It’s rather easy to get overwhelmed in terms of what exactly happened yesterday. The process itself is arcane and at times mind-boggling. Across the state of Iowa, thousands of party activists met at appointed locations and selected their choice of major party nominee for president in 2016. For Democrats, they basically shouted their way to dominance in those various schools, churches, and other public locations, with contingents remaining at the end of the process being proportionately awarded delegates. For Republicans, they for all intents and purposes held a primary vote, which selected delegates bound to vote proportionately for the candidates the average citizens voted for.
It’s hard to match last year’s wild ride in which the vote counts in eight precincts in the Republican caucuses simply went missing, but the story of a precinct decided one unclaimed delegate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by a coin toss shows that dysfunction remains the true winner of every Iowa caucus. In the midst of all that chaos, it’s difficult to determine that, well, much of anything of meaning happened, let alone what it would be. Here’s a short list of what the tea leaves suggest to me though.
Clinton has to work for it… for now
What was initially announced on Monday as a statistical tie between Clinton and Sanders has largely been reinterpreted as an extremely narrow victory for Clinton. That suggests a tight race heading into New Hampshire, where Sanders rightly expects to have something like a home court advantage. A combination of racial demographics, an intensifying class consciousness in the electorate, and local familiarity are going to make this a particularly close and contestable competition in these two states.
Before the Sanders campaign gets too excited, however, that’s not how things are likely to continue after those two states. He’s made some particularly cavalier statements that are likely to alienate voters politically aware of racial inequality or immigration policies. In late February, Nevada will hold a closed caucus, and following that the map of Democratic primaries and caucuses moves to the South, which for Democrats means a decidedly less White voting electorate. If Clinton can effectively articulate the discomfort some people of color have with the racial dimensions of Sanders’ policies and rhetoric, the race won’t stay quite as up in the air.
Rubio wins… the consolation prize
Marco Rubio was widely hailed as the “winner” of the Republican caucuses, considering that Donald Trump underperformed the expectations that he might eclipse Ted Cruz and that Ted Cruz was the favorite to win in any case. Rubio nearly reaching the same levels as Trump indicates that at least in some contexts the largely “tuned out” voters Trump has attracted to the caucuses can end up being about equal to the “establishment” minded voters. The real surprise here, assuming this dynamic holds in later states, is that the conflict within the Republican Party between those factions is not about a wealthy minority and the mass of voters, but about equally-sized blocks of people who show up at the polls.
The real win that Rubio has pulled off is that he bested Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other similar candidates at representing the “establishment”. There are structural advantages in the primary to appealing to that part of the Republican electorate, but it’s not clear that that will be enough to rocket Rubio’s support out of third place.
Not establishment, not grassroots, not insurgent… so what exactly is Cruz?
With Rubio and Trump each pulling in just over a fifth of the vote, that leaves Cruz with a lion’s share that’s contrasted with both an establishment-aligned bloc and a disaffected and mad as hell insurgency. Ted Cruz’s muddled place between those two camps has probably been the least acknowledged strength in the Republican primary campaign.
(Weighted Iowa Republican Caucus returns: Ted Cruz in yellow has support throughout the state, Donald Trump in purple dominates in the more conservative southwestern corner of the state, and Marco Rubio in green dominated in outlying suburbs of the largest cities. From here.)
He has the bona fides, visibility, and authority of the typical establishment candidate like Rubio – he’s not going to make Trump-style blunders about the nuclear triad or commit to unfeasible revenge fantasies as policy proposals. He also has the ability to talk about policies and politics in the language average people attracted to extremism want to hear – something that Rubio at times struggles with.
If anyone can keep the fragile union of social conservatives and imperialist libertarians together in the Republican Party, it’s him. That’s a daunting task for anyone, however, especially one whose birth location is in conflict with some of the most extremist rhetoric at the heart of the anti-Obama politics that have come to define the Republican Party.