Lessons from the Iowa Caucus

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Increasingly, I feel the need to declare my position on the candidates before commenting on the process, because, increasingly, the conversation has become one of comparative litmus tests. So, here’s the deal on that: I like Clinton and Sanders both, and I like each of them for both overlapping and different reasons. As a life long Democrat I’m glad to see such good candidates running. I will decide whom to support in the Minnesota Caucus some time after I walk into the building, most likely. Then, later, I will decide which candidate, if any, I might work for during the time between our caucus and the convention, though most likely it will be neither. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to anything, but so far I have split my financial support evenly. After the convention (or a bit before if there is a clear winner a priori) I will do everything I can to move the chosen candidate into the White House, while at the same time working on my Congressional District and state wide races or issues.

The first thing we learned from the Iowa Caucus is that Bernie Sanders is a viable candidate who can win. I didn’t doubt that before, but his showing in Iowa, a statistical tie, demonstrates this. This is not really too important in the big picture, partly because it simply reifies what was already known, and partly because Iowa (and New Hampshire) provide only a part of information needed to think strategically about the process. The way things are set up, we really won’t know until Super Tuesday, I think, how the two candidates stand. South Carolina may tell us something about the alleged demographic disconnect that favors Clinton over Sanders, and Nevada may show us if Unions matter in this election, and who they matter to. But from that perspective (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) it will be very difficult to predict Super Tuesday’s outcome.

But, here’s the thing: Bernie supporters who have shown a great deal of angst and jitteriness, to the point of sometimes acting inappropriately for a Primary, can relax a bit now. Your candidate is for real, we all know this. And best of luck to you and to us all.

At the same time, Clinton supporters who may have viewed Bernie as an anomalous inviable insurgent now know that isn’t true. This should have been obvious all along, but for the doubters, stop doubting.

The second lesson is a bit more complex. On one hand, Clinton should have done better in Iowa, given the demographic match up. This puts Clinton on notice. Every campaign is like a herd of bison moving across the plains, with each bison being unique and likely to go in any of several directions. The efficient campaign tends to ignore the bison that are going in the “right” direction (for that campaign) and focus on those that seem likely to stray. I think Iowa demonstrates that some of Clinton’s bison need to have a good talking to.

On the other hand, the Sanders campaign makes the point that the #FeelTheBern surge will not only carry Sanders past the demographic disconnects he faces, but that it will sprout a long and stable coat tail to bring Congress with him. Did going from an obscure(ish) Senator from an obscure(ish) state to nearly besting The Anointed One (for good reason) in Iowa constitute a Bern-Surge? Or was it not enough? The turnout in Iowa was pretty good, but it was not Obama-esque. To the extent that Obama’s 2008 campaign is a model for a 2016 Sanders campaign, something is lacking here. This may or may not be important.

One test of the surgosity of the Sanders campaign may be South Carolina and Nevada. He is unlikely to win in South Carolina and Nevada is obscure. But if he does way better than expectations, that might mean that the surge if getting fueled (by itself, as surges do). I suppose New Hampshire could also be an indicator. Sanders will likely win that state. Not because New Hampshire and Vermont are clones — they are very different. But because among Democrats, Sanders will be seen as something of a favorite son. (New Hampshire and Vermont share a long border, but most cross-state interconnections, I think, are: Vermont-Update NY, and Vermont-Berkshires/Pioneer Valley, MA; and New Hampshire-Greater Boston Areas.) In any event, if Sanders does better than X percent over Clinton in New Hampshire, that could be a post-Iowa surge-fueling effect. X is probably around 12% .

On the Republican side, there are more lessons than I want or need to discuss, but I’ll mention two. First, as per this item, no matter how out of the box some of this year’s campaigns seem to be (i.e., Trump’s celebrity approach), the political process is a real, living entity that can’t be ignored. Trump risks loss for doing so.

See: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The other major lesson, I think, is that the field is now much smaller than it used to be. I’m not sure if any of the bottom tier candidates can recover, however, New Hampshire might bring one or two back into the race. But right now, it is looking like Trump-Cruz-Rubio. I’ve seen some convincing commentary that Cruz is actually not viable long term. I don’t know if I believe that, even if I can hope it to be so. So, the Trump Will Burn Out theory says that Rubio is the GOP nominee, and based on overall patterns, likely the next President unless the Democrats pull their heads out of each other’s butts and start focusing on the end game. I suppose it could be worse.

