In an election cycle that’s already been one of the most unpredictable in American political history, conventional wisdom took it on the chin again Monday. Here’s six things the political class had wrong about Iowa:
1. Big Turnout Helps Donald Trump
According to the experts, big crowds and long lines meant Trump’s new, non-traditional Republicans — and maybe some crossover Democrats — were showing up to caucus for the billionaire. Even Ted Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe thought big numbers would mean a big night for Trump. As it turned out, the GOP turnout was huge — ABC News estimated more than 180,000, compared to the 2012 record of 121,354. But the voter surge seemed to help Monday’s winner, Cruz and third-place finisher Marco Rubio more than No 2 Trump.
2. Trump Won’t Be Able to Handle Losing
Flanked on stage Monday night by his wife and adult children who took on more high-profile roles in the campaign in recent days, Trump was subdued, obviously, as befits a poll-spouting frontrunner who underperformed miserably. But even Democrat Paul Begala, commenting on CNN, said Trump showed humility in conceding to Cruz, in a speech that Begala called “great.” There were no snarky late-night tweets from @realDonaldTrump, and the New York developer assured Iowans he was “honored” to finish second and would be back: “I think I might come here and buy a farm. I love it!.”
3. Polls: Not Perfect, But Generally Reliable
Not in Iowa, not on Monday. Not only were the polls horribly off in predicting the GOP winner, most also missed the momentum shift that was taking place in both the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders race and the Cruz-Trump tilt. Cruz was not plummeting. Clinton was not opening up a lead. Concession prize for pollsters: Marco Rubio was gaining momentum, but even there, surveys underestimated his surge. The Real Clear Politics average had the Florida senator at just under 17 percent in Iowa. Rubio actually finished the night at 23 percent — nipping at Trump’s heels.
4. If You Don’t Back Ethanol, You Don’t Win Iowa
Just a week or so ago, Cruz’s opposition to Iowa’s federal ethanol subsidies was being cited as the biggest reason for his drop in the polls. The state’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad warned voters “it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support” the Texas senator, and Trump told crowds that Cruz “will destroy your ethanol business 100 percent.” With about half of the state’s corn crop going into ethanol production, questioning the subsidies has traditionally been the third rail of Iowa politics. But Cruz’s strategy wasn’t based on ethanol. It was based on evangelicals.
5. Evangelicals Willing to Settle This Time
Over and over in the days leading up to Monday’s vote, pundits explained Trump’s lead in the polls among Iowa Republicans as a sign that, this year, the “values voters” were willing to settle. Turns out evangelicals, who in years past have faithfully rewarded candidates who put faith front and center in their campaigns — Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 — still want one of their own in the White House. God matters in the Hawkeye State, and no one cites more Bible verses or offers up more ‘hallelujahs’ than Cruz, who referenced Psalm 30:5 in his lengthy victory speech, telling cheering supporters frustrated by eight years of the Obama administration that, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
6. The GOP Is a Party of Old White Men
For one night, at least, the Republican Party looked more diverse than the Democrats, where two retirement-age career politicians, Sanders and Clinton, were deadlocked atop the Iowa results. By contrast, three-fifths of the state’s Republicans lined up behind a black surgeon — Ben Carson, who finished with 9 percent — and one or the other of the two young Cuban-Americans in the race, the 45-year-old Cruz who won with 28 percent, or the 44-year-old Rubio, who garnered 23 percent. Both men are sons of first-generation immigrants.
To be fair, there were a couple of things the conventional wisdom got right.
1. Don’t Skip the Debate
Some on Team Trump were quick to call the billionaire’s last-minute decision to skip the final Republican debate before Monday’s caucuses another brilliant, unconventional move that would pay off for the candidate. More experienced observers warned that Iowans take their “first-in-the-nation” status seriously and predicted voters might punish Trump. In hindsight, certainly looks like the Trump stunt backfired.
2. Organization Matters
Again, Iowans are serious about their caucus. It’s complicated, time-consuming and expensive. Candidates who put in the effort, as Cruz did (he’s been visiting and criss-crossing Iowa for three years), tend to do better. Candidates who don’t, or who find themselves with less experience at building an Iowa operation, like Trump? Not so much.