News from the Votemaster
Let the Spin Begin
The good people of Iowa have come together and caucused; here are the results:
The big story on the Republican side, and of the night in general, is Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) "come-from-behind" victory. Cruz crowed that, "Tonight is a victory for the grass roots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and across this great nation." Donald Trump, meanwhile, acknowledged the result in a brief speech, saying "We finished second and I want to tell you something, I'm honored. I'm just really honored." Modern politics being the horse race that it is, much of the media is taking this narrative and running with it. "Ted Cruz turned the Republican primary race on its head Monday night," declared CNN; Politico reported that Trump is "2016's first loser" and that "The billionaire's unsophisticated, shoe-string campaign [caught] up with him"; The New York Times wrote that it was a "humbling loss" for the Donald, "throwing into question the depth of support for [his] unconventional candidacy." Already, some pundits are blaming the defeat on Trump's decision to skip the last GOP debate, while others are asking how the pollsters got it so wrong.
Ok, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. First, as to the polls, the results were (with one possible exception, discussed below) within the margin of error. Cruz outperformed his average poll number by 4%, Trump underperformed his by 2%. Most polls are ±4 to 5%. And this is despite the fact that the pollsters had no good way to adjust for the so-called "Trump Effect," wherein the billionaire does significantly better in online polls than he does in telephone polls. The theory is that it is embarrassing to admit to being a Trump supporter, so voters lie about their preference when talking to a live human being on the other end of a phone call. If this theory is correct, then it should presumably be more pronounced in a caucus situation. In other words, if one is embarrassed to tell an anonymous pollster about being a Trump supporter, then one should be even more embarrassed to share that information with live human beings in person—some of them friends and/or neighbors. The point is that tonight's results are nowhere near sufficient to declare failure on the part of pollsters, certainly not on the level that they failed in Britain or Canada or Israel in 2015. In the New Hampshire primary next week, voting is by secret ballot, so this effect won't be present.
Meanwhile, Cruz's "victory" is certainly important for him, in the sense that Trump had him on the ropes, and a bad finish could have been a near-knockout blow. Tonight's tally will buoy the Senator's campaign, increase his donations, and give him a club to beat Trump over the head with at the next GOP debate (if The Donald shows up). But it's simply not the overwhelming triumph that so many are making it out to be. For starters, we must remember that support is not tallied in the form of votes, but in delegates. Since 1,237 delegates are needed for the GOP nomination, the difference between the 8 delegates that Cruz claimed and the 7 that Trump took is quite inconsequential. And if we put aside the horse race talk, and the polls, and the predictions, and instead look at the outcome critically, it may be that the most important question is why Cruz didn't win more handily. After all, he poured massive resources into advertising in the state and into a huge and well-coordinated ground game (ultimately resulting in a record turnout of 182,000 people on the GOP side). He secured the support of every prominent evangelical in Iowa, and spent hundreds of hours campaigning (with surrogates, like his father, spending hundreds of hours more). And this in a state that has given its blessing to evangelicals in each of the last two elections (while also giving second place finishes to Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan in previous elections). Trump, by contrast, had a fairly limited ground game, is not an evangelical, spent little on advertising, and draws support from voters who are largely political neophytes and may struggle with the caucus process. And yet, he barely lost. There is much about Iowa that Cruz simply will not be able to replicate in most (or any) other states, and if he can only win by a nose when he has everything else working in his favor, it certainly raises some questions about his long-term viability.
Meanwhile, the most important result of the night may not be who finished 1-2, but instead Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-FL) very strong third-place finish. He outperformed his polling numbers by 5%-8%, so when Ann Selzer, et al., do their postmortems, Rubio's numbers are the ones that will merit the most scrutiny. And not only did the Florida Senator claim just as many delegates as Trump (and, thus, just one less than Cruz), he also attracted more votes than the other three establishment candidates (Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush) combined and tripled. There is still time for their supporters to coalesce around Rubio; if they had done so on Monday, he would have finished in first place rather than third. He may still need a top-two finish in New Hampshire to seal the deal, but then again, he may not. Cruz's results tonight may very well convince the establishment types that Rubio needs to become Plan B immediately, Bush family, et al., be damned. Slate's Jim Newell, among others, concurs that Rubio's performance gives the GOP elites a "glimmer of hope."
On the Democratic side, virtually every outlet is characterizing the result as a "dead heat" or a "photo finish" or a "virtual tie." True enough, if we only consider the ballots cast. But again, this race is about delegates, and there, Hillary triumphed by a fair margin. This Democratic caucus is the closest in modern history, but only if you look at the popular vote. This result was entirely predictable; Sanders won a few counties by a huge margin, including Black Hawk County, home of the University of Northern Iowa and Linn County, home of Coe College. He also won Johnson County (University of Iowa) and Story County (Iowa State University). These counties helped his overall ballot total, but did little for his delegate total.
What a lot of people don't understand is that the popular vote is not always the determining factor in delegate allocation, even in states that are proportional. Just as it matters where your votes are in the general election, it also matters where your votes are in the primaries. For example, suppose it's Cruz vs. Clinton in the general election and some poll shows Cruz 45% Clinton 48% nationally. Then a poll a week later shows Cruz 48% Clinton 48%. The headlines will shout "Cruz catches up to Clinton." But if a closer analysis shows that Cruz has gone from 55% of the vote in Texas to 85%, actually, nothing changed. Texas' 38 electoral votes were already in the bag for Cruz and the margin doesn't matter. So is it in primaries. If Sanders got 100% of the vote in Ames, IA (seat of Iowa State University), he might ultimately get one more delegate than if he got 60% because Story County gets only so many delegates to the congressional district caucus, no matter how lopsided the vote. That's true at every level in the multilevel caucus system that Iowa and some other states use. So keep in mind, it is about delegates at this stage, just as it is about electoral votes in the Fall.
So, is this result a victory for Clinton, or for Sanders? Well, CNN is describing it as "Hillary Clinton's tough night" and Bloomberg says it has slowed her "march to the nomination." Sanders' campaign, for its part, sent out both an email and a series of tweets bragging about the result. He's not wrong about this; for one night, at least, David has fought Goliath to a draw. But Hillary must nonetheless be breathing a sigh of relief. As with Cruz, the underlying demographics of Iowa—the state's Democrats skew young, and very, very white—are about as favorable as any that Sanders will find outside of his home territory of New England. If he can't score a convincing victory in Iowa, he's not likely to be too competitive in more diverse states, or in Southern or Western states. Ergo, if Clinton can tie him (or come close) in the first two contests, then she can shift into high-gear once South Carolina, Nevada, and Super Tuesday roll around. Heck, she can actually tie him in every state if it comes down to it, since she's already got a huge superdelegate lead (with Iowa's results factored in, Clinton now leads Sanders 384 delegates to 29). In other words, as with the debates, anything other than a huge win for the Vermont Senator is really kind of a loss.
And finally, the dust (the snow?) has not even settled, and already heads have rolled. Martin O'Malley suspended his campaign Monday evening, and so too did Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum can't be far behind those two, while the governors and Carly Fiorina seem likely to ride it out until New Hampshire, now just a week away. As to Ben Carson, he blamed his poor result on fraud perpetrated by Cruz and his campaign. Here's hoping he remains in the race long enough to take the matter up with the Texas Senator at the next debate. (Z)Email a link to a friend or share:
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