My preliminary take on the Iowa caucuses is that they didn’t alter the trajectory of where things are probably headed for the Democrats: Hillary Clinton is still favored. However, the Republican field could potentially narrow to a three-way race (Trump-Cruz-Rubio) sooner than I had expected, thanks to a strong showing by Marco Rubio.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz switched places relative to polls. To compare the final polls with tonight’s counts, Trump underperformed by 26.5-24.3=2.2%, Cruz overperformed by 27.7-23.5=4.2%, and Rubio overperformed by 23.1-18.0=5.1%. The late swing for Rubio was visible in the final days of polling. All of this is well within the range of normal polling error in primaries. As expected, multiple delegates went to Cruz (7), Trump (7), Rubio (6), and Ben Carson (3). Numbers updated to reflect exact vote shares. After all the fuss, Cruz and Trump appear to be tied for first.
It is premature to say that Trump is doomed. However, he does look a little less inevitable. It is certainly possible that he can crash from his high position in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationally. But I think a bigger risk to him is the possibility that tonight’s results will pressure Rubio’s lower-tier rivals to get out sooner rather than later. As I’ve written before, if the field gets down to three candidates after New Hampshire, that opens up a narrow route to stopping Trump. In short, tonight kept Marco Rubio’s chances alive.
On the Democratic side, tonight was substantively bad for Bernie Sanders. After all the talk about hordes of Sanders supporters, in the end he only achieved a near-tie: 23 delegates for Clinton, 21 delegates for Sanders. Iowa is one of the most favorable states for him because of its ethnic composition. But it is not enough to win 50% of white Democrats. To have a chance overall, he needed a big win to (a) indicate that he can get enough white support to compensate for lack of support in nonwhite demographics in other states, and (b) create press coverage to boost him in the coming weeks. Outcome (a) didn’t happen. We’ll see about (b).
One of the most notable features of the Democratic race was the age gap. In an entrance poll, Sanders led by 70% among voters aged 18-29, while Clinton led by 43% among those aged 65 and over. That is a 113-point gap. This difference surely is on the minds of both sides for the weeks and months ahead.
Finally, a word about polling. There seems to be a persistent meme that polls are in trouble. There was no evidence for this. Primaries and caucuses are volatile situations – this is a well-known fact. I have been assuming that home-stretch polls can be off by an average of 5 percentage points. Any fuss tonight is based on the fact that in Iowa, with its tiny turnout and odd voting procedure, Trump was polling 3 points ahead of Cruz, and ended up losing by 3 points. It would be a mistake to conclude that Trump’s support is illusory in other states. Quite the opposite. A 6-point error would not affect his ranking anywhere else. For now.