Iowa Caucus Results – Signs and Portents

Iowa Caucus Winners Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee Photo Mike Huckabee won the Republican vote by a much wider margin than expected and Ron Paul came in a distant fifth place — but ahead of ostensible national frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. Barack Obama won on the Democratic side but one could argue that it was essentially a three way tie, since he got only one more delegate than Clinton, who got one more than Edwards.

So, what does it all mean?

Andrew Sullivan sounds the most optimistic note:

Look at their names: Huckabee and Obama. Both came from nowhere – from Arkansas and Hawaii. Both campaigned as human beings, not programmed campaign robots with messages honed in focus groups. Both faced powerful and monied establishments in both parties. And both are running two variants on the same message: change, uniting America again, saying goodbye to the bitterness of the polarized past, representing ordinary voters against the professionals.

[…]

It is about America. America’s ability to move forward, to unite, to get past the bitter red-and-blue past. That’s what the next generation wants. And they now seem motivated enough to get it.

So, it’s Morning in America. But, as his co-blogger Andrew Sullivan noted just minutes earlier, it’s a dark day for the Republican Party.

Tonight was in many ways devastating news for the GOP. Twice as many people turned out for the Democrats than the Republicans. Clearly independents prefer the Dems.

Now look at how the caucus-goers defined themselves in the entrance polls. Among the Dems: Very Liberal: 18 percent; Somewhat Liberal: 36 percent; Moderate: 40 percent; Conservative: 6 percent. Now check out the Republicans: Very Conservative: 45 percent; Somewhat Conservative: 43 percent; Moderate: 11 percent; Liberal: 1 percent.

One is a national party; the other is on its way to being an ideological church. The damage Bush and Rove have done – revealed in 2006 – is now inescapable.

Somewhere in between lies the truth.

The Immediate Fallout: Democrats

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have dropped out of the race. Mike Gravel should. Presumably, Bill Richardson needs to do well in New Hampshire to justify staying in the race.

John Edwards missed his best chance to catapult himself into contention. He’s unlikely to do well in New Hampshire and it’s not even clear he’ll take South Carolina despite favorite son status.

While Hillary Clinton isn’t seriously wounded by her finish — she played the expectations game well enough — she needs to come back and win in New Hampshire. If Obama beats her there, she’s in trouble. Charles Hurt reads a bit too much into Iowa but he makes a strong point:

More than 70 percent of Iowa Democrats rejected her bid to get back into the White House. And so, after 15 years of domination, the Clinton dynasty has finally lost its grip on the Democratic Party

The Immediate Fallout: Republicans

Mike Huckabee is a legitimate frontrunner now. Despite a serious of stumbles over the last two weeks, he managed to not only hold off Mitt Romney but beat him by a much wider than expected margin. Still, he’s got a long way to go.

John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin of The Politico are a bit over the top in their overall analysis of the race but they nail this:

Huckabee … must now try to turn what has been a mostly personality-based campaign into an effective national organization with appeal beyond the religious conservatives who formed the basis of his victory here.

That’s going to be hard to accomplish in the four days between now and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, as WSJ’s Susan Davis notes, this could be the Beginning of the End for Romney. If he doesn’t bounce back and take Michigan or New Hampshire — if not both — it’s hard to map out a plausible path to his nomination.

Fred Thompson edged out John McCain in a photo finish for third. That defied expectations. Still, as Matt Yglesias notes, the press seem to be treating McCain as the one with momentum.

Ron Paul finished in fifth place with double digit support. That’s much better than any of us would have predicted a year ago but far short of the ridiculously high expectations set by his enthusiasts. He’s got the money and fiscal restraint to remain in the race so long as he pleases but a third place finish might have brought him out of the realm of curiosity and gotten the media to frame him as a legitimate candidate. New Hampshire is likely his last shot at that; after that, most people will start to vote strategically.

What it Means for the Parties

The Democrats have three candidates that the base could ultimately rally around, two of whom could well attract strong support from moderates. The third, Hillary Clinton, remains the favorite, I should think, to take the nomination. If any sense of “inevitability” still attached to her prior to last night’s vote, however, it’s now gone. Obama is easily the bigger obstacle in her path.

