You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Five Takeaways From the Iowa Caucuses

Cruz wins. Clinton and Sanders play to a virtual tie. And Trump isn't going anywhere...

Pete Marovich/Getty Images

On Monday, after months of speculation and anticipation, voters in Iowa participated in the first contest of the primary campaign, giving us a clearer image of the 2016 electoral landscape. Here are the main takeaways:

Cruz Wins on the Back of Evangelical Support

Senator Ted Cruz won 28 percent of caucus votes in Iowa, fueled by Evangelicals who have traditionally dominated the Republican side of the contest. In his victory speech, Cruz drew from the Bible (Psalm 30:15 to be exact) to remind his Iowa supporters that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”—the morning being his victory. 

His rhetoric was calculated to please his base, but even Fox News didn’t air the entirety of Cruz’s rambling speech. As the New Republic’s Jamil Smith reminded us, this points to a persistent problem for Cruz: how much he is disliked by the media and the establishment, which could haunt him in the primaries to come.

Still, his strong finish will put pressure on both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio to step up in New Hampshire, where they presumably will be in friendlier territory. For now, though, Cruz is basking in his victory. “Tonight is a great night for courageous conservatives across Iowa and across this great nation,” Cruz said in his speech. “Tonight, Iowa has spoken.”

Marco Rubio Surges to a Victorious Third Place

Last week, Rubio’s campaign said it would be happy with a third-place finish behind Trump and Cruz in Iowa—and that is exactly what Rubio got. Team Rubio was so happy, in fact, that it spun the night as a victory, despite claiming less than a quarter of the vote. Rubio even delivered his speech before Cruz did, preempting his victory lap.

Rubio’s campaign is now trying to cast him as both a respectable establishment choice and an outside agitator, a characterization that bears some resemblance to candidate Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, the rhetoric of Rubio’s speech had distinct shades of that campaign:

“They told me that we had no chance because my hair wasn’t grey enough and my boots were too high,” Rubio said. “They told me I needed to wait my turn. That I needed to wait in line.”

The anti-Trump, non-Evangelical GOP crowd will be breathing a sigh of relief at tonight’s results, which prove that they still have a meaningful constituency. Iowa has seen plenty of caucus winners go on to lose the nomination, and Rubio’s bronze-medal finish shows that he has enough support to credibly claim the establishment mantle.

It Turns Out People—Or Iowans at Least—Don’t Hate Socialism

This election’s Democratic caucus was the closest in party history, with Hillary Clinton emerging as the “winner” only in the morning’s wee hours. In the end, Bernie Sanders received 695.49 state delegate equivalents to Clinton’s 699.57, a virtual tie and a sign that Americans might be ready for some of Sanders’s “radical” ideas.

His campaign called the Sanders machine a “come-from-behind campaign for the history books,” and that it was. Even though Clinton came away technically victorious, the narrow gap between the two Democratic candidates means that the Sanders camp—and media organizations—will play up Sanders’s momentum as he heads into New Hampshire, where he has an even better chance, and beyond.

As the New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote, Sanders rightly “chalked his success in Iowa up to frustration with ‘a rigged economy’ in which most wealth has flowed to the top 1 percent.” His success in selling this message challenges the assumption that a candidate who calls himself a socialist cannot stand up to the formidable Clinton. In an early June Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans said they would vote for a socialist, but among Democrats, this number rose to 59 percent.   

After arriving in New Hampshire, Sanders declared, “We’re going to surprise a whole lot of people, just as we did in Iowa.”

Hillary Clinton Didn’t Get a Coronation, but is Still Looking Strong

At about 3 a.m. local time, the count in Iowa was finally done, and Clinton had eked out a narrow victory over Bernie Sanders. 

The Clintons are reportedly disappointed with the result, but as the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote, even this narrow victory is important for Hillary. “If Sanders had beaten her decisively tonight, it would not only have given his surging campaign another boost, but fueled a narrative that 2016 was 2008 all over again.” Instead, the results reaffirm Clinton’s own viability as a candidate, giving her a cushion of delegates she can build on into March.

The near-draw in Iowa indicates better things to come for Clinton in primaries in the more racially diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina. Sanders couldn’t topple her in a state whose demographics—overwhelming white, less affluent, liberal—seem tailor-made to Feel the Bern. The broader Democratic electorate is likely to be much more favorable towards Clinton, especially given that she holds a massive lead over Sanders among black and Latino voters.

Clinton will probably face a loss in New Hampshire, where some polls show her trailing Sanders by half, but her campaign is robust enough (financially and in terms of popularity) to continue into March, where she expects to see big gains. Her campaign has been building a “political firewall” in the Southern states for months, and the close finish in Iowa doesn’t derail her plans so much as underscore the importance of those states.

Donald Trump Was Chastened but Not Ready to Bow Out

Trump once said that unless he won Iowa his campaign was “a big, fat, beautiful—and, by the way, a very expensive—waste of time.” For a man whose entire platform is based on the fact that he is the best and most popular—just look at his polling numbers!—this was a chastening experience. Suddenly it seemed Trump might be the thing he hated most—a loser.

But a second-place finish, which still nets him at least seven delegates, is completely respectable for any candidate, especially one that was fighting the ire of the establishment and depending on turnout from first-time caucus-goers. Even though so much of Trump’s stumping posited that he was sure to blow the competition out of the water, he joined the other “losers”—Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio—in delivering a happy, optimistic speech at the end of the night. “We finished second and I want to tell you something: I’m just honored; I’m really honored,” he said. “I think we’re going to be proclaiming victory, I hope.”

The shift in rhetoric for the blustery Trump was remarkable—he said “thank you” a lot, and didn’t work in any easy shots at his “low energy” opponents. “Trump’s spin was telling,” wrote the New Republic’s Elspeth Reeve. “He’s spent his entire campaign selling himself as the overdog—‘very rich,’ ‘very good-looking,’ ‘very smart,’ and so on. With his second-place finish, he tried to claim the title of underdog.”

The question now is whether Trump’s calm in the face of defeat is a sign that he’s becoming a more mature politician—or whether he’s slowly losing interest.