Capital Brief, 3 February 2016
Voting Begins: Clinton, Cruz Take Iowa and Election Dynamics Shift
- On February 1, the first electoral event of the 2016 season took place with the Iowa caucuses.
- Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were predicted to finish in a virtual tie with the advantage given to Clinton. This indeed proved to be the case. Clinton won in a razor sharp victory, receiving 49.9% of the total vote (versus Sanders’ 49.6%). Voter turnout was particularly high, second only to the record-breaking 2008 (the year Obama won, and Hillary Clinton placed third). Following the Iowa caucus in which he received less than 1% of the vote, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley suspended his campaign.
- On the Republican side, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz also went into the caucus in a virtual tie, with pollsters predicting a Trump victory. Ted Cruz surprised by winning with 27.6% of the vote, leaving Donald Trump with 24.3%, and Marco Rubio in third with 23.1%. No Republican candidate has pulled out of the race since the results on Monday.
- On the left, Clinton’s victory could be considered a mixed result. She won, after all, in a state in which a quarter of Democrats identify themselves, like Sanders, as socialists. She won in a state traditionally difficult for the Clintons, thus becoming the first Clinton – and especially the first woman in history – to win this caucus.
- Yet, Clinton invested heavily (money, staff, personal visits) over the past several months in an effort to win Iowa convincingly. Her Iowa infrastructure was better than Obama’s mythic operation in 2008. The narrowness of her victory may underline a lingering voter sentiment that the problem lies not in Clinton’s operational and tactical game, but resides rather in her person. If this argument holds true, it is perhaps most true for many young first-time voters, who turned out overwhelmingly to support Sanders (80% of voters under 30 cast ballots for him).
- On the right, Iowa was an important loss for Donald Trump. Indeed Iowa voters showed that for as much as Trump’s anger discourse may have resonated and captured the public and media imaginations, ultimately: 1/ his proponents’ fervor did not translate into mobilization around Trump in this key electoral moment, 2/ temperament and policy mattered more to the base’s conservative voters than mere indignation and finally, 3/ Cruz’s grassroots operation outperformed Trump’s nontraditionally organized campaign effort.
- The Republican Establishment has been eager to separate itself from Trump and Cruz. Trump’s defeat in Iowa was a first small step to achieving that objective. Cruz's victory was good for Cruz, but perhaps even better for Rubio. As the race moves forward, there will be a growing pressure on smaller candidates to rally their supporters and donors around a single electable Republican candidate.
- Jeb Bush was once considered the natural Establishment choice, but has proven to be a weak candidate with a diminishing momentum. If bolstered by a strong showing in the next voting states, Rubio’s solid performance in Iowa (23.1%) makes a convincing argument that he could/should be the Establishment heir, providing a moderate, electable alternative to Ted Cruz and thus a chance at beating likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
- The overall electoral mood in 2016 is different than that of 2008. In 2016, 50% of Democratic voters say that experience is very important to them, whereas only 29% of Republicans agree. The opposite was true in 2008 - the last time Hillary Clinton ran - when Democratic voters felt that experience was secondary to judgment and temperament and nominated Obama. Conversely, Republicans wanted experience first and foremost and nominated Senator John McCain.