A Huckabee nomination could conceivably destroy the party. Not only would he be lucky to break 40 percent in the general election against any of the plausible Democratic nominees but many fiscal conservatives and Chamber of Commerce Republicans would bolt. When Ronald Reagan and others mobilized rural Christian conservatives in the 1980s, they never expected that they would take such a prominent role in the party. Gradually, though, they took it over at the grass roots level in much of rural America.

Huckabee’s mobilization of fervent evangelicals, many of whom doubtless had never shown up for a caucus prior to last night, scares the hell out of mainstream Republicans. My strong hunch is that they’ll rally around someone else — probably McCain but possibly Romney or Giuliani — in Michigan and New Hampshire.

What it Means for the Country

Ultimately, I side with Optimistic Sullivan on this one. Democracy is a frustrating thing for elites, who have always feared mob rule. Still, it’s a remarkable thing that a big city black man with a Muslim name managed to beat out the Establishment-backed wife of a former president in one of the whitest, rural states in the country. Adam Nagourney:

Mr. Obama’s victory in this overwhelmingly white state was a powerful answer to the question of whether America was prepared to vote for a black person for president. What was remarkable was the extent to which race was not a factor in this contest.

That Obama was able to do this partly on the basis of inspiring young people, traditionally one of the weakest voting blocks, is also a positive sign.

The elite disappointment with Huckabee’s easy win is palpable. Iowa’s format allows a fervent few to dominate; that structure isn’t in place in most of the states that follow. Still, the fact that a guy that was off the radar screen of even most political junkies a few months ago can stand next to much more famous and better financed men, state his case to the voters, and earn their support is the very ideal of our system.

Further, while the press attention on Huckabee, reasonably enough, focuses on his religiosity, there’s more to his appeal than that, as David Brooks explains at great length. An excerpt:

Huckabee understands how middle-class anxiety is really lived. Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. A person’s lifetime prospects will be threatened more by single parenting than by outsourcing. Huckabee understands that economic well-being is fused with social and moral well-being, and he talks about the inter-relationship in a way no other candidate has.

In that sense, Huckabee’s victory is not a step into the past. It opens up the way for a new coalition.

A conservatism that recognizes stable families as the foundation of economic growth is not hard to imagine. A conservatism that loves capitalism but distrusts capitalists is not hard to imagine either. Adam Smith felt this way. A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year is the only conservatism worth defending.

We have a presidential, not a parliamentary, system in this country. Whereas the latter rewards political experience and working one’s way through the ranks, the former gives more weight to personality and an ability to connect with the people. There’s still a long, long way to go, though, before we face the prospect of a President Huckabee or President Obama.

Other Reactions:

  • Steven Taylor does quick hits on all the candidates including: “Rudy Giuliani: 4% sucks, even if you are a guy who didn’t campaign in Iowa if you are, in fact, America’s Mayor.”
  • Jim Henley: “[Ron Paul] raised a ridiculous amount of money last year and owns the internet; he inspired an army of volunteers in a caucus system where being able to concentrate bodies is almost uniquely useful and he still couldn’t beat ten lousy percent. Hell, Fred Thompson barely showed up and he beat Paul.”
  • Mark Kleiman: “[A]fter Obama’s performance, I’d expect Granite State independents to be flocking to his banner, not McCain’s. And if the Republican primary is left almost entirely to Republican voters, I’m not sure McCain can beat Romney.”
  • Barbara O’Brien: “[T]he unprecedented turnout of younger and first-time caucus goers tonight ought to be taken very seriously by both parties.”
  • Bruce McQuain: “The first theme, at least for Iowans, was their vote wasn’t for sale. The best financed campaigns didn’t take the win.”
  • Ed Morrissey: “Hillary has reaped the harvest of two months of self-inflicted wounds . . . she’s no Bill Clinton.”
  • Libby Spencer: “[T]he race is still wide open and we may well have to go all the way to Super Tuesday before we see a definitive frontrunner on either side and that would be good.”
  • Vox Day: “I’ve long had the impression that WND reached more Republicans than NRO, the fact that the Chuck Norris-endorsed candidate absolutely trounced the National Review-approved one despite being heavily outspent tends to support this notion, at least for one week.”
  • Damian Penny: “Huckabee vs. Obama? I’ll take the Senator from Illinois, and I bet many conservatives – even registered Republicans – feel the same way.”
  • Ron Chusid: “Edwards’ populism won’t sell in many states outside of Iowa, and having lost her aura of inevitability, support for Clinton is likely to hemorrhage.”
  • Betsy Newmark: “[T]his is a rejection of Bill Clinton just as much. He couldn’t cast his aura over his unlikable wife and usher her to her own coronation. And I predict that it won’t be pretty to watch her flailing away at the new golden boy of the Democratic party.”
  • Dean Barker: “Check out the total vote percentages – if Iowa is a slice of America, then America just utterly rejected the Republican party.”
  • Anonymous Liberal: “After tonight, I really don’t understand how anyone could fail to see Obama’s superior virtues as a general election candidate.”
  • Dan Spencer reminds us that “the Wyoming Republicans will caucus Saturday and choose delegates to the national convention.”
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    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

