbers in New Hampshire well behind most of his rivals (3 percent, good enough for ninth place, according to

The remaining candidates are also likely to be facing pressure to leave the race. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina finished seventh in Iowa and is also in seventh place in the average of New Hampshire polls, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished 11th in Iowa and is in the same position in the Granite State. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore received a total of twelve votes in Iowa and isn’t even included in the average for New Hampshire.

The key lessons from the Iowa caucuses appear to be, on the Democratic side, that Bernie Sanders has shown he can organize and turn out voters, and Clinton still struggles to connect with many voters. Sanders heads into New Hampshire claiming a virtual tie in Iowa and holds a big lead in the polls for next week’s primary, and it’s not clear Clinton will be able to catch him. She remains strong with non-white voters, though, and the big unknown is whether Sanders can expand his appeal to them enough to be competitive throughout the campaign.

On the Republican side, it’s likely that Bush, Christie, Kasich, and perhaps another candidate will need to do well enough in New Hampshire to bust the “three-man race” narrative that Iowa created. If they can’t do that, it’s likely at least two of them will drop out after New Hampshire’s primary next week, as well as several of the other trailing candidates.

What will happen from here is anybody’s guess, but it seems likely that within two or three weeks a lot of today’s questions will be answered.