Iowa is all about defying expectations to gain momentum. By this measure, Rubio had the best night of any nominee with Cruz and Sanders tied for second. Trump had a bad night and Hillary finds herself somewhere in the middle. She didn’t have a great night, but she avoided the embarrassing 3rd place finish that she suffered in 2008.
The RealClearPolitics polling average had Rubio coming in at just over 16%. Rubio outperformed these expectations by 7%, coming in at 23%. This is significant not just because it builds momentum for Rubio. Because his uptick came right before the caucus, it’s safe to say (and polling confirms this) that Rubio scored the vast majority of voters who were undecided. This solidifies the argument that Rubio is the most electable candidate in the GOP field.
The GOP race usually has two lanes. One lane is the mainstream, center-right candidate and the other is the traditional conservative candidate. This year, there look to be three competitive lanes. Cruz has the conservative lane and Trump has created his own lane. The mainstream lane is up for grabs between Rubio, Kasich, Christie and Bush. Rubio’s strong showing tonight solidifies his grasp on the mainstream lane. Additionally, as other candidates drop out, their support is more likely to go to Rubio than to Cruz or Trump, as Rubio is a lot of people’s second choices.
Cruz had a similarly good night. Cruz was able to outperform his expectations and beat Trump. This proves that Trump can be beaten and it also solidifies Cruz’s grasp on the conservative lane. It’s worth noting that Cruz continues a storied tradition of conservative lane candidates winning Iowa, think Santorum and Huckabee, but Cruz did as well as he could hope to do and walks into New Hampshire with a victory under his belt which will do nothing but build his momentum.
Bernie Sanders walked away from Iowa with validation on how legitimate of a threat he poses to Clinton, but knowing that he has a tremendous amount of work to do. Unlike Obama in 2008, Sanders doesn’t have much momentum in Super Tuesday States, so he’ll need to take a positive showing in Iowa and turn it into a landslide victory in New Hampshire, his home turf. If he does that, he has a chance to take that momentum into March 1st, but anything short of a landslide in New Hampshire spells the end of the Sanders candidacy.
Donald Trump is Iowa’s only clear loser. He was forecasted to win. He talked a big game about winning. His campaign is all about winning, but he lost. Trump himself seems to be in this to win rather than to change the country from a policy perspective. It’s likely that his Iowa loss will take the wind out of his sails, making him both a less vigorous campaigner and less appealing on a message of winning. If he’s so good at winning, why did he lose? It’s likely that this loss will make some, but not all, reconsider their support for Trump.
Hillary Clinton maintains her frontrunner status at the end of Iowa. Her bookish understanding of the Democratic nominating process and early frontrunner status has given her a premature superdelegate lead that will be very difficult for Sanders to overcome, especially considering his unclear momentum after New Hampshire. Hillary remains very likely to win the nomination, but Sanders isn’t completely defeated. Iowa merely reinforces Sanders’ viability as a candidate while maintaining the status quo in the Democratic race.
If you expected to be surprised, then your expectations were met. Iowa held up to its longstanding tradition of defying expectations. Let’s see what New Hampshire has in store for 2016.