    Comments

    1. […] and there are some excellent analyses and thoughts on the bigger picture.  This snippet from James Joyner, though, sums up the reality of the long road ahead for everybody involved: We have a presidential, […]

    2. Dantheman says:

      Excellent analysis of both sides of the race.

    3. […] James Joyner has a solid round-up of media and blogospheric commentary and some wise observations of his own: A […]

    4. yetanotherjohn says:

      I think Clinton can survive a second place finish in New Hampshire. If she quits it will be because she decides to, not because she has to. What I find most interesting is the number on the left trying to impose the republican’s 11th commandment on Hillary.

      The real trick is turning the Iowa and (soon to be NH) ‘local’ races into a national race Feb 5th. Hillary can do that better than Edwards. We shall see how well the Obama campaign can ramp up.

    5. Dave Schuler says:

      Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are all in the race through February 5 whatever the outcomes in the interventing primaries and caucuses. Obama and Clinton both have the money to keep plugging and a month is a very short time. Even without primary victories and funding Edwards would be able to keep campaigning for a month.

    6. laura says:

      Andrew Sullivan is his own co-blogger? I keep reading that section over and over–is it my reading error or your typing error?

    7. laura says:

      Oh, I get it now. Duh!

    8. […] another overview of the significance of last night (with a good bit of news and blog linkage) see James Joyner. Sphere: Related ContentA fact I am not convinced of. While he may have a sense of humor and may […]

    9. Michael says:

      Tonight was in many ways devastating news for the GOP. Twice as many people turned out for the Democrats than the Republicans.

      Worse than just that. While the Republican party increased voter turnout by a very respectable 30%, the Democratic party increased it’s primary turnout by 300%. If this is a national trend, not just an Iowa fluke, and can be translated into general election turnout, the GOP is in for a world of hurt.

    10. James Joyner says:

      If this is a national trend, not just an Iowa fluke, and can be translated into general election turnout, the GOP is in for a world of hurt.

      Sure. I’m not sure there’s much evidence for those Ifs, however. The Democratic base is certainly more excited than the Republican base at this stage. I’m not sure that will matter come November, though.

      I do think that Obama would be a more formidable general election candidate than HRC, since he’s less alienating. But so long as Huckabee isn’t the nominee, I think it’ll be another close election.

    11. Dave Schuler says:

      I do think that Obama would be a more formidable general election candidate than HRC, since he’s less alienating. But so long as Huckabee isn’t the nominee, I think it’ll be another close election.

      Agreed. I don’t think it’s just that she’s alienating, I think that it’s that she’s not energizing. As I’ve noted before I think that an Obama candidacy has the possibility of redrawing the political landscape in a way that no other candidate of either party can match.

    12. Michael says:

      Sure. I’m not sure there’s much evidence for those Ifs, however. The Democratic base is certainly more excited than the Republican base at this stage. I’m not sure that will matter come November, though.

      I do think that Obama would be a more formidable general election candidate than HRC, since he’s less alienating. But so long as Huckabee isn’t the nominee, I think it’ll be another close election.

      Maybe not to the same degree, but it certainly seems that turning out Dem voters is going to be easier than turning our GOP voters. If I were GOP strategists, I would be pushing local candidates _hard_, and hope that people come out to vote for them, and just vote for the GOP Presidential candidate while they’re at it.

