A harvest of discontent in Iowa caucuses

Published 10:00 am Monday, February 8, 2016

The results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses reinforced certain verities about this quadrennial opening of the presidential nomination process:

The evangelical component of the Republican coalition rules in that state; a well-organized cadre of volunteers and on-the-ground staff outweighs media buys and giant rallies; and Iowa, even more than most states, is devilishly difficult to poll.

In the modern primary era — which isn’t all that long — Iowa has been more a bellweather for Democrats than Republicans. It elevated Jimmy Carter from an obscure southern governor into a legitimate contender in 1976; it served as a springboard for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. But on the GOP side, Iowa has given its nod to the likes of Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, none of whom ultimately emerged as the nominee.

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This time around Ted Cruz had the evangelical support and the superior “ground game,” and so the Texas senator came out on top of a crowded Republican field in the Hawkeye State. Now his challenge is to build a broader base of support than his predecessors as the evangelical camp’s favorites did. This will not be easy, considering how firm the disdain for him among his Washington colleagues appears to be.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the Iowa campaign was how the party “establishment,” which has not coalesced around a favorite, targeted Cruz rather than Donald Trump. Former nominee Bob Dole labeled Cruz a electoral disaster for the party, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley (and there are no more established Republicans in Iowa than those two) piled on.

Cruz carried the day anyway, while the bombastic Trump came in second and Sen. Marco Rubio a tick behind Trump. Those three combined for about 75 percent of the Republican vote in Iowa, and only Rubio could be regarded as even remotely establishment. This perhaps indicates the depth of the discontent among the rank-and-file with the party’s leadership. Future contests will reveal how widespread that discontent is.

Also of note: Jeb Bush and his allied super PAC spent $14.1 million in Iowa and obtained 2.8 percent of the vote. That’s about $2,800 per vote. Which, again, may indicate the depth of the discontent among the rank-and-file with the party establishment, it being difficult to be less establishment than the son of one president and brother of another.

Iowa has also somewhat winnowed the field. Huckabee and Rand Paul have dropped out, with Rick Santorum soon to follow. But most of the single-digit also-rans in Iowa always figured that their best opportunities to make an impact would follow. New Hampshire and, in particular, South Carolina, are more likely to result in mass departures from the contest.

The virtual tie on the Democratic side favors the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Iowa (and, for that matter, New Hampshire) is demographically in Bernie Sanders’ wheelhouse: White and liberal. Sanders’ polling shows little support for him among people of color, and once the primary season moves into more diverse states, Clinton figures to have the advantage.

And, finally, the polls. As the mavens of FiveThirtyEight.com repeatedly said before the caucuses: Polling for primary elections is more difficult than polling for general elections; polling for caucuses is more difficult than polling for primaries; and polling early in the season more difficult than polling later. Polling in Iowa is a perfect storm of difficulties. The wonder isn’t that the pollsters got it wrong by projecting Trump atop the GOP field; the wonder is that they got as close as they did.


— Mankato Free Press, Feb. 4

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