The surprising results of last night’s Iowa Republican caucus were devastating for former Gov. Mitt Romney and vindicating for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, but the biggest winner may have been Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Huckabee: Spontaneous grassroots support trumped “organization” in Iowa.
- Huckabee’s 10,000-vote victory, among 115,000 cast, was far larger than anyone had guessed, and his nine-percentage-point margin was bigger than his lead in any polls. The key was spontaneous support from his religious conservative base.
- With about 115,000 Republicans voting at the caucus out of about 600,000 registered Republicans statewide, turnout was typically low for a caucus and hardly representative. Entrance polls showed 60 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers identifying as “Evangelical Christians” or “Born-Again,” with just less than half of them saying they would support Huckabee.
- Those numbers suggest that many voters showed up last night because “one of their own” was running. In the final week, Iowa and national media increasingly (and perhaps derisively) referred to Huckabee as “Baptist preacher” rather than “former governor.”
- Huckabee made many missteps late — including his tacky “cancellation” of an attack ad — but, in the eyes of Huckabee’s evangelical supporters, he could do no wrong. At his late rallies, Huckabee drew huge and rowdy crowds, while Romney drew fairly tame audiences.
- Huckabee’s high poll numbers in December left open the question of how much of his support stemmed from his being a fresh face, and how much was firm. Last night showed that he had firmer support than any other Republican — highlighting the power of the evangelical vote.
- The win keeps Huckabee alive and forces Republican primary voters in other states to think about him. Lacking funds and with harsh critics among economic conservatives, Huckabee is still a longshot for the nomination.
Romney: Romney’s distant second-place finish is devastating to the candidate who flooded Iowa with money, staffers, ads, and mailings. He outspent Huckabee by an order of magnitude, and still got only 25 percent to Huckabee’s 34 percent.
- Romney depended on a large staff and a much-vaunted organization. However that Election Day ground game worked, it couldn’t compare with Huckabee’s organic Christian uprising.
- Because Romney has basically unlimited wealth to spend, he did not need to win Iowa in the same way Huckabee did. His race is not over, but his margin of loss last night reveals some potentially fatal flaws in Romney’s campaign. For one, it leaves open the question of anti-Mormon bias among GOP voters. Secondly, it shows that voters who know Romney very well weren’t particularly partial to him.
- Romney can still win in New Hampshire, though the odds are not in his favor. And a Michigan win is hardly guaranteed. It’s doubtful he can last until the February 5 primaries without any victories
The Field: None of the other Republicans had nearly as much riding on Iowa as Romney and Huckabee, except former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.).
- We predicted Thompson’s third-place finish on the strength of his late blitz in Iowa, spending the final 18 days in the Hawkeye State. He did manage to finish third, but with a disappointing 13 percent, just a few hundred votes ahead of McCain. His late surge was not as dramatic as we had expected because Huckabee’s support was more concrete than we thought.
- Thompson appeals to many Republicans as the most thoroughly conservative candidate. If Romney’s star fades significantly, Thompson could pick up his slack. He stayed alive in Iowa, but his campaign was hardly impressive enough to suggest he can make a comeback.
- Thanks to Romney’s loss, McCain won big despite his fourth-place finish. An impressive third-place would have given McCain serious momentum into New Hampshire, but he is still the favorite there. Letting the air out of Romney’s balloon is a huge boost to McCain, who once again is now at the front of the pack.
- Texas Rep. Ron Paul‘s 10 percent was a respectable showing for a candidate who has received very little attention from television or local media. But it was lower than the Paul campaign had expected, and fifth place does nothing to remove the perception he is a fringe candidate.
- Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had wisely decided to skip Iowa: Had he campaigned here, he may not have done much better than the 4 percent he actually won. Giuliani’s task is staying alive so that he can run well in New York and California February 5.
- California Rep. Duncan Hunter‘s miniscule 500 votes statewide should end his long-shot candidacy.
The Democratic field shook out exactly as we had expected, with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) winning handily, followed by former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Obama is the only clear winner here, as Edwards and Clinton both suffer.
Obama: Obama needed a win, and he got a big one, but this still doesn’t make him the favorite.
- Obama pieced together a strong, enthusiastic base with very healthy support from the backers of non-viable second-tier candidates.
- The Democratic race had developed into a competition over who really represented “change.” Once this was the battlefield, Obama — new on the political scene and optimistic in tone — had the advantage. He also avoided missteps in the final months.
- Independents and young voters — two often over-hyped segments of the electorate — were responsible for Obama’s large margin of victory. Party-switching Republicans (partly reflected in the more than two-to-one turnout advantage Democrats had last night) helped, too. That such a liberal lawmaker could win over Republicans and independents reflects the Iowa voters’ lack of ideology and their attention to tone and personality, where Obama is by far the most adept.
- Going forward, he is not necessarily the favorite to win the nomination, but a win in New Hampshire would crown him as the undisputed front-runner.
Edwards: Edwards exceeded expectations, but he still might not have done what he needed to in order to make the nomination a three-way race.
- Edwards was very strong in the rural counties, and his populist, class-warfare rhetoric won over many Iowa Democrats. Like Obama, he was a popular second choice, usually among voters who had either supported him in the 2004 nomination battle or just voted for him as Vice President in November 2004.
- A second-place finish is probably not good enough to keep Edwards truly in the race. His prospects are dim in New Hampshire and Florida, and he has not even locked up South Carolina (the only primary he won in 2004). Edwards needed to win Iowa to inject himself into the Clinton-Obama tier.
Clinton: While second place might not mean much for Edwards, third place is harmful to Clinton.
- Clinton is a polarizing figure, which hurt her in Iowa in at least three ways. First, her hardball — and at times dirty — tactics didn’t play well in the Heartland. Her campaign’s backhanded ways of dragging Obama’s past drug use into the spotlight hurt her. Secondly, she was unable to garner almost any second-choice votes. Third, many Democrats feared she would motivate Republicans and turn off independents handing Republicans the White House in 2012.
- High turnout hurt her. She was able to get her supporters to the caucuses, but as long as there was a sizable number of caucus-goers looking for a second-choice, Hillary was in trouble.
- She can still win New Hampshire, in which case she would be on even footing with Obama. However, any veneer of inevitability is completely gone, which hurts her.
The Field: The Democrats’ viability requirements kept the second-tier Democrats from even having decent showings in Iowa.
- Senators Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) couldn’t reach the 15 percent threshold in many districts, and so they barely registered last night. They have both withdrawn, despite being held in high regard by many Iowa Democrats.
- Richardson fared best of the second-tier candidates, but he is still not a serious contender. He is running for Vice President or secretary of State.
- With Biden and Dodd out of the race, the top three have a few more undecided voters in New Hampshire to fight over — but not that many.