Corn, granite and momentum: The view from the Iowa caucuses

Let's be clear: I'm glad that the Iowa caucus - as we say in New Jersey - "is in the rear view mirror", writes Nick DeLuca of Open Road

Iowa City, United States (Pic credit: Pete Hendley/Getty Images/Thinkstock)
Iowa City, United States (Pic credit: Pete Hendley/Getty Images/Thinkstock)

For a year it gets the attention of the political class, the global media and the commentariat. This, even though it is disproportionately white, male, ageing, rural, Christian and in love with ethanol. 

Iowa is so unrepresentative of the US, 43 per cent of likely participants in Monday night’s Democratic caucus told pollsters they considered themselves 'socialists' rather than 'capitalists'.

And yet, outsider candidates since Jimmy Carter's 1976 surprise win have used it as a platform to get noticed, get money and get a national campaign started. 

The successes and failures of that strategy are there for all to see - Barack Obama on one side and Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum on the other.

So a word of warning to the wise: be careful not to overstate the importance of winning or losing in Iowa.

Monday night’s victory for Ted Cruz was a must-win. More than any other candidate, the Texas senator invested early in a major effort in Iowa. Cruz won not only because his love of the US Constitution and Christians, and hatred of Washington rhetoric, is red meat for Iowa conservatives; he won because he did the hard work of retail politics that Iowa (and New Hampshire) require.

Cruz had a team of more than 12,000 volunteers orchestrating a massive digital and phone effort. He raised millions of dollars from the shadowy world of Texas politics and the Conservative movement and then spent it. 

He designed and delivered on a church-by-church approach through all 99 ('the full Grassley' - named after the Hawkeye states' senior senator) Iowa counties. He spent