How to read the Iowa caucus results

All eyes are on Iowa, where voters are still undecided. Here is what to look out for in the results.

The Iowa caucus, which sounds the starting pistol in the Republican nomination race, gets underway tonight. Yet as voting fast approaches, there is still no clear frontrunner. Polls show that some two out of five voters in Iowa are still undecided.

There is no clear consensus among the pundits either, who variously predict that either Mitt Romney -- currently topping most national polls -- Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum could win in the state. These three candidates are almost evenly tied.

Richard Cohen at the Washington Post (who predicts that Romney will be victorious) notes that none of the other candidates have emerged from Iowa with their campaign in-tact:

The Iowa caucus has turned out to be a demolition derby for Republicans. With the exception of Romney and Santorum, they all have been damaged. Perry showed he couldn't debate (or talk), Bachmann had trouble with the truth, Gingrich acts like R2-D2 with a short circuit and Paul has been soiled by the ugly newsletters his foundation published in the past. Santorum emerges undented, (al dente?) but that could be because until too late he was not considered worth denting. Aside from him, though, only Romney came out of Iowa as he came in -- boring, but inevitable. He wins because everyone else loses.

Romney is cultivating this sense of inevitability around his campaign, seeking to give the impression that the party is coalescing around him. A big win in Iowa would give this tactic a significant boost, given that it has thus far looked like a tight race. On the other hand, if he falls into third place, he may have to do some explaining, although this will not necessarily spell disaster for the rest of his campaign.

What happens in Iowa does not necessarily reflect the eventual national outcome -- it is an oft-quoted fact that Mick Huckabee won in Iowa in 2008, although the nomination eventually went to John McCain. Indeed, since 1972, only three non-incumbent candidates have won the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the presidency -- Carter, George W. Bush, and President Obama. It is easy to make arguments for why this largely agricultural state does not reflect the US as a whole; yet it does represent the first test of the voting public, and a reasonable indication of the viability of a candidate's campaign.

For this reason, it can be almost more important who does badly than who does well. All of the second-tier candidates have insisted they will continue with their campaigns regardless of what happens in Iowa, but it is not unheard of for low polling candidates to drop out of the race.

Paul, who has stood for presidency twice before, will be particularly affected by this. In the past, he has been held back by the perception that he simply does not have sufficiently wide appeal to take the fight to the Democrats. A more organised campaign this time has worked to broaden his support base outside libertarians and students, and a win in Iowa could provide a counter-argument to those who maintain he is not a viable candidate.

Quite apart from what Iowa means for individual candidates, the level of voter turnout in this swing state -- important in the general election -- should give some indication about the strength of partisan feeling. As Michael Shear notes at the New York Times Caucus blog:

Fourteen months after a tidal wave of Republican energy helped sweep many Democrats out of Congress, the Iowa results will provide a hint about whether that intensity of purpose remains.

If 140,000 or 150,000 voters show up to the caucuses, that would be a good sign for Republicans (who have said for months that they have succeeded in adding to the rolls of registered Republicans). If fewer people show up than last time, it may suggest that the excitement of 2010 has faded a bit.

In a race so far characterised by uncertainty and swift rises to the top of the polls, matched in speed only by falls from grace, Iowa will give the first reliable test of public opinion. All eyes on the results.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. What now?

So a Clinton-Trump general election is assured – a historically unpopular match-up based on their current favourability ratings.

That’s it. Ted Cruz bowed out of the Republican presidential race last night, effectively handing the nomination to Donald Trump. “From the beginning I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” Cruz said. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed.”

What foreclosed his path was his sizeable loss to Trump in Indiana. Cruz had bet it all on the Hoosier State, hoping to repeat his previous Midwest victories in Iowa and Wisconsin. He formed a pact with John Kasich, whereby Kasich left the anti-Trump field clear for Cruz in Indiana in return for Cruz not campaigning in Oregon and New Mexico. He announced Carly Fiorina as his vice-presidential nominee last week, hoping the news would give him a late boost.

It didn’t work. Donald Trump won Indiana handily, with 53 per cent of the vote to Cruz’s 37 per cent. Trump won all of the state’s nine congressional districts, and so collected all 57 of the convention delegates on offer. He now has 1,014 delegates bound to him on the convention’s first ballot, plus 34 unbound delegates who’ve said they’ll vote for him (according to Daniel Nichanian’s count).

That leaves Trump needing just 189 more to hit the 1,237 required for the nomination – a number he was very likely to hit in the remaining contests before Cruz dropped out (it’s just 42 per cent of the 445 available), and that he is now certain to achieve. No need to woo more unbound delegates. No contested convention. No scrambling for votes on the second ballot. 

Though Bernie Sanders narrowly won the Democratic primary in Indiana, he’s still 286 pledged delegates short of Hillary Clinton. He isn’t going to win the 65 per cent of remaining delegates he’d need to catch up. Clinton now needs just 183 more delegates to reach the required 2,383. Like Trump, she is certain to reach that target on 7 June when a number of states vote, including the largest: California.

So a Clinton-Trump general election is assured – a historically unpopular match-up based on their current favourability ratings. But while Clinton is viewed favourably by 42 per cent of voters and unfavourably by 55%, Trump is viewed favourably by just 35 per cent and unfavourably by a whopping 61 per cent. In head-to-head polling (which isn’t particularly predictive this far from election day), Clinton leads with 47 per cent to Trump’s 40 per cent. Betting markets make Clinton the heavy favourite, with a 70 per cent chance of winning the presidency in November.

Still, a few questions that remain as we head into the final primaries and towards the party conventions in July: how many Republican officeholders will reluctantly endorse Trump, how many will actively distance themselves from him, and how many will try to remain silent? Will a conservative run as an independent candidate against Trump in the general election? Can Trump really “do presidential” for the next six months, as he boasted recently, and improve on his deep unpopularity?

And on the Democratic side: will Sanders concede gracefully and offer as full-throated an endorsement of Clinton as she did of Barack Obama eight years ago? It was on 7 June 2008 that she told her supporters: “The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next president of the United States.” Will we hear something similar from Sanders next month? 

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics.