There’s a large tendency to look at the Iowa Caucus as this ‘Holy Grail’ of the Presidential season. It’s first, it’s rough and tumble, and, for more or less, it’s the first time for fledgling campaigns to see if they have any chance come March.
But the most important aspect of Iowa lies in the ability of campaigns and their candidates to form narratives upon performances in the state. Narratives that, more or less, change the way in which these candidates are viewed for the rest of the cycle.
Though a blip on the entirety of the delegate count, Obama’s victory here in 2008 built momentum that sustained the coffers of his bankroll and made most loyal Democrats think twice of the inevitability of the then front runner. It was a long shot then, but the momentum of Iowa propelled Senator Obama to new heights. It only further impressed in our minds the importance of this geographically small and demographically unusual state.
But it’s no ‘flyover’ state, and all of the candidates this time around understood its importance.
Narrative Building 2016- Predictions and Results
I went into Monday night with a rough grasp of what I expected the results and resulting narratives from this night to be. Let’s go back and forth between the two political parties and analyze how this matched up with the results.
I expected Trump to come out with a narrow victory, roughly +2.5 points ahead or so. Second place would fall to Ted Cruz, and a fairly distant third would go to Marco Rubio (I expected him in the mid to high teens. I settled on 18.5%).
This was going to be important for a few reasons. First, Trump’s entire brand of ‘winnability’ would be emboldened for what could be expected as a landslide in New Hampshire. He’d probably win the next southern state as well, so we would’ve been faced with the possibility of Trump steamrolling the nomination.
Ted Cruz would be solidified as the conservative challenge to the businessman, though losing Iowa would’ve been a huge blow to his campaign. And if Ted Cruz can’t win in a state filled to the brim with white evangelicals, then where the Hell can he win?
Coming in 3rd, a solid Marco Rubio finish would’ve solidified him as the ‘establishment’ candidate and start the exodus of funds and people-power from the sinking establishment candidates to Rubio.
Bernie needed to win. Sorry, plain and simple.
What a victory ‘is’ in Iowa is crucial to unpack. Remember 2012, when Santorum won Iowa so late that it didn’t even matter anymore? That wasn’t a victory.
Bernie needed a sizable, unquestionable victory last night. It needed to fit within the scale of a 1-2.5+ point advantage, and it needed to arrive with such brevity that Sanders could stand in front of the victory crowd and proclaim ‘Yes WE Can!’ (or whatever he’s settled on nowadays).
From then on, Bernie could’ve gone on to NH, won there, and start an actually meaningful and not entirely pedantic media discussion of the parallels between 2008 and 2016. But with a loss in Iowa, Bernie would be facing some tough math and momentum problems going forward, even with a large victory in NH.
Hillary didn’t really need to do anything other than not lose big.
Overall, I expected a tight race but for the edge to go to Bernie. Polls had said otherwise, but the level of grassroots activism and GOTV work from their side was phenomenal. The ground game almost always wins.
GOP- What Happened???
Ted Cruz besting Donald Trump for the temporary post of head-Conservative has been the most consequential moment of this entire election cycle. You could almost say that it was ‘Yuuuuuuuuge’.
Ted Cruz is an actual Conservative, one whose merits can’t really be honestly tested by anyone outside of the Republican Party. He’s a Tea-Partier who’s more interested in ideology than the basic functions of government, and the base of the Republican party finally realized that (Yes, I really do think it’s that simple). Ted Cruz’s ground game won the day. He out-organized any of the other conservative challengers, and made Trump look ridiculous. Let this be another example of how political organizing nearly always bests sensationalism.
I don’t see very many avenues in which Trump can recapture the sort of ‘inevitability’ that defined the last month or so of the media’s coverage of him. I think that he wins New Hampshire (very slimly), but hell, he might even lose there to an up-and-coming Rubio. What’s left for him after that? Not much. Plus, so much for the narrative of Trump being a ‘winner’.
Rubio is the biggest surprise. I’ve thought for a long while that he is the most well-polished and qualified of the realistic Republican candidates. However, he’s had a really hard time revitalizing interest and support in wake of the media maelstrom surrounding Trump.
For as much as the Republican field has shown us, they’re macabrely doom and gloom about the prospects of America under an Obama, Clinton, or Sanders. It could work, and in some ways it’s working for a scared electorate.