      The difference seems to be that the Democratic party is split people people have very strong likes for their favorite candidate. The only GOP voters I’ve seen who have a strong like for their candidate are Ron Paul supporters, everyone else just likes the other candidates less than they like theirs. And that’s important because it’s easier to turn a like for Edwards into a like for Obama or even Clinton, than it is to turn a dislike for Romney into a like for Romney.

    13. Dave Schuler says:

      And that’s important because it’s easier to turn a like for Edwards into a like for Obama or even Clinton, than it is to turn a dislike for Romney into a like for Romney.

      I’m not sure that’s right. The differences between the top-tier Democratic candidates are ones of style and method rather than ones of policy. Clinton believes in a Fordist approach; Edwards is confrontational; Obama is reconciling. I don’t think those differences are easily convertible. Particularly, I don’t think that Edwards or Obama supporters would support a Clinton candidacy with the sort of fervor they have for their preferred candidate and, if Democrats are to secure a victory in 2008, it will depend on turnout.

    14. […] on. Things could be worse for Hillary, frontrunner.  Consider Rudy Giuliani, MIA. Is anybody even talking about him […]

    15. Kent says:

      Somewhere in between lies the truth.

      I dunno, James. I think Andrew Sullivan and his coblogger are capable of taking opposite points of view and still failing to bracket the truth.

    16. Dantheman says:

      “But so long as Huckabee isn’t the nominee, I think it’ll be another close election.”

      I will disagree. If the method of getting the rest of the Republicans to rally around someone else is for the party establishment to make dire predictions of how Huckabee is not a suitable mainstream candidate for the Republicans (see for example Peggy Noonan’s WSJ piece from a few weeks ago), there is a significant danger that the Republican coalition will simply not coalesce.

      The religious conservatives will see this as saying that they will never be given their proper due by the Republicans, and stay at home or be susceptible to a third party. And this goes double if the eventual nominee is Romney or Giuliani, who have records of being very far from the Republican mainstream, especially on the issues the religious conservatives care about. Thompson or possibly McCain could pull it off, if they tread very carefully. But a nasty fight to get the rest of the party behind one nominee, especially if done by very public scare tactics about Huckabee, could doom the Republicans to a below 40% share, as well.

    17. 2008 Presidential Candidate Stack Ranking – Post Iowa Caucus…

      So what does it all mean? Certainly it is easy to overstate the importance of this one caucus. But the field is thinning and it will become even clearer next week after a real primary….

    18. James Joyner says:

      Thompson or possibly McCain could pull it off, if they tread very carefully. But a nasty fight to get the rest of the party behind one nominee, especially if done by very public scare tactics about Huckabee, could doom the Republicans to a below 40% share, as well.

      McCain, at least, has been very gracious toward Huckabee and his supporters. McCain’s not an evangelical and generally doesn’t pretend otherwise but he recognizes their importance as part of the coalition.

    19. Tlaloc says:

      Andrew Sullivan sounds the most optimistic note…

      So, it’s Morning in America. But, as his co-blogger Andrew Sullivan noted just minutes earlier, it’s a dark day for the Republican Party.

      Okay, I laughed out loud at that one.

      As far as the presidential election being close, I doubt it very much. The GOP has a lot going against them. They are way down in terms of money , have a lot more races to cover with less cash, their coalition is being badly battered by the irreconcilable desires o the different factions. On top of that you have a severely battered “brand” and demographics (i.e. party identification) working against them.

      It’s damn near a perfect storm.

      Oh add to that that the GOP is currently riding a lull in the violence in Iraq. They’ve tied themselve closely to the surge, but the surge is about to end and it accomplished nothing but tamping down the violence to 2005 levels for a few months. With the reduction in troops and the government promising to try and disarm the Sunni bands we just armed things are going to be very bad in 2008 for the Neocons.

      Barring some serious fraud, which I suppose you can’t rule out, I can’t see 2008 presidential election being anywhere near close.

