WASHINGTON – What to make of the Iowa caucus? Here are six takeaways for me:
Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. Yes, I know I keep saying this. It keeps being true. That doesn’t mean she won’t eventually end up being president, but if she does, it will be despite her lackluster political skills, rather than because of them. The woman has had almost incumbent levels of support from her party, which paved the way for an easy coronation … and saw her come to a statistical tie with a self-avowed socialist.
Think about this: she started up 30 percent over Bernie Sanders, and ended up winning six precincts by a coin toss. Clinton seems to have a stronger base of support among Iowa coins than she does among Iowa caucus voters.
Clinton supporters — including some quite progressive Washingtonians who think it will be hard to take a socialist to voters in November — have enjoyed a great deal of schadenfreude over the Trump insurgency. They went into Iowa sounding enthusiastic, while Republican types were holding their breath. Last night was the sound of Republicans exhaling, slowly and cautiously … while Democrats started some measured breathing into a brown paper bag.
Donald Trump is getting voters to the polls — but that’s not necessarily good news for his campaign. The story going into Iowa was that Trump’s success would depend on how many people he could get to the polls, because his polling strength was among people who had never caucused before. High turnout would mean a good night for Trump; low turnout would mean that his incredible, unprecedented free media was no match for a strong organizational ground game.
Well, turnout at the GOP caucus was extremely high, well above the record — and Trump lost while underperforming his polls. This suggests that there is a significant “Anyone But Trump” vote out there. If turnout is again high in New Hampshire, and Trump underperforms there too, I think we will have discovered Trump’s kryptonite: his shock-jock style not only caps his support, but actually inspires new people to turn out to suppress his margins.
Young voters are feeling the Bern. In 2008, Barack Obama took 57 percent of young Iowa Democratic voters. Last night, Sanders won 84 percent. He also took a strong majority in my own age group, 30 to 44. Clinton’s core demographic is folks who are really worried about the cost of long-term care insurance.
Why should this be? Are young people more progressive? Do they simply not have the same nasty associations with the word “socialism” as those of us who watched the Berlin Wall tumble? Are they more economically challenged than their elders? Do they feel that Sanders’s plans offer them more in the way of government support than Clinton does? Hard to say.
But this has repercussions beyond Iowa, or this election. The youth of the party are its future direction, and that direction seems to be moving leftward.
Sanders may not win — but he’s definitely shaping the race. Pundits last night noted that Iowa is an unusually favorable state for Sanders, because it is very, very white, and so is his base of support. As primary season heads south, and into major urban areas, he will have trouble pulling even with Clinton, much less taking the nomination.
All this is probably true. But look at Clinton’s speech after the Iowa caucus. She’s trying to out-progressive Sanders, notably by saying “I know that we can finish the job of universal health care coverage for every single man, woman and child.” She has always talked up expanding and completing Obamacare but has positioned herself as the careful pragmatist against the Sanders pipe dream of single payer. She seems to have realized that a lot of voters, especially young ones, prefer the pipe dreams to the prosaic realities of Obamacare.
There’s a lot of stuff that you can indeed say, even though conventional wisdom said you couldn’t. Trump underperformed and looks much less likely to take the nomination than was hoped or feared, but credit where credit is due: the guy took 25 percent after a campaign that featured making fun of Vietnam POWs and disabled people, and bragging that American voters had issued him a license to kill. Conventional wisdom would have predicted that he’d be losing to “None of the Above.”
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz went into Iowa, dissed ethanol and walked away with the caucus anyway. To be sure, he did it in a somewhat weasely way, but until Monday night, most pundits would have classed “opposing ethanol mandates in Iowa” right up there with “disparaging motherhood while wearing an ISIS T-shirt.” That’s pretty impressive — and in the case of ethanol mandates, mildly heartening, whatever you think of Cruz on the other issues.
Marco Rubio has momentum, and looks likely to be the establishment candidate from this point forward. He massively overperformed his polls, suggesting that he’s not only attracting more voters as the field winnows, but also that he’s picking up a disproportionate share of the Anyone But Trump vote. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott endorsed him following the caucus results, which demonstrates something pundits already knew: expectations matter. If he can deliver another strong performance in New Hampshire then the race is going to consolidate into Cruz, Rubio and Trump pretty quickly.
That’s good for Rubio, obviously, but it’s also bad for Trump. Fragmentation of the moderate vote has given Trump a tremendous amount of media oxygen to keep his campaign going, because the media tends to overcover the front-runner. Evening out the media attention will diminish the perception that he is a winner who is easily steam-rolling the establishment — and since that’s the value proposition he’s offering his supporters (to put it in biz speak), he risks a rapid erosion of his brand. It will also, of course, mean that he will need to start running lots of ads if he wants to keep his name in front of voters.
Since Trump is reaching the point where he’s going to have to start spending serious money on a campaign — his own, if the establishment rethinks its tentative overtures toward his campaign — then a three-man race could become a two-man race pretty quickly. Politicians have to stay in these things to the bitter end, the last campaign dollar, because politics is all they have. Trump could just go back to being a billionaire.
So even though Trump came in second, a Rubio-Cruz contest now looks more likely than one of them facing off against Trump, or Trump speed-walking to the nomination. The two men represent different ideas about Republican politics post-Obama, and it would be interesting to see which one does a better job of capturing the base. It would also, of course, be interesting to see a race in which the Republican candidate is a young Latino, facing off against whichever white senior citizen the Democrats eventually nominate.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.