Who won in Iowa, and who cares?

Iowa doesn't matter: Sanders, Clinton, Rubio, Trump and Cruz will go on as if it never happened. As for the rest, at this point, what difference does it make?


WASHINGTON, February 2, 2016 – Iowa produced the first winners and losers of the presidential campaign season last night. Ted Cruz joins Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bob Dole (twice) and Gerald Ford in a distinguished line of Republican winners, while Hillary Clinton—by a nose, a coin toss, and a touch of voter fraud—joins an illustrious line of Democratic winners: John Kerry, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Tom Harkin, Walter Mondale.

Some real winners have come out of Iowa: George W. Bush and Barack Obama both won in Iowa before going on to win the presidency. George H.W. Bush won in Iowa before losing the nomination to Ronald Reagan, then eight years later lost in Iowa before winning the nomination and the election. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all won there, but only as incumbents; they all lost in Iowa before winning their party nominations and the White House.

Winning in Iowa is not a sign of bigger and better things to come. Losing unexpectedly, however, puts a heavy burden on a candidate going into New Hampshire.

So who really won and lost in Iowa?

The Republicans:

John Kasich is moving on to New Hampshire. He got no delegates in Iowa and only 2 percent of the vote in his eighth-place finish, but on the plus side, he says he spent only ten dollars there. “It was never a good fit,” he told NPR. He wasn’t a total loser, but it would be an exaggeration to call him any kind of winner. He didn’t matter to Iowa, and Iowa didn’t matter to him. That will probably describe his relationship with the rest of America.

Jeb Bush was the biggest loser. He didn’t come in last, but he spent $2,880 per vote to end up as little more than a rounding error in the night’s statistics. His sixth-place finish came with 2.8 percent of the vote and one delegate. Unless he receives a miracle in New Hampshire, he has nowhere to go but out, and the smart money says God isn’t planning to lay any miracles on Jeb.

Ben Carson was another loser. He came in fourth, with 9 percent of the vote and three delegates. Carson’s star flared like a nova in late summer and early autumn, then like a nova went dim. His campaign looks increasingly quixotic. Angry conservatives and Evangelicals favor Cruz and Donald Trump; the establishment will coalesce around Marco Rubio. Carson, like Rand Paul, has a dedicated fan base, but it’s stagnant. His supporters like to say that the people called him to run; if so, they hung up on him.

Marco Rubio did better than expected, and in Iowa, that makes you a winner. He came in third, just behind Trump with 23 percent of the vote and 7 delegates. With establishment candidates Walker, Bush, Kasich and Christie dead or dying like flies in a Raid factory, Rubio is the only establishment game in town. He’s young and it shows from his head down to his toes, but if anyone will take down Trump and Cruz, it will have to be Rubio.

Goodbye to Santorum and Huckabee. Oh, but it’s sad when a love affair dies, but Iowa moved on, and so must they.

Ted Cruz is a winner. No one likes him—except, it seems, for a lot of GOP voters. He leaves Iowa with eight delegates and bragging rights: He came in first, with 28 percent of the vote. If he doesn’t do well in New Hampshire and other early primaries, his star will fade as quickly as Carson’s, and Iowa does a lousy job at predicting early primary wins. But all else equal, it’s better to win Iowa than to lose it, and Cruz wasn’t expected to win. That makes his performance all the more satisfying to his campaign, and it brings us to—

Donald Trump. Polls last week showed Trump in the lead. Given Iowa’s poor history of predicting party nominees and election winners, coming in a close second isn’t a disaster, but it’s not what Trump wanted. And he’s not a man used to not getting what he wants.

With 24 percent of the vote and seven delegates, Trump may well be “honored” by his performance in Iowa, as he said, but he can’t be pleased by the fresh wind in Cruz’s sails or the uptick in Rubio’s fortunes. A political campaign is a zero-sum game; one candidate’s good fortune is another candidate’s bad luck. So Trump is a loser, just not a big one. He may be wishing he’d gone to the last debate after all, but that’s wasted regret. If he wins in New Hampshire, his campaign is on course; if he loses there, he’s in trouble.

The Democrats:

Martin O’Malley. Who?

Bernie Sanders is a winner. Hillary once bestrode Iowa like a colossus, but Sanders left her lucky to take it by a coin toss and some voter fraud. Statistically they finished in a dead heat, almost 50-50. Sanders picked up 21 delegates. He’s predicted to do well in New Hampshire, but the real fight will be in South Carolina. He has a long history with the Civil Rights movement, but Hillary was famously wed to America’s “first black president,” she’s wooing black voters like they’re her last chance at love, and black voters have a big impact in South Carolina.

Hillary Clinton didn’t have to win Iowa, but she didn’t want to lose, and this tie can’t feel good. But unless she tanks across the country, she’s in a dominant position over Sanders. She has 360 superdelegates pledged to her, while Sanders has eight. She has money, organization, the chair of the DNC, and a ruthless streak that Bernie can’t match.

While Hillary’s support isn’t as excited as Bernie’s, it is solid. He has exuberant, idealistic, inexperienced young people on his side; she has a pack of grim and hardened gray ladies on hers. Sometimes Gretel defeats the wicked witch, but while Sanders’ supporters live in a glorious fairy tale, Hillary’s supporters live in the real world. The smart money is never on Gretel.

Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t South Carolina or California. Sanders will do well in more liberal states, but even Democrats in this country are relatively conservative. Bernie’s successes will come early, then Hillary will grind him into the dirt.

In the end, Iowa didn’t really matter. Sanders, Clinton, Rubio, Trump and Cruz will go on as if it never happened, and it won’t affect what happens to them in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina or beyond. Iowa might convince some of the also-rans to leave the race, but at this point, what difference does it make if they stay or go? Hillary’s rictus of a smile, Trump’s glower and that terrifying expression that passes for joy on Cruz’s face are the answer to that.

On to New Hampshire.

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