Tuesday, February 02, 2016

5 Random Thoughts on the Iowa Caucuses

Well, it finally happened-the Iowa caucuses are here and gone, and like they do every year, they bring a host of major questions, surprises, and thoughts.  We'll be analyzing these results, wondering aloud if the winners and losers lose steam as we push onward into New Hampshire in a few days, and then once again rehashing everything as momentum shifts or accelerates.  In the meantime, though, these are the five things that caught my eye in Iowa.

1. What Does Donald Trump Look Like as a Loser?

You can argue that Martin O'Malley and Mike Huckabee and to a lesser extent Jeb Bush all had the worst nights of their professional careers, watching their presidential hopes disappear into the night, but they knew this was coming, and despite a mountain of money spent in the Hawkeye State Jeb has seen the writing on the wall for months and was hoping more for something out of New Hampshire instead (which is still a long shot, more so because of what we're about to rehash below).  So if we stick to the five candidates who had a shot at winning last night, and of taking the White House this November, Donald Trump surely is the only one that can be branded a "loser"-he underperformed dramatically compared to Ted Cruz in comparison to the polls, and nearly fell to an upstart Marco Rubio.  Trump will now head into New Hampshire with a big lead, but pundits and the news media (who, like it or not, shape the thoughts of the electorate) will constantly be harping on Trump's poor ground game, inability to convert undecided voters at the last minute (who seemed, if the polls are to be believed, to be split between Rubio and Cruz), and also be questioning whether or not we can trust polling any more as the industry (which could not be in greater demand by the news media) has been an abject failure for three cycles straight now.  Trump's brand is entirely around winning, but he can't really afford two straight losses and you can bet both Rubio and Cruz are going to be going for the jugular on New Hampshire, a state he cannot afford to lose.  For those who have questioned whether or not the Trump train will finally be over, look no further than February 9th-if he can't win there, he can't win anywhere.

2. Ted Cruz's Path Forward

No one needed a victory in Iowa more than Sen. Ted Cruz, and he got it.  The Texas senator managed to convince Iowa evangelicals to come out en masse, despite the celebrity-draw of Donald Trump and a poor debate performance just a few days earlier.  But now the question remains-what is the direction forward for the man who follows Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum as the victor in the first-in-the-nation caucus?  Obviously New Hampshire and Trump's position there is going to be enormously important, but I wonder if Cruz continues his shift to fight against Rubio.  What was very evident in last night's vote was that Donald Trump can command television screens and the political conversation, but that Cruz and Rubio had the advantage on the ground game, which is of course what actually demands the delegates.  If Cruz sees the writing on the wall that Trump is nothing but a distraction, he's going to try to ruin Rubio's chances as much as possible, hoping that Trump stays viable enough for Rubio to become a distant third, and not a very obvious second place.  Expect a few stops in New Hampshire in an attempt to keep Rubio in third there as well, but for him to make a major play for South Carolina, and then Florida in the weeks ahead in order to either keep Rubio down or at least keep Trump propped up long enough for him to be his chief rival.  Because Ted Cruz and his team, which showed themselves to have political moxie last night, know that if the race becomes Rubio v. Cruz too early, they won't end up on-top.

3. Marco Rubio Just Got Closer to the White House

You get three tickets out of Iowa, or so the saying goes, and no one is happier to get his ticket than Marco Rubio.  Pundits and progressives alike ripped Rubio's "victory" speech apart after coming in third last night, but it likely played well in upcoming states amongst establishment types who were hoping for a candidate to follow.  Marco Rubio is now the clear establishment favorite, and about the only thing that could stop him is an unexpectedly strong showing from Jeb Bush in New Hampshire.  In all likelihood, though, Rubio is going to gun for his 3-2-1 strategy after all (a fact aided by an impressive Tim Scott endorsement last night), and will almost assuredly go after Donald Trump in the next few days, as his supporters will be somewhat up for grabs in New Hampshire.  It's worth noting, of course, that occasionally political writers (myself included) read too much into Iowa results, but in an age of social media and ridiculously short public attention spans, Rubio being branded a winner by literally everyone in the political establishment (despite not actually winning) is going to be a death knell for candidates such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie, and without them in the race Rubio has a clear path to the nomination.  Make no mistake-the biggest winner last night was the Florida senator, who proved that he can make a play for the nomination, and as I don't think he can lose to Clinton or Sanders in the general (at least without a considerably stronger showing from either of those two candidates on the campaign trail), the White House.

4. This is Not What Hillary Clinton Had in Mind

Forgetting for a second that the Clinton Camp was looking at how Marco Rubio over-performed and having panic attacks (the difference between Clinton and Sanders is that Clinton always has her eyes on the actual prize, a victory in the general election), Hillary Clinton had a rough night.  Yes, it appears that she had a phyrric victory of sorts out of Iowa, as the closest election ever in the state produced essentially a tie that she ended up on top of, but Bernie Sanders matching the former New York senator is the true story here.  Sanders goes into New Hampshire as the heavy favorite now, and I expect him to start picking up momentum in states like Nevada and South Carolina.  Clinton needs to either find a way to connect with liberal white voters at this point, or hope that she doesn't get bogged down in the coming weeks by a media that is going to brand her a loser despite her victory, and by Democrats who are going to be biting their fingernails.  Lest we forget, until Barack Obama won Iowa four years ago Hillary Clinton was still leading in South Carolina, and her loss there was the beginning of the end.  Because make no mistake, Democrats are not as good as Republicans in terms of electoral nerves when it comes to being patient, and words like "Joe Biden" will start being thrown around if Clinton gets walloped in New Hampshire or her NV/SC numbers slide too ferociously as vulnerable Democrats running down-ballot don't want Sanders on the top of the ticket.  It still seems likely that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, but both Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio had better nights than her last night in my opinion, and those are the two candidates Clinton wanted to see go under the hardest.

5. This is a Terrible Way to Elect a President

Throw out your opinions of the candidates for a second, and also of the terrible pollsters (at some point we're going to have to find a new solution here as no one guessed Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would do that well)-this is still the worst possible way I can think of to elect a president.  Every four years, we hunker down in the same exact state, one arbitrarily chosen to be the first-in-the-nation, and value its opinions above all else?  And we do so not in a traditional "get as many people to the polls as possible" sort of way, but instead by only allowing those people who can randomly spend hours upon end on a Monday night away from their families, jobs, and lives?  It's a disgrace, and while I've written about it before, it needs to be said that we need a National Primary Day, one that mirrors our general elections and allows no state to hold enormous power without a check from other citizens.  It is not fair that the people of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina get to almost exclusively elect our presidential nominees, and every cycle we allow this we get a more polarized electorate.

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