While the parties did not have much choice about including Iowa and New Hampshire in the window of early states, the theory behind the early states is that all four are small enough and different enough to help narrow the field. While winning is nice, the real goals of the campaigns are: 1) to seem viable enough that supporters (both voters and donors) don’t go looking elsewhere; and 2) to meet targets for delegates. Candidates who are unable to show signs of life quickly find that their campaigns have no life.
On the Republican side, it is easy to identify the big winner from Iowa, and it’s not Ted Cruz. For the third time in a row, a Republican candidate has used a strong showing among evangelicals to come from behind to win the Iowa Caucus. The pollsters have to try to figure out why their models keep on missing this pattern. However, while winning Iowa is enough to push a candidate forward, the Iowa winners have not been able to turn that success into a winning national campaign. Senator Cruz’s win is certainly better than finishing second and will keep him alive through March 1, but he needs to do well in early March to have a shot at winning.
Instead, the big win goes to Marco Rubio. He almost managed to win the state, and his third-placed finish should only place him one delegate behind Senator Cruz in the delegate count when the results become final and official in several weeks. More significantly, Senator Rubio finished well ahead of the other contenders for the role of “establishment candidate.” The last time the “establishment candidate” lost was either 1980 or 1964. If the field after Nevada is Senator Cruz, Senator Rubio, and Donald Trump, Senator Rubio should be the Republican nominee.
If Senator Rubio is the big winner, that means that the big losers are the Governors — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — all of whom are splitting the “establishment” vote with Senator Rubio in New Hampshire. If Senator Rubio’s finish in Iowa gives him a bump in New Hampshire, that bump will probably come at the expense of Governor Bush, Governor Christie, and Governor Kasich. The latest polls show these three candidates essentially tied with Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio. If Senator Rubio can pull a 20+% finish in New Hampshire, the three Governors will be gone by March 1. (The campaigns know this too which is why the past two days have seen these three campaigns attack Senator Rubio rather than Senator Cruz or Donald Trump.)
The poor finish in Iowa has already spelled the end for Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. By the time that this posts, Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina may join them.
On the Democratic side, the two leading candidates can both spin the result as a win for them. On the positive side for Hillary Clinton, the Iowa Democratic Party is both extremely white and extremely liberal. Given the breakdown among the various demographics (men vs. women, moderates vs. liberal vs. very liberal, democrats vs. independents), Secretary Clinton’s results in Iowa would translate into a win by a significant margin in most other states. Additionally, the key number for Secretary Clinton is 18 — that’s the total swing in delegates that she needs from her totals in 2008 to finish with the most pledged delegates. Even assuming that every O’Malley delegate to the county (and later) conventions supports Bernie Sanders, she would still finish with a 22-22 delegate split from Iowa. In 2008, after the district and state conventions, Secretary Clinton trailed President Obama by 24-14 (with 7 for John Edwards). The ten delegate swing puts Secretary Clinton halfway there (although she will almost certainly give three or four back in New Hampshire).
For Senator Sanders, on the other hand, just finishing close in Iowa allows him to claim that he is a viable candidate. For the reasons noted above, Senator Sanders needs to show that he can match these results in states with more diverse populations like South Carolina, Nevada, and the Super Tuesday states. But by finishing close, he gets that chance.
For both candidates, given current polls, New Hampshire is the reverse of the situation heading into Iowa, Thirty-five to 40 percent of the vote state-wide (what the polls currently show for Secretary Clinton) would give Secretary Clinton nine delegates (out of 24). However, forty-five percent would bump Secretary Clinton up to eleven delegates. (By comparison, in 2008, Senator Clinton and President Obama got nine delegates each, with four delegates going to Senator Edwards.) Simply put, right now, the goal for Secretary Clinton is to keep New Hampshire close and be able to spin New Hampshire as a de facto home state for Senator Sanders (as well as being extremely white and extremely liberal).
For Martin O’Malley, Iowa was it. While some Democrats would like for there to be a third moderate candidate in the race just in case the Republicans find something negative that would actually hurt Secretary Clinton, Governor O’Malley was not it. Even in his best counties, Governor O’Malley finished short of 15% of the delegates. As such, even if he had stayed in the race, his supporters would have had to switch to another candidate at the county conventions.
In a mere five days, the results in New Hampshire will give us some idea whether Iowa has added clarity to the races or if the Iowa results were merely sound and fury signifying nothing.