The Iowa Caucuses are about three things: the expectation game, raw numbers, and then the spin. It almost does not matter how well you really did, it is about whether you met expectations or not. Do better than expected you are winner, worse than expected a loser. The real number counts or delegate counts seem unimportant. Momentum or spin from Iowa is based on the expectations game. Thus, Iowa is about also being a form of musical chairs or a variation of the television show the Bachelor–it is the start of an elimination game that thins the heard until there is a winner. For Democrats, the Iowa winner goes on to win the party nomination 2/3s the time, for Republicans it is 60% of the time. Iowa is important and predictive, but not necessarily determinative and certain in terms of what its results say.
In terms of the expectations, based on the latest polls before the caucus Trump should have won with Cruz second and Rubio a distant third. Trump did not meet expectations with his results and is declared the big loser. Of course the real losers are all those other Republicans who finished near the bottom of the heap next to the asterisk zone–including Bush, Santorium, Paul, and Huckabee. The latter three have no dropped out, Bush might need to do so soon. He spent $80,000,000+ to get 4,000 votes–approximately $20,000 per vote. I am sure his supporters would have preferred the cash instead.
Yet Trump’s second place performance could be seen all along. Many of us said that his challenge was translating his media presence and name recognition into real numbers when he had no ground game. His second place performance and Cruz’s first place show the power of the ground game. Yet Trump’s second place finish still demonstrates how well he did without spending much time working on getting out the vote. In some ways he did better than he should have given his strategy. Of course, Trump reacted badly to his loss, crying foul, and showing to a large extent that his main rationale for the presidency–he is leading in the polls–may be crumbling under him. Yes he still leads in New Hampshire and nationally, yet now there is reason to think he is vulnerable. Despite winning almost as many delegates as Cruz, he is seen as a loser and the media and spinners are treating him as such.
For the Democrats the two most recent polls before Monday had Clinton up by three and Sanders up by three, with margins of error approximately 3.5%. The race was a statistical dead heat. Clinton supporters spin it as a historic win for Clinton but given her 50 point lead six months ago, that she was challenged by someone who is not a Democrat and who declares himself a socialist, winning by three-tenths of one percent of the vote is not much of victory. If this were a general election this margin would trigger an automatic recount before it would have been certified by a canvassing board. As we know in Minnesota from the Franken Coleman 2008 race, election night counts are not final or accurate and are readjusted several times before declared final and valid. Additionally, as we saw with Romney and Santorium in 2012, the former was originally declared the winner only to have the latter prevail later on when the votes were finally adjusted. Monday is perhaps a win for Clinton, but it does reveal powerful weaknesses in her candidacy especially among younger voters.
For Sanders, it was a good showing. Again, don’t say historic. Just because something happens once does not make it historic. For something to be historic it has to stand the test of history. In six months Iowa may mean little or nothing or something completely different than what people think it means now. For now Sanders either tied Clinton or came in a close second, winning almost the same number of delegates. He raised millions after the Iowa Caucuses and he heads into New Hampshire where he is favored. Yes, part of his advantage in that state is the close media market to Vermont, but no folks, NH is not a liberal state. It is a political swing state that elects lots of Republicans. It is not necessarily a natural home for Sanders. Moreover, remember Clinton won it eight years ago after losing to Obama in Iowa. Both Clinton and Sanders have lots to spin at this point, but in may ways Sanders comes out this week looking stronger for now
Certainly Clinton and her supporters point to polls regarding her firewalls in Nevada but more importantly South Carolina, but polls today cannot necessarily tell us what will happen in those two states in several weeks. Those who say Clinton has a lock on voters of color need to understand that it is not an issue of her getting all their votes and Sanders none. The same is true with Sanders and Clinton when it comes to young voters, or liberals, or women. The issue is how well each does in terms of holding and mobilizing their bases compared to one another.