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11 thoughts on “Lessons from the Iowa Caucus

  1. I suspect the “bottom tier candidates” are meant for PAC donation fodder, where people donating money have been deceived in to thinking the money is going to those candidates— and the Republican Party is getting almost all of it. Carson exists as a “candidate” exclusively to funnel money from morons in to Republican Party candidates other than him.

    My concern about the current elections is that on the Republican Party side there appear to be no actual adults offered as candidates. I keep expecting the RNC to step in and reveal their real candidates.

  2. Let me throw out some additional thoughts (certainly re: NH-VT-MA, because I am from there).

    New Hampshire and Vermont are very different, it is true — New Hampshire was in many ways more semi-industrial, for instance. That said, the demographics in New Hampshire favor Sanders, and he’s local. The similarities between New Hampshire and the towns along the North Shore and getting up into Lawrence and Lowell work for Sanders here too: a guy that does well among college students working in Boston is a pretty good bet, given that the whole city runs along the beat of the academic calendar.

    Let’s leave aside the famous Harvard and MIT which have a lot of out of staters. There’s BU, BC, UMass Boston, Bowdoin, Suffolk U, Mass Art, Berklee, Northeastern, Wentworth, Emerson, Mt. Ida, and about two dozen others and that’s just in the city environs. In New Hampshire there’s Dartmouth and UNH and the latter serves largely students from the area (and from Massachusetts — we used to joke that if you wanted to go to high school again UNH was the way to do it). The areas outside of Boston are pretty college heavy too, and in many cases have some cross-over appeal to non-college educated white workers, I think, since the families that send their kids to Salem State U aren’t exactly affluent. (People who aren’t from there often don’t see the myriad small public and private schools that cater to a lot of first-generation college students).

    So Sanders has a big built-in advantage in the most populous districts in Massachusetts, and a base to work from out west too. (Williams, for instance, is out in the Berkshires).

    So I could see — if everything breaks right for him — Sanders making a hell of a showing in New Hampshire, Vermont (of course) and Massachusetts. I should also add Sanders would have some appeal in Connecticut and Rhode Island, though a bit less. New England doesn’t get you a ton of delegates but it was in some ways the “soul” of the Democratic party in the Northeast, punching above its weight; the party elites take what goes on there seriously enough that they might take steps if things don’t go their way. (See: 2006, and what they did to Ned Lamont).

    Outside of that Sanders is going to have some problems. He hasn’t connected super well to nonwhite voters, and the behavior of a few of his supporters has been a real problem — he needs to get the campaign on message and disciplined in a way that I suspect is a bit foreign to him if for no other reason than the sheer size. My own hypothesis is that the BernieBro phenomenon comes from relatively new activists — people who aren’t and haven’t been terribly relevant to the progressive movements before but got a platform and ran with it. Unfortunately they are the ones who didn’t have a nice sit down with the adults.

    There’s a whole other discussion here about the role of social media and all that. But getting back to Sanders: he needs to give nonwhites a reason to vote for him, and he hasn’t, not really. His missteps with Black Lives Matter hurt him there. And as far as I know he has done zero outreach to Latino voters.

    So I see Sanders as one who will do well in states where white-er progressives dominate — Oregon, perhaps. Wisconsin. He will falter in states where they don’t (Illinois, California). The latter are where the delegates are, and we haven’t even gotten to the fact that a load of endorsements have gone to Hillary Clinton from the get-go.

  3. Jesse, excellent analysis.

    However, I disagree with one (not very important) point. Harvard is not as out of region as most people assume. When I worked/went to school there, I was surprised to learn what a large percentage of Harvard College students were from within 100 miles. Very large (can’t remember). Among staff, 100% local, among faculty, very very local compared to what one might think, because of the relatively concentrated and insular nature of the academic community. Harvard is like the Yankees. Every academic department in the country with more than 15 people in it has at least one Harvard PhD, but at home, not so much the reverse.

    Graduate school is the reverse, of course. In my program, counting the year before, mine, and the year after, to get up a good number, I think there were exactly two of us who were local, and I was actually form NY originally.

  4. Thanks. I wasn’t thinking that Harvard is that non-local — lord knows in high school it was the go-to “reach” for every smart kid (sometimes I think the Valedictorian of every school in Massachusetts is contractually obligated to apply). Just that every time you mention schools in Boston people from outside the region say “Harvard” and “MIT” even though the numbers of students there relative to everywhere else is tiny. Both schools — MIT even more so — pride themselves on geographic diversity too, though as you note that doesn’t always happen.

