clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Iowa caucus results, explained

In Monday's Iowa GOP caucuses, Ted Cruz finished first and Donald Trump finished second.

Yet it's Cruz and Marco Rubio who are being declared the winners.

This may seem bizarre, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Iowa isn't important because of the puny number of delegates the state will eventually send to the national conventions. It's important because of what the political world — the media, elites, activists, donors, the candidates themselves, and to a certain extent voters in other states — takes away from the caucus results, as I argued in a recent feature.

All these actors are trying to figure out which candidates have the best shot at winning, and many of them believe the caucus results can help reveal the answer to this question. And their reactions to what happened in Iowa can transform the race elsewhere.

Overall, the lessons the political world is taking away are good for Cruz and Rubio — and bad for Trump. For Clinton and Sanders, though, the takeaways are less clear.

Ted Cruz won, defying predictions that Trump had taken him down

Ted Cruz Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty

(Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty)

Cruz's victory in Iowa was exactly what his campaign needed. He outperformed the polls, thus suggesting that he has a very professional turnout operation and that his campaign will be a player for the long haul. He showed the political world that he could withstand an onslaught of negative attacks from Trump. And he proved that the billionaire is indeed mortal. Republican voters across the country, many of whom haven't been paying attention so far, will now learn of Cruz's victory — and he may well get a bump in the polls as a result.

Expectations for Cruz are low in the next contest, New Hampshire — the Northeastern state doesn't seem a good fit for the Texas senator, who relies on heavy evangelical support. Still, recent Granite State polls already showed him in an effective five-way tie for second place behind Trump, so he could conceivably get a bump there. But the next crucial contest for Cruz is the South Carolina GOP primary on February 20.

Yet Cruz's victory still leaves the race very unsettled. Recent GOP Iowa caucus winners who relied on evangelical support, as Cruz did, have tended to stumble in other regions of the country. And Cruz is loathed by much of the Republican establishment — an establishment that could quickly fall behind the other apparent winner of the night.

Marco Rubio finished stronger than expected

The polls showed Marco Rubio in a distant third, and pundits (including me) questioned his strategy and the state of his ground game. Yet the Rubio campaign is looking pretty smart now that the caucus results are in. The Florida senator outperformed the low expectations that his campaign had helped set, finishing in third but within striking distance of Donald Trump.

The idea that Rubio could "win" in Iowa even though he came in third has come in for some mockery lately. But it makes at least some sense. It's well-known that in recent years the Iowa GOP caucuses have been dominated by conservatives and evangelical voters. So any candidate more in the party's mainstream, like Rubio, faces an uphill climb there. And, indeed, Rubio did far better in Iowa than the other establishment-friendly candidates still in the race: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — thus demonstrating that Rubio has greater crossover appeal than they do.

Of course, big questions remain for Rubio's campaign. If Republican elites fall behind him, will it even matter? Can he draw support away from Cruz, Trump, or Carson, who combined for a majority in Iowa as well as nationally? And what's the first state he wins? These questions remain unanswered, but Rubio had reason to celebrate on caucus night.

Donald Trump's second-place finish means he fell short of his polls

 JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty)

Even a second-place finish for Donald Trump in Iowa would have been unthinkable last spring. But because he surged to first place there in recent polls — and particularly because his final tally was only a bit ahead of Rubio — his performance is being viewed as a big disappointment.

This is inarguably a blow to Trump's campaign. For one, these results send a message to the political world that Trump's poll dominance does not, in fact, necessarily point to what will actually happen on Election Day. For another, it allows Cruz and Rubio — who both outperformed expectations — to win more media coverage. The Iowa results have shaken up polls elsewhere in the past, which could be bad news for Trump. And voters in other early states trying to cast their ballots strategically may conclude that Trump can't win, and vote for somebody else instead.

However, it may not all be over for Trump yet. It's possible that he could perform better in primaries, where an organized ground game isn't as important. And in the most recent New Hampshire polls, he was leading by more than 20 points. Maybe those polls are off just like Iowa's were, or maybe Trump's supporters will abandon him now that he's no longer a "winner." It's best not to take that for granted, though — Iowa is the beginning of primary season voting, not the end.

All the other Republican candidates lost

This is hardly a shocker, but caucus night was a failure for the GOP candidates who finished from fourth to 12th place. It's true that Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie weren't seriously contesting Iowa because they believed the state was too conservative for them. But all three were desperately hoping Marco Rubio wouldn't do well there — and he did do well. As for the other candidates, they're generally considered afterthoughts in the race, but Iowa gave them a chance to prove they could make a splash. They all failed to do so.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seem locked in a draw

No winner has been called for Democrats in Iowa yet, but for all intents and purposes, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seem to be tied. And commentators are split on just what this means.

One school of thought is that Sanders needed to win outright, and failed to do so. Iowa is a heavily white state, and if Sanders can't manage to win there — and continues to perform so poorly among nonwhite Democrats — his campaign has no chance, this argument goes. So what if Sanders wins New Hampshire next week — he's from a next-door state, and Clinton will just bounce back to win South Carolina, right?

Others disagree. A year ago, the idea that a little-known "democratic socialist" would effectively tie the unanimous choice of the Democratic establishment in New Hampshire would have been unthinkable, they argue. The media will cover this result as a tie, which benefits Sanders, who is still viewed by practically everyone as the underdog. And Sanders is already leading polls by a large margin in New Hampshire, so a victory there would give his campaign the attention and momentum he needs to broaden his appeal to nonwhite voters elsewhere who may not know too much about him yet.

What is clear is that this campaign isn't over just yet. Clinton didn't block the Sanders insurgency from taking off, but she avoided an embarrassing defeat like the one she suffered to Barack Obama in the 2008 caucuses. And Sanders didn't get the knockout win that could have truly sent Clinton's campaign reeling, but he did prove that he and his economic populist agenda are a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.