MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE/DES MOINES IOWA – Republicans and Democrats scrambling for their party’s 2016 nomination for president descended on the tiny New England state of New Hampshire on Tuesday, leaving behind the Iowa caucuses where Ted Cruz, a fiery, conservative Texas senator loathed by his own party’s leaders, swept to victory over billionaire Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Among Democrats, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rode a wave of voter enthusiasm to a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton, long considered her party’s front-runner.
With all precincts reporting, Clinton led Sanders by less than three-tenths of 1 percent. The Iowa Democratic Party declared the contest “the closest in Iowa Democratic caucus history.” Sanders did not concede the race to Clinton, and his spokesman, Michael Briggs, said they were “still assessing” whether to ask for a recount.
The outcome in the country’s first nominating contest drew a line under voter dissatisfaction, especially among Republicans, with the way government in Washington operates, with anger over growing income inequality and fears of global turmoil and terrorism.
Cruz’s victory in Monday’s caucuses, which drew a record turnout, was a blow to Trump, the real estate mogul who has roiled the Republican field for months with controversial statements about women and minorities.
Cruz now heads to next Tuesday’s first-in-the nation primary vote in New Hampshire as an undisputed favorite of the furthest right voters, including evangelical voters and others who prioritize an abrupt break with President Barack Obama’s policies.
But Trump still holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire and national polls.
New Hampshire has historically favored more moderate candidates than Iowa, and more than 40 percent of the state’s electorate are not registered in any political party, giving them the power to choose which parties’ primary to vote in on Feb. 9.
Cruz on Tuesday suggested he was focused on New Hampshire but also on South Carolina, which votes 11 days later.
Trump came in second slightly ahead of Rubio, whose stronger-than-expected finish could help cement his status as the favorite of mainstream Republican voters who worry that Cruz and Trump are too caustic to win the November general election.
Trump sounded humble in defeat, saying he was “honored” by the support of Iowans. And he vowed to keep up his fight, telling cheering supporters that “we will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie or whoever the hell they throw up.”
In the Democratic race, Iowa caucus-goers were choosing between Clinton’s pledge to use her wealth of experience in government to bring about steady progress on party ideals and Sanders’ call for radical change in a system rigged against ordinary Americans. Young voters overwhelmingly backed Sanders.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady, was hoping to banish the possibility of dual losses in Iowa and in New Hampshire, where she trails Sanders, who is from neighboring Vermont. Two straight defeats could throw into question her ability to defeat the Republican nominee.
Clinton appeared before supporters to declare she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.” She stopped short of claiming victory.
Sanders had hoped to replicate Obama’s pathway to the presidency by using a victory in Iowa to catapult his passion and ideals of “democratic socialism” deep into the primaries.
Sanders still faces an uphill battle against Clinton, who has deep ties throughout the party’s establishment and a strong following among a more diverse electorate that plays a larger role in primary contests in February and March.
Iowa has long led off the state-by-state contests to choose delegates for the parties’ national conventions. Historically, a victory has hardly assured the nomination, but a win or an unexpectedly strong showing can give a candidate momentum, while a poor showing can end a candidacy.
Some of the establishment Republican candidates have been focusing more on New Hampshire than Iowa, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The caucuses marked the end of at least two candidates’ White House hopes. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley ended his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee dropped out of the Republican race.
The state’s 30 Republican delegates to the national convention are awarded proportionally based on the vote, with at least eight delegates going to Cruz, seven to Trump and six to Rubio. Even without a declared winner, The Associated Press awarded all but one of the 44 Democratic convention delegates. Clinton led Sanders 22 to 21, with the remaining delegate to be awarded to the statewide winner.
The candidates have already headed to New Hampshire for the next contest. But Iowa, where they jousted for months, holds key lessons for those seeking the White House.
Here are the most important takeaways from Monday’s closely contested vote that saw Donald Trump knocked off his perch, and Hillary Clinton breathe a sigh of relief with a razor-thin win over Bernie Sanders.
