Since people are asking me about it today… here’s my quick take on the Iowa Caucus results last night:
The “political science” perspective is that one key way that Iowa Caucus results matter is in driving the media narrative that emerges the week afterwards leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Objective results matter less than results compared to expected results. Those who over-perform relative to expectations get a boost from both media and donors which gives them an additional boost going into the NH primary while those who under-perform suffer from less media attention and fewer donors than they were getting before. (See Why Iowa, chapters 7-8, see also Vox’s write-up.)
Based on this I make the following quick observations:
Marco Rubio is probably the biggest winner from last night: over-performing relative to expectations in the range of 5-8%. I expect that he’ll get a boost in media coverage and that this will translate into a boost in his New Hampshire performance, putting him in a good position for the rest of the primary campaign.
Donald Trump is probably the biggest loser, as all the media hype was about him possibly winning Iowa. By losing (even though he came in a strong second), he under-performed relative to expectations (by about 7-ish%) and this may translate into a lower performance in New Hampshire than he might have otherwise had if he had won Iowa.
Ted Cruz’s performance is maybe a draw, perhaps a slight advantage. He was polling well in Iowa and did about as well as expected in the media narrative leading up to last night’s Caucuses. The real question is whether he can do well in northeast New Hampshire or whether this was his high-water mark like Rick Santorum in 2012 or Mike Huckabee in 2008.
On the Democratic side, I’d say it’s roughly a draw between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, both objectively and relatively, with perhaps a slight edge to Sanders. Hillary Clinton was expected to win by 3-5% leading up to the Caucuses and she ended up barely squeaking out a win of 0.29%. Given that O’Malley dropped out last night, I think that Sanders will pick up most of his 2-ish% in New Hampshire and likely win by a respectable margin. The real test for Sanders will be whether he can come in close in more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada. If he gets trounced in those two states it’s likely an easy path for Hillary Clinton to the nomination.
Back on the Republican side, my hunch is that it will soon boil down to either a drawn-out Rubio-Trump contest or a Rubio-Cruz contest, depending on which way things shake out in the next few primaries… unless either Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich can somehow edge out a very strong second or third showing. If not, it’s Rubio or bust for Republicans who want to win this fall.