Iowa’s Three Great Storylines
Though I personally favor a rotating regional primary nomination method, the way Iowa just voted could not have gone better. There were three results in particular, on the GOP side, that have effectively redirected the Republican contest from the wayward path it threatened to take based on pre-caucus poll numbers. The final Des Moines Register poll, conducted by superstar pollster Ann Selzer, had Donald Trump winning with 28 percent of the vote, Ted Cruz coming in second with 23 percent, and Marco Rubio finishing a distant third with only 15 percent. Selzer, whom FiveThirtyEight gives an A+ rating, turned out to be blissfully, blessedly wrong.
Here’s why I’m calling Iowa’s results the best course correction we could have hoped for.
By far the night’s three most momentous results, on the Republican side, were Ted Cruz’s emphatic victory, Marco Rubio’s expectations-defying near-ascent into second place, and Donald Trump’s embarrassing decline into “first loser” territory. As special as Cruz’s accomplishment is, I’ve lined up the above three results in ascending order of importance. Let me reiterate that all three are highly significant outcomes, but there is a reason why I’ve ordered them as I have.
God bless Iowa to the high heavens for cutting Trump down to size. Had the results more or less been as Selzer predicted, Trump would have solidified his New Hampshire dominance, Cruz would have had to wait until March to make a dent in the race, and Rubio would have failed to attract the establishment support needed to generate a plausible anti-Trump voting coalition. In short, it would have likely paved the way for a Trump nomination.
But Iowa, sweet, sweet Iowa. As Trump’s decline was unfolding on screen, wide-eyed wonder turned to schadenfreude-tinged ecstasy, and it was possible to believe again in the propriety of our current electoral set-up. The people of Iowa showed up in record numbers, and despite forecasts to the contrary, high turnout did not boost Trump but instead downed him. The Donald massively underperformed, finishing 4.3 points below his Real Clear Politics aggregate numbers, 6.4 points below his HuffPost Pollster average, and nearly 4 full points below Selzer’s historically authoritative Des Moines Register weekend-before-the-caucus poll. The fact that Trump’s post-caucus speech registered as the shortest of his campaign pretty much says it all. It’s not surprising that a candidate whose platform is organized around winning has remarkably little to say when he fails to … um … win.
The second most significant outcome was Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish. Pundits playing down Rubio’s performance by pointing out that third place is not first place, and that it’s been predicted for a while now that Rubio would take third, are simply embarrassing themselves. I understand the reticence to announce the arrival of Rubio — I noted last week in these pages that Rubio is the candidate who is always being announced but never actually arriving.
But there’s an element of daftness involved in denying that Rubio had himself a night. This isn’t because these pundits are technically wrong, but because their responses misunderstand what it means to do well in electoral contests. In an absolute sense, Rubio finished in third place; but if we’re sensitive to criteria that more meaningfully capture true electoral strength, the fact that Rubio finished far above expectations, and only fractionally worse than the forecasted winner, makes a serious difference.
Rubio’s near-second-place result also means the other establishment-friendly candidates now find themselves staring into the abyss — Rubio outperformed them 23.1 to 8.4, combined. What sort of case will they be able to make for themselves now, especially when Iowa voters prioritizing electability — traditionally the greatest political value of establishment candidates — resoundingly gave Rubio their support (he won this group by more than 20 points over Cruz)? If Trump’s underwhelming Iowa performance initiates a downward spiral, Rubio is left as the only plausible non-Cruz option going forward. The likelihood that Rubio will be seen this way, with all the institutional and structural support that this realization will generate, is the reason why Rubio’s third-place speech sounded more like a victory speech.
For Ted Cruz, Iowa was a must win. Set aside that a loss would have parted the seas for Trump — the real problem for Cruz would have been the deflating effect that would’ve resulted from losing a state that is ready-made for a Cruz victory. From strong evangelical support (Cruz won this category by 12 points), to gaining the “shares my values” support (Cruz won this category by 17 points), to drawing conservative voters (Cruz won this category by 8 points) — for Cruz to show that he is credible, he would not be able to lose a state so tailored to his electoral strengths.
Had he finished second to Trump, Cruz would have shown he is incapable of winning in highly favorable conditions, which would have certainly doomed his chances in New Hampshire, a state far more adversarial to his political profile. But now, everything’s different. Cruz destroyed Trump in Iowa, and he didn’t even need to bend the knee to Big Corn to do so. Surely now he will swagger into the Granite State with a real chance to do some damage there.
All three storylines should make conservatives happy. I think I speak for them when I say: Thank you, Iowa.