Iowa City, Iowa – “It’s f—-n hot in here!” griped one caucus goer. “Hot” is not what anyone would have expected with sub-freezing temperatures outside and a snowstorm sweeping across the rest of the state. Somewhere between 100-150 people crammed into a meeting room in the Iowa Memorial Union in the heart of the state’s flagship University of Iowa. To understand how hardcore caucus goers are, do the following equation:
Take the number of engaged voters. Subtract those not dedicated to one of the major parties. Subtract those not committed enough to take out a specific time out of the day on a Monday (7-8 pm in this case). And then subtract those who are not committed enough to brave a snowstorm in the dead of winter.
What you’re left with is still a room full of university students sitting through speeches from every campaign’s surrogates. Whether the Rand Paul representative admonishing those present to “…stay out of World War III?!” and that of Donald Trump asking “Are you sick of people coming to this country and taking your jobs?” (Not exactly a concern for people vying for a university education), the only one that saw fit to slick his hair back and wear a suit.
This was one corner of the state with a propensity to surprise. In 2012, this was Ron Paul territory. The young demographic seemed to favour his son Rand’s libertarian-ish-ism. Alas, everyone sitting in the room as well as the rest of the state, would be surprised by three separate coups taking place that night.
1. Movement Conservatives over Populism
In the Iowa caucuses, Trump is, in his own words, a loser. It seems the rank in file were not as keen on the Donald as the polls suggested. His stated strategy of bringing in former Democrats and Independents did not seem to metastasize. Despite record turnout for Iowa Republicans, the new voters did not break overwhelmingly for the business mogul, they were as much a product of Senator Cruz’s historic ground game and to a lesser extent Rubio’s. The very conservative electorate making up the bulk of the GOP caucus goers went for the same kind of firebrand conservative they usually do. This may turn around in New Hampshire as other populists like Pat Buchanan have done well in a primary where non-Republicans can play a decisive roll. What we do know is that Trump’s appeal has been grounded on his invincibility. A loss in New Hampshire would be truly devastating. Iowans showed the rest of the country that he can bleed and many of his opponents are uttering the words of Major Dutch “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
2. Cruz over the “Establishment”
Acknowledging that the word “establishment” means in both parties “anyone we don’t like,” Ted Cruz still beat them. He came out against the ethanol mandate in a state where corn subsidies pay the bills. Iowa’s popular governor Terry Branstad told his state to support anyone but Cruz for that same reason. On top of that, Washington Republicans appeared to be warming to Trump. This was an insincere gesture, but it was clear they wanted not-Cruz. The polls said they would get their way. The Texas Senator’s 10,000 volunteers begged to differ. In a caucus state, organisation is everything and the dedicated “courageous conservatives” gave it everything. Cruz also performed greatly among the well-organised evangelical protestant community. Cruz’s momentum may be dented in New Hampshire, a more moderate and secular state, but a divided «establishment» could give him a better than expected finish.
3. Rubio over Expectations
About that Iowa City caucus. The room full of college Republicans who had delivered Johnson County to a stringent libertarian four years earlier seemed poised to repeat. The entire room was sure this precinct would go for the son of the same. “Stand with Rand” t-shirts were strewn about the entire building and this cramped hot room provided no exception. Not so. It’s 2016, and Marco Rubio was proclaimed the winner. At that point, a swath of seemingly unengaged faces lit up and a light clap ensued followed by boos from the Paul corner. It was clear, a silent plurality had delivered this precinct and most of Iowa’s population centres for the Florida Senator. The same aura of surprise echoed throughout the state as Rubio’s pulled off a surprisingly strong third place finish only a single percentage point and 2,000 votes behind Trump. This was crucial after polling consistently in the mid-teens. This was the product of some last minute “#Marcomentum,” that his campaign began promoting in the waning days of the Iowa campaign. The question remains: Will this carry over into New Hampshire, where the voters are different, but take their votes just as seriously? If so, the non-insurgent elements of the party will coalesce around his candidacy. If not, it will take more than hashtags to drive the narrative.