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From Iowa to New Hampshire: Professor Guth Looks at 2016 Presidential Election

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In your opinion, who were the winners and losers in Monday’s Iowa caucuses?

The real impact was on the Republican side, where Donald Trump’s high poll ratings did not translate into actual support at the caucuses. Senator Cruz, on the other hand, showed that his organization in Iowa was every bit as extensive and motivated as press reports had suggested. But the big winner was Marco Rubio, who came in very close behind Trump, despite spending much less time in the state and having much less organization than Cruz. His media blitz in the last days apparently convinced a lot of “regular” Republicans than he was the best alternative to Trump and Cruz. On the Democratic side, both candidates could claim a kind of victory. Mrs. Clinton narrowly avoided what would have been an embarrassing defeat in a state in which she had invested a lot of time, money and organization. Senator Sanders showed that his appeal to more liberal and younger Democrats was real and almost enough to take first place, but he didn’t mobilize quite enough new participants to overcome Clinton’s appeal to party regulars.

Historically, how important are the Iowa caucuses to a candidate’s presidential aspirations going forward? Is it possible for a candidate to have a poor showing in Iowa and still become the party’s nominee?

It varies by party. On the Republican side the Iowa caucuses have a pretty poor track record for “picking” the GOP nominee, and an even poorer one for picking nominees who win the presidency. On the Democratic side, Iowa has been a better predictor, but not a perfect one. Since the advent of the modern Iowa caucuses in 1976, many losers in Iowa have gone on to win their party’s nomination. A victory in Iowa can help sustain a less-prominent candidate for a time by attracting some additional media attention and campaign funds, but eventually that candidate has to demonstrate broader national appeal.

The Iowa caucuses have been called “perhaps the most important yet mysterious contest in American politics.” What makes the caucuses unique?

Caucuses are really just old-style party meetings adapted to modern purposes. Unlike a primary election, a caucus is an actual business meeting of precinct (and later, higher level) party organizations. Thus, a voter has to make a considerable time commitment to participate, a factor that usually weeds out those less interested in politics. Although the Iowa Republican party caucuses simply tally the presidential preference votes of attendees in a secret ballot, the Democratic party requires participants to make open commitments and encourages “politicking” and persuasion among supporters of the candidates (thus, Democratic caucuses usually take longer than GOP meetings). Both parties use the results of the presidential polls to select delegates to higher jurisdiction party committees, where the process is repeated all the way to the selection of national party delegates at state conventions. Compared to primary elections, caucuses attract fewer voters, tend to draw the most ideologically committed, and give an advantage to candidates with the best organization.

How are the results of the Iowa caucuses likely to affect next week’s New Hampshire primary?

The Democratic results will give a little boost to Senator Sanders, who already leads in his neighboring state. The political terrain gets tougher for him after that, as the primaries move to states with more minorities and centrist Democrats, groups that tend to favor Mrs. Clinton. A really strong showing, however, might cause some of these constituencies to reconsider and shift support to Sanders. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, needs to keep it close (or better yet, pull out a surprise victory) to avoid that happening. On the GOP side, another second or third-place finish for Trump might trigger his long-expected but much delayed disappearance from the top ranks of GOP contenders. Ted Cruz needs to demonstrate appeal beyond his core vote of religious conservatives and extreme Tea Partiers. New Hampshire is not a good “fit” for Cruz, but represents a section of the party that he will eventually have to appease. Rubio perhaps has the most at stake, hoping to consolidate a position as the GOP “establishment” alternative, in a state where his rivals for that status, such as Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush have spent a lot more time.

Last updated February 4, 2016
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Clinton Colmenares
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