Appearing on Morning Joe today, Donald Trump made the levelheaded observation that second place is better than third place. So there's something awfully odd about the Iowa caucus results being spun as both a big win for Marco Rubio and a big loss for Trump:
It's interesting that Marco came in third place and they said it's one of the great victories in the history of politics. And I said, well, how come if he came in third place and I came in substantially better at second place, why isn't mine one of the great victories in the history of politics? And they said no, no, his is, but yours isn't. And I said, oh, that's wonderful, I didn't understand that.
As is often the case, Trump is making sense. As loyal Vox readers are aware, the importance of the Iowa caucuses is a social construct, meaning that expectations are key. The expectations game hurt Trump in that pre-Iowa polls showed him slightly ahead of Ted Cruz while the actual results showed him slightly behind Cruz.
But consider a larger universe of expectations based on general political knowledge of Iowa Republican caucuses:
- Caucuses are low-turnout, which disadvantages candidates like Trump whose supporters are sporadic voters.
- The Iowa GOP is heavily dominated by evangelical Protestants, who often flock to the banner of fellow evangelicals like Cruz or Mike Huckabee.
- Trump's support is geographically concentrated in the South and Northeast, two regions that don't normally go together politically but are both characterized by large African-American populations and high levels of racial resentment. Iowa is, obviously, in the Midwest and full of white people.
- The caucus process puts a premium on organization and ground game, and Trump didn't have a ground game.
- Retail politics matters a lot in Iowa, and Trump made way fewer visits there than Cruz.
If you project the Iowa results forward, Trump wins
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fought to a tie in Iowa, which is a huge achievement for the Sanders campaign but also supports the basic conclusion that Clinton is winning the race. The reason is that Iowa's demographics (whiter, basically) are considerably more Sanders-friendly than the average state, so unless he drastically improves his performance from the Iowa baseline he's going to end up getting crushed in delegate-rich California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, etc.
By the same token, if Trump can do this well in a Midwestern caucus state full of evangelicals without bothering to build a ground game, the implication is that he's poised to win.
Future contests will be held in states that are more Trump-friendly in terms of demographics, in terms of relying less on ground organization, and in that they are simply too large and numerous for candidates to rely on retail politics all across them.
Trump might still lose, but he is currently winning
None of which is to say that Trump will be the Republican nominee. His numbers might slip. Someone might consolidate all the non-Trumpies behind them. Winning presidential nominations is hard. Winning presidential elections without meaningful political experience, party support, or orthodox ideology would be totally unprecedented.
But it's also totally unprecedented for a non-evangelical with no ground game and little interest in retail politicking to finish a close second in Iowa. It's a genuinely impressive achievement — one of several Trump has pulled off this cycle — and deserves to be recognized as such.