Monday night, the Iowa caucus finally opened the presidential primary season; winners and losers were in abundance. The nominal winners were Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, who topped the field in the Republican and Democratic contests, respectively, neither of which was particularly surprising.
The junior senator from Texas had spent a great deal of time touring Iowa, visiting every one of its 99 counties and establishing the strongest ground-game of any Republican candidate. Cruz rode to victory with 28% of the vote, beating out Donald Trump at 24% and Marco Rubio at 23%. The win came largely on the backs of self-identified “born-again” or evangelical voters, who comprised about two-thirds of Iowa’s voters last night. About one-third of the evangelical vote flocked to Cruz despite the presence of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, the winners of the 2012 and 2008 caucuses.
Clinton’s victory was much closer, with the former Secretary of State capturing 49.9% of the vote and 23 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 49.6% and 21 delegates. While Sanders’ campaign was truly impressive in making up the initial 50 point deficit he faced in Iowa when his campaign was first announced, the virtual tie in Iowa is still not enough for him moving forward. The demographics of Iowa (and of New Hampshire, where he will almost undoubtedly win handily on February 9) skew unusually to his favor; 68% of last night’s Democratic voters identified as liberal and 91% as white, which plays to Sanders’ demographic strengths. He faces huge polling deficits among non-white voters and smaller, but still sizeable, deficits among moderates, which will hurt him in the rest of the country if unchanged.
The real question of Iowa was voter turnout: would candidates like Donald Trump and Sanders live up to their polling, given that their bases are composed of less likely voters? The answer was surprising. Voter turnout was enormous, but not enough to propel either Trump or Sanders to victory. Republicans shattered their previous turnout record of 121,000 set in 2012, with over 180,000 people caucusing last night. Almost half were first time voters, but of these, only 30% caucused for Trump. It seems as though Trump succeeded in motivating his supporters to vote, but in a fascinating turn, he may also have motivated otherwise disinterested Republicans to come out and caucus against him.
The Democratic turnout was more straightforward. Youth voters, those ages 17-29, came out at almost triple the normal rate, and Sanders predictably won them by an overwhelming 70 point margin. The Sanders campaign’s efforts to mobilize its youthful base worked well enough to pull off a tie, although it fell short of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 effort. As the primary season moves to less liberal states, he will have to increase turnout still further if he wishes to remain competitive.
But the real winner of the night was unquestionably Marco Rubio. Rubio had been trailing in the polls while Trump and Cruz battled it out for first, and he was expected to finish a comfortable distance from second place. Rubio accumulated a majority of his support extremely late, in the final week leading up to the caucus. Throwing off the polling models, a disproportionate number of those who decided on their candidate “that day” or “in the last few days” chose Rubio, allowing him to surprise the field by finishing only a point behind Trump. He took 44% among voters who listed “Can win in November” as their top factor in choosing a candidate, perhaps reaping the benefits of Republicans scared at the prospect of how Trump or Cruz will fare in a general election.
The upshot: Cruz won, Trump lost and may continue to lose, Rubio won big and may continue to win, Clinton won small, and Sanders will need to either change his demographics problem or find a way to get the vote out like it’s 2008.