    (There’s a whole rant I could get into about the way Harvard chooses students that privileges people who are descendants of the “right” people, even decades after they dropped Jewish quotas and the like).

  5. Further to the question of relating New Hampshire (my adopted home state) to the neighboring states: Southeastern New Hampshire is officially part of Greater Boston. But the bedroom towns in that part of the state is where you find the Tea Party types (it’s not exactly rational, since tax-wise, they get the worst of both worlds: Massachusetts income tax and New Hampshire property tax), just as you find such people in exurban areas elsewhere in the country. Democrats are mostly concentrated in a few towns: Portsmouth/Dover/Durham area, Nashua, Concord, and to a lesser extent Manchester and Exeter. But north and west of Concord, it is very much like Vermont, and to a lesser extent western Maine. In particular, the Democratic primary electorate in those areas will be quite similar to Vermont’s. Dartmouth is an anomaly (it’s more of an Ivy League type environment), but it isn’t big enough to make that much of a difference beyond Hanover and neighboring towns.

  6. “The first thing we learned from the Iowa Caucus is that Bernie Sanders is a viable candidate who can win.”

    Sanders could win the nomination, but the election? It’s possible that his candidacy could inspire many who otherwise wouldn’t vote. I don’t believe that he could inspire enough to elect a House and Senate that would support his agenda. What worries me most is the ability of the Republicans to attack Sanders as a socialist who wants to raise taxes on the middle class. To me, the combination of socialism and higher middle class taxes in an American election doesn’t look like a winner.
    I hope I’m wrong.

  7. Each of the two remaining Democratic candidates have a huge question mark behind their names when it comes to a general election. Question marks that don’t always come front and center in a party primary.

    Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Hillary Clinton is a Clinton.

    I’m not sure which is the larger cross to bear. Intuitively I’d say it’s the ‘socialist’ tag that Republicans will try to beat Sanders with, but given the political atmosphere it might actually be an advantage.

    Similarly the name ‘Clinton’ will just cause some voters to foam at the mouth – not all of them rabid Republicans. Yet, this too could be an advantage for Hillary; the Democratic Party almost by necessity requires a large African-American turnout to win elections in toss-up states. Other than Barack Obama, can anyone generate more excitement and approval in the African-American community than Bill Clinton?

    Given what’s presented on the GOP side, any Democrat that wouldn’t fully support either Bernie or Hillary in the general election is a fool.

  8. cosmicomics: “Sanders could win the nomination, but the election?” That depends on how he does in the other primaries. Each primary is a test of part of that question.

    Kevin, it is not clear to me either which is the more relevant negative.

  9. Jesse, don’t forget Franklin Pierce, Keene State and St Anselm! I had a GF who went to Pierce – she was a Westwood chick who called the locals, “Humps from New Humpshire.” I lived in Manchester for several years, and one of my friends taught at St A. Then I briefly lived in Keene and they called the Vermonters, “Woolly Bears.” One of my favorite things to do in Keene was take the short drive to Brattleboro.

    If Sanders and Trump supporters could somehow find common cause, they would be a force to reckon with. One of my work buddies swears that there’s a stat that a lot of people are picking Trump and Sanders as their first and second choices right now. No matter what the media say about Iowa, people still want a change.

  10. Donal–
    Honestly I doubt Trump and Sanders voters have a lot in common, ultimately.

    The polling crosstabs show that Sanders does well among (relatively) educated white liberals, with some crossover to nonwhites with college degrees. Trump is appealing to those without the degrees — your non-college white workers.

    This isn’t to say that there are no non-college educated white workers who support Sanders — he has the backing of several unions. But the idea that the two groups would somehow make common cause over dissatisfaction with the status quo is farfetched to me.

    Trump’s appeal is to a really nasty xenophobic streak. Those folks will not go near anyone who says they want to help people if it looks like people of color might be helped as well. This is a fundamental political reality that has existed for decades. One reason some welfare programs were attacked was precisely because they aided people of color. (Remember the “welfare queen?”)

    So no, I just don’t buy the two groups coming together very much at all, except at the margins maybe.

  11. Jesse, I think what Sanders and Trump supporters have in common is that they are being left behind in the economy. Yes they identify very different groups as the enemy. Trump voters blame immigrants while Sanders voters focus on the 1%. But I think they both suspect that the top 25% are also complicit in their fate. The top 25% support establishment candidates like Clinton and someone who isn’t Trump or Cruz. I don’t see nativists and millennials making common cause in this cycle, but it could happen eventually.

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