Trump had led in all the opinion polls in the run-up to Monday’s caucuses in Iowa, but in the end, he didn’t deliver, and conservative Cruz won the night with 27.6 percent of the vote to 24.3 percent for the tycoon. Why?
“While he looked sort of invincible, the reality was that a majority of Republicans did not have a favorable impression of him,” David Redlawsk, a professor at Rutgers University who was in Iowa for the caucuses, told AFP.
“The media focus on him went way beyond what the reality was, and voters brought back the reality.”
But Cary Covington, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, cautioned that the large number of evangelical Christians in the state — a strong base for Cruz — was always going to be an obstacle for the billionaire businessman.
“Moving forward, he faces a more favorable path,” Covington told AFP, with the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries next up.
Wooing Iowa voters from afar with crafty advertising, debate stage appeals and showmanship just doesn’t work. Perhaps nothing matters more in Iowa than a top-rate operation that can get out the vote — something that Cruz was able to do mightily on his way to victory.
Trump showed he had Iowa support, but he did not engage in the retail politics that is the hallmark of the opening stages of the presidential race. Cruz managed to rally his troops, with an extraordinary multipronged push.
Trump’s candidacy “befuddled” experts, and poll numbers flew in the face of collective knowledge about the system, noted Joseph Cammarano, an associate professor at Providence College.
“It turns out our knowledge is still relevant: the ground game matters, and a conservative demographic that tends to dominate in Iowa dominated again.”
The question now is: will Trump engage more on the ground in the coming weeks?
Sanders showed on Monday that he is a viable alternative to the Clinton machine. While Clinton did not have a bad night — she avoided the dreaded prospect of reliving her 2008 loss to Barack Obama — it was not good either, and shows she has work to do to convince the U.S. electorate to choose her.
“Clinton still needs to figure out how to get young people to trust her,” Cammarano said.
Sanders, meanwhile, drew huge support from younger voters, and the question is how well the self-described democratic socialist can mobilize the younger generation to come out and vote.
New Hampshire is Sanders’s backyard and he is expected to win there. But Clinton has the chance to flip the script after New Hampshire, where the race turns to states like South Carolina, where she is more popular.
It then moves to a host of Southern states that Clinton may well sweep, Covington said.
More than 90 percent of Republicans who participated in Monday’s caucuses said they were angry or unsatisfied with the federal government, according to entrance polls. Trump and Cruz tapped into that anger, and it paid off.
“The angry electorate showed up,” Covington said. “They were the dominant voices” on the Republican side, he added.
“And Bernie Sanders, in a different direction, taps into that impatience for change on the Democratic side,” he said. The Vermont senator earned 84 percent of the vote among caucus participants under the age of 30.
The rebels won the night in Iowa — even if Clinton squeezed out a technical win on the Democratic side — but the Empire can still strike back.
Marco Rubio exceeded expectations with a strong third place showing, proving that a mainstream candidate can still compete in 2016.
Rubio’s performance was “very important to the Republican party establishment. They’re looking for someone to rally behind,” said Covington.
Anger and frustration have marked much of the election cycle, to be sure, but Rubio largely steered clear of the pessimism.
His bounce will give him dramatic increases in media exposure and air time, and donor money could pour in.
Thanks for playing. But should low-pollers Rick Santorum or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie really stay in the race? Huckabee and O’Malley dropped out as Iowa’s results were rolling in.
“One wonders what took them so long,” said professor Paul Beck of Ohio State University.
“This is going to be a long campaign probably on both sides,” he said, and the quicker the Republicans in particular can winnow their field, the better positioned they’ll be to take on the Democrats.
Early favorite Jeb Bush’s weak performance in Iowa means he needs to up his game immediately, or face irrelevance.
“He’s just not performing, so New Hampshire is do or die” for him,” Beck said.