But Rubio poses a hopeful and not entirely unique challenge to that. Listen to one of his speeches closely and you’ll hear the same narrative-building and story-telling ability of another young Senator that once ran for President: Barack Obama. And I’m not saying here that Rubio is Obama (he’s clearly not), but the same aura follows him that once did the young Illinois Senator. And, in some ways, it would be a huge mistake for Rubio to distance himself from that rhetorical mantle. It works for him, and it might be the only option for a Republican Party that is seriously interested in defeating a Clinton or Sanders come November.
As for the rest of the Republican field, tough decisions need to be made. If Jeb fails miserably in NH, he needs to get out quick. Ben Carson, along with a slew of others, need to ask themselves whether or not they’re truly cut out for this whole ‘President’ thing.
Democrats- Okay, We’re feeling a minor ‘Bern’.
Both candidates had a good night. But I think that Bernie had the better one.
Iowa posed a unique opportunity for Bernie because of one uncomfortable fact: demographics. It might not be the youngest state, but it certainly is one of the whitest. And, as we largely know, the Sanders campaign has had a very difficult time making inroads with people of color and other minority groups. It is not just a trope and unfortunate stereotype against the Senator’s campaign: it’s a reality of the penultimate shortcoming of his counter-culture campaign narrative. How can you fight the system without gaining the support of the people that have been most affected by it?
So, to be blunt about it, Bernie needed to capitalize on the lack of diversity in Iowa. He knocked it out of the park with young voters, which is spectacular for his campaign. But the Obama experience didn’t thrive eight years ago merely because of young voters. It excelled because of a uniquely American intersectionality of a wide range of demographic groups spread out all throughout the American experience. It’s what made his message of ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ mean something, and it’s what made that simple campaign buzzword a narrative that would transform American politics.
Bernie had a good night, and all supporters and campaign staff should be proud. But if they really want to pull off the upset of the century and win the nomination, they’re going to have to heal that Achilles heel of the campaign.
Hillary Clinton and her campaign should also be proud of the night that they had. They did what they couldn’t do in 2008: win Iowa.
Hillary Clinton is in a good spot, and if she can get within a few points of Bernie in NH, then Super Tuesday will just be icing on the cake for the Clinton camp.
Both candidates should feel pleased.
Narratives for the candidates
So here’s the final and fun part (at least for me): how do the candidates spin this?
Here’s what I think they have to do. This is all very broad and basic, and doesn’t match the lingual delivery of the candidates.
Rubio: “I’m the candidate of hope and promise. I believe in the values of the new American century, and despite all of the odds my family and I have made it here and shown why the American dream is so great. The people of Iowa showed that they still believe in the American Dream, and together, we can show the world why America is the greatest nation on Earth.” Hopeful, Promising, American.
Trump: “Over the past months the media has said that we couldn’t do it. I did it, we did it. We didn’t finish first here in Iowa, but we’ll sure win NH, and then we’re gonna win the rest of the states, and we’re gonna show the world that America wants straight-shooters, they want action. Enough of political correctness, enough of the bickering and fighting. I’ll get stuff done in NH, and I’ll get it done as President.” Brokering, Not entirely Eloquent, Simple.
Ted Cruz: “After eight disastrous years of Obama, the American people and the people of Iowa have said ‘enough is enough’. We’re tired of the inaction and petty politics that halts Washington, and we’re tired of a mainstream media that would bend more to the wishes of a liberal Washington and not to the demands of you, the American people.” Partisan, Divisive, Strictly Conservative.
Hillary Clinton: Hit upon the traditional issue-specific things that have become the hallmark of her campaign. Touch gun-violence prevention so that the dichotomy between her and Sanders can continue to widen. Gender equality, economic fairness, etc. But, most importantly, connect herself to the accomplishments of the Obama Administration over the past 7-8 years. That’s how she’s going to win. Experienced, Battle-Hardened, Uniting.
Bernie Sanders: We started at the bottom, and now we’re here. Mention how nobody in the political establishment gave you a shot, and how, after millions and millions of contributions from average Americans, the American people stood up to the fat cats on wall street and monied interests in Washington. Say that your movement, a political revolution, doesn’t begin or end with you: it begins with the people that support you, the people that will determine whether or not America can become the sort of nation that it’s truly always longed to be. Say that you represent the little guy, the people that have been stepped upon all their lives by a status-quo who fails to listen. Say that you’re the guy for change, and you’re not just Obama: you’re the American people. Proud, Angry, but hopeful all at once.
And that is, in short, a recap of the Iowa Caucus. If it’s any indicator of things to come, we’re going to have a long, drawn-out, but ‘fun’ Presidential season.