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What Can the Iowa Caucus Really Tell Us?

How the surge of populism that's defined the 2016 elections may confound the expectations of Iowa and New Hampshire as electoral predictors.
Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Winnacunnet High School on February 2, 2016, in Hampton, New Hampshire. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Winnacunnet High School on February 2, 2016, in Hampton, New Hampshire. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Delivering her "victory" speech after a razor-thin finish ahead of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Iowa Democratic caucus, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton breathed a "big sigh of relief." Despite a narrow win over Sanders, Clinton declared the result a triumph of her (establishment) message over the fiery populism of the Vermont Senator. "This has been an incredible honor to campaign across Iowa, with so many of you to make the case for the kind of future we want," she told supporters. "For the Democratic Party and for the United States of America. There is so much at stake in this election, I don't need to tell you."

It's with a faint whiff of irony that Clinton's speech in Iowa came mere hours before Punxsutawney Phil made his annual predictions on the vernal equinox. For the last 30 years at least, the Iowa caucuses and their electoral cousin in the "first-in-the-nation" New Hampshire primaries have been Groundhog Day for establishment politicians, a chance for party machines to clear the field of hangers-on and all but transform the subsequent primaries into a rehearsal for the main event.

This isn't just a political superstition of sorts: As Vox notes, almost every winner of each Democratic and Republican presidential nomination contest since 1980 (with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992) "started off by winning [either] the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, or both," Most recently, Barack Obama and George W. Bush's Iowa victories carried them through significant losses in New Hampshire. With Clinton's narrow win and Donald Trump's loss to Ted Cruz, the Iowa caucuses could have signaled to both Democrats and Republicans that they're only in for six more months of political winter.

The Iowa caucuses matter for presidential elections because we believe they do.

But Clinton's victory over Sanders and Trump's freakishly unorthodox campaign continue to present major challenges to both their political parties, as well as the media. Despite Clinton's massive army of volunteers, advisers, pollsters, and strategists, first-time caucus-goers overwhelmingly supported Sanders, the self-described socialist, at the polls (in six precincts, Clinton won by a coin toss, of all things).

The same was the case for Trump over Cruz, a fact that seems to undermine the Texas Senator's lead—especially given the amount of resources he invested in his Iowa ground game. "His message was perfectly tuned to Iowa conservatives, he used his web of relationships to try to unite evangelical leaders, and he invested deeply in data and turnout organization," the Washington Post wrote of Cruz's victory. "By caucus day, Cruz had 11,986 volunteers in Iowa and trained captains at nearly all of the 1,681 precincts." All that effort to overcome a low-budget shouting campaign by Trump is something of a bittersweet victory.

Despite this, the national media has devolved into two narratives that reinforce the singular influence of a top showing in Iowa in the establishment's political consciousness: that Donald Trump is over, and that Bernie Sanders has managed to turn Clinton's nomination from a sure bet to a punishingly long slog. "A self-described democratic socialist who was running 30 points behind her in the polls as recently as November, Sanders drew support from young people, liberals and independents," the Washington Post wrote. "The photo finish showed that Republicans are not the only voters looking for qualities beyond experience and electability."

Writing in the International Business Times, Brendan James notes that the Washington political establishment, while patting Sanders on the head, is belligerently thumbing it's nose at Trump for upsetting their chosen narrative with his rebuke to experience and electability for months:

There was a palpable sense that the media was getting back at Trump after months of futile protest: Fox News had effectively said good riddance to Trump when he decided to skip its last GOP debate; the conservative magazine National Review launched an entire issue "Against Trump," and the Huffington Post, after face-planting with an anti-Trump editorial policy last year, took another shot at the idea last week: It now appends every article about the candidate with a footnote calling him a "racist" and a "liar."

What does this prove? It reminds us that the Iowa caucuses, not unlike the New Hampshire primary, are an exercise in political storytelling, a modern form of mythopoetic legend-building designed to reign in party outsiders. It's the Baader-Meinhof of politics, the place where, once we see a victor, we only see a victor, no matter what the entrance polls and national surveys indicate about whose messages are resonating most.

Research bears out this impact. A 2014 study in Presidential Studies Quarterly on "The 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus and Its Effects on the Presidential Nomination Contest" suggests that, while caucus-goers do tend to be an effective ideological proxy for statewide (although not national) voter turnout, they're far more salient as channels for media attention. According to the study, election results from 1976 to 2012 indicate that "shifts in media attention toward candidates after Iowa affected candidate performance in New Hampshire. Similar shifts in media attention to candidates due to results in New Hampshire predict a candidate's overall vote share across all nomination contests." Even worse, "although winning Iowa may not be a direct path to the nomination, failing to meet or beat media expectations is potentially a path to failure." The most important outcomes of the the Iowa contests are directly dependent on media attention rather than an exercise in institutional polling.

New Hampshire doesn't look to be much better a predictor than Iowa, especially given the likelihood of a Sanders surge among voters in his neighboring state. A 2004 study in Political Research Quarterly on "The New Hampshire Effect in Presidential Nominations" suggests that Democrats are more likely to experience a dark horse situation in New Hampshire, conditions that would once again put Sanders in the national spotlight and confound the establishment. Similarly, research suggests that the Republican outcome in New Hampshire tends to be predicated on polling during the exhibition period in the lead-up to the primary, which means Trump, leading Ted Cruz by 24 points in the Granite State ahead of the Iowa caucuses, still has the potential to carve out a sliver of attention in the national spotlight. Both Sanders and Trump have the potential political leverage to throw their subsequent primaries between now and Super Tuesday into disarray and present a true primary battle rather than a rubber-stamped establishment race.

Put simply: The Iowa caucuses matter for presidential elections because we believe they do. Trump and Sanders, with their ideological populism, have managed to destroy the idea of Iowa as a clear indicator of presidential succession, despite the mewling protestations of the chattering class and media looking for a story they can use to their advantage. For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have functioned as lighthouses for the party faithful, a chance to bring home voters with a reminder that, boy, they had their fun, but now's the time to be a Serious Voter. But, from the looks of it, both the Democratic and Republican party visions are as obscured as they've been at any other time during this race.

If there's one truth to pull from Iowa, it's this: For the Democratic and Republican politicos breathing that sigh of relief over establishment victories in Iowa, this race is going to be far more of a marathon than a sprint.