A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Iowa Caucus Results

There is quite a bit of ~prognostication~ available on the internet following the Iowa Caucus results—and if that’s your thing, avail yourself of it. I certainly am. But I suspect a number of my readers would appreciate just hearing what happened, stripped down to the facts and context.

This Was a Modest Win for Aggregate Polling

Marco Rubio aside, everyone landed about where they were expected. Breaking this down, the Democratic race was supposed to be close. The breath of difference between Clinton and Sanders shows that the polls were slightly biased towards Clinton, but we’re still talking well within statistical margins. Sanders likely benefited from O’Malley supporters being forced to pick another choice.

The GOP race had a surprise, and it was not Cruz upsetting Trump. While Trump had a small lead in most of the aggregate polls, he was not unassailable. The Caucuses are a little arcane and many-person races harder to poll for. The process actually forces some consolidation among candidates. It is interesting, but not exactly paradigm-shifting, that Cruz and Rubio benefited more from that in a close race. So it certainly was worth a “gee-whiz!” from the press, but Cruz coming out a nose ahead of Trump instead of the other way around is not THE BIGGEST UPSET EVER. Speaking of which…

The Caucuses are Rarely Helpful

Can Sanders turn this into momentum? Is Rubio likely to rally the base? Is Trump imploding?


The fact is that Trump and Clinton both have wide margins in national polling. Now, that could change—and Sanders in particular has been steadily increasing his share of the vote—but we’re not here to speculate. If the other primaries were next Tuesday, Clinton and Trump would clean house. For the GOP in particular, they have tended towards a certain kind of candidate in the past. Iowa picked Huckabee and Santorum the last two times because the “moral majority” crowd is a larger part of the base there. Leadership from the Christian Right has been in the Cruz camp for awhile, and so his relatively stronger polling in the plains has not been a surprise.

National polling does not usually shift remarkably after Iowa. An exception is Barack Obama, who was able to tour Iowa to get a win and leverage the win into press time and then voter recognition and then into votes. Rubio, Cruz, or Sanders are not hurting for voter recognition, but I’m veering towards speculation now. Point is, historically, candidates with high voter recognition—all of them this cycle—don’t benefit from a strong Iowa performance. That said…

The Cull

What Iowa is good for is culling candidates. In other words, you win by not getting trounced. Rubio coming in where he did means that he can credibly make his case to donors and media outlets that he deserves money and time (respectively). Anyone with cash is going to stay in the race, but income is going to start drying up for the also-ran candidates. Paul, O’Malley, Huckabee, etc are toast because they have proven that they aren’t competitive.


Apart from breathing some life into Rubio’s campaign, there was not a lot of news from Iowa that could not have been written in advance. Again, the closeness of Clinton and Sanders was worth a look, but we’re talking a few thousand votes off expectation here. Cruz beating Trump was only a bit larger of a surprise. All of this could change, of course. But the most justified interpretation of the caucuses is that an unrepresentative state voted approximately how polls said it would and that more representative states will probably vote how they’re polling.


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