    20. Tlaloc says:

      I’m not sure that’s right. The differences between the top-tier Democratic candidates are ones of style and method rather than ones of policy. Clinton believes in a Fordist approach; Edwards is confrontational; Obama is reconciling. I don’t think those differences are easily convertible. Particularly, I don’t think that Edwards or Obama supporters would support a Clinton candidacy with the sort of fervor they have for their preferred candidate and, if Democrats are to secure a victory in 2008, it will depend on turnout.

      I’m not sure we’re watching the same primary, Dave. By and large the democrats are consistently happy with their choices. it is the republicans that are bitterly divided with all of their candidates sporting a health slice of the base who *refuse* under any circumstances to vote for them.

      It’s gotten so bad that Redstate routinely has “who would you NOT vote for threads” just to keep track of who all refuses to vote for which candidate.

      Now maybe this will all die down and the various coalition elements of the GOP will cease saber rattling, but at the moment they are way *way* more divided than the dems.

    21. DaveD says:

      Whether they should or not, is it possible the Republicans don’t consider the Iowa caucuses as important to their eventual nominee as the Democrats do? Even though they can’t voice that feeling? Just asking.

    22. sam says:

      The religious conservatives will see [Huckabee’s not being nominated] as saying that they will never be given their proper due by the Republicans, and stay at home or be susceptible to a third party.

      I agree with Dan on this. I think that after 30+ years of Republican courtship, religious conservatives would take this as relegation to the back of the bus, and I think they’d just flat get off the bus.

    23. just me says:

      McCain, at least, has been very gracious toward Huckabee and his supporters. McCain’s not an evangelical and generally doesn’t pretend otherwise but he recognizes their importance as part of the coalition.

      I think McCain is one of the few candidates that religious conservatives would be comfortable with if Huckabee doesn’t get the nomination-he has definitely stepped on their toes at times, but this go around, he seems to realize he needs them, and hasn’t been burning too many bridges.

      I am not convinced religious conservatives would get off the bus wholesale, if Huckabee is rejected, but I bet a lot of them do, especially if that rejection is a nastyer intraparty one, and the eventually nominee has some very dirty hands.

      I think my concern if the GOP nominates a lackluster candidate or one the party members can’t get passionate about is that it will hurt the candidacy of several very good senators and congressmen up for election. My own GOP senator is going to be in a tight race, and turn out will have a big influence on whether or not he survives, and his loss would be a huge loss to the GOP senate.

    24. floyd says:

      “MESSAGE to the MEDIA”

      Huckabee wins in Iowa and the faithless fear mongers cough up a hyperbolic cacophony of wailing and gnashing.
      “THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD!”
      This sort of bigoted stereotyping is no less virulent because it has turned it’s ugly eye away from race and is now focused on religion.
      It is innuendo and implication drawn from the same playbook as used by it’s racist predecessors.
      Plenty of Christians didn’t vote for Huckabee and plenty of secularists did.
      Surely if the man has a bad political platform, it alone should yield ample cause for criticism!
      Judge the man on this platform and stop the bigoted marginalization.

    25. Grewgills says:

      Plenty of Christians didn’t vote for Huckabee

      Certainly.

      and plenty of secularists did.

      Not so much. From the exit polling, 60% of R caucus voters self identified as born again or evangelical Christian, of those 46% voted for the Huckster. That makes 27.6% of his 34%, or ~81% of his support, came from self identified evangelicals and born agains. Of the 36% of voters who said religious beliefs of the candidate matter a great deal, 56% voted for Huckabee. That is nearly 60% of his support and I would bet a considerable overlap with the earlier question.

      The attempted racism parallel is just silly.

    26. Pauline says:

      In Iowa, support for McCain, Paul, and Thompson was close, as they were all vying for third place and ended with a mere 3% delta between higher scoring Thompson at 13% and Paul at 10%. Had the turnout of Evangelicals voters in Iowa not increased from 40% to 60%, the race for third place would have been even tighter.

      The Evangelic vote benefited Thompson. In New Hampshire, the Evangelical political presence is small compared with Iowa. Consequently, we are going to see different dynamics play out there.

      Ron Paul supporters are very loyal, and will not alter their vote during the primary season. Many Ron Paul supporters, however, in a general election would vote for Obama against Huckebee, but they would NEVER vote for Clinton. Consequently, if Clinton is the demo’s nominee, I foresee an EXTREMELY divided America.