After a tense period of campaigning, hyper-focused marketing and evermore polemic punditry, the first real test of the 2016 Presidential Election came and went last week on Feb. 2, when Democratic and Republicans squared off in the Iowa caucus. Both sets of frontrunners got more than they bargained for.
Donald Trump, the Republican favorite heading into the caucus, was sporting an average of a 16.2-point spread over the rest of the field, according to RealClearPolitics’ latest polls. But it was his runner-up in the polls that achieved victory in Iowa last Tuesday. Ted Cruz, Texas’ junior senator, came out on top in a relatively comfortable fashion.
Cruz’s 27.7 to 24.3 percent margin over Trump came in stark contrast to the Democratic race, which many media outlets declared to be too close to call. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders remained in a dead heat even with 99 percent of votes being counted. At the end of the day, Clinton was a nose in front to the tune of 49.9 to 49.6 percent. The .3 difference wasn’t enough to convince outlets like the Associated Press to call a winner, but for all practical purposes, we can give Clinton and Cruz their respective Iowa victories.
The win validates Cruz’s salt-of-the-earth, beer-drinking persona. The Cruz campaign excelled at boots-on-the-ground campaign work, and that’s what proved to be the difference-maker in his race against Trump, who was closer to third-place Marco Rubio after the fact.
For Cruz, going all-in on the anti-establishment rhetoric reaped rewards in Iowa, but may alienate his establishment benefactors beyond return. Trump’s upset demonstrates the weakness of his campaign, which will only continue to hurt him when it comes to actual votes, as opposed to his personality, which will continue to win him poll points.
Rubio may come out the best, with a balanced approach. Having yet to burn bridges with establishment Republicans, but still dutifully hitting the right popular notes, Rubio’s middle-of-the-road strategy saw him thoroughly beat the rest of the GOP pack: with more than double the votes of his nearest rival, Ben Carson. Don’t count out Rubio, especially entering the New Hampshire primary as we go to press.
On the Democratic side, the race proved more narrow than anyone could predict. While Sanders had been gaining ground in polls, Clinton would’ve always been pegged as the frontrunner in the Democratic race, if not the election as a whole.
But the caucus ended with the two in a virtual tie. In fact, according to NPR, there were at least a dozen tie-breaking coin-flips to decide tight precinct races. And while Clinton was awarded the edge, it’s hard to take away complete confidence in either candidate at this point.
For Clinton supporters and campaigners, perhaps the tight race can serve as a warning to those who felt the Democratic nomination would be a pushover. Clinton’s campaign needs to do better at attracting the demographic Sanders has most successfully attracted: millennials.
For Sanders, there’s still hope of a nomination. But the Iowa loss throws his ability to appeal to more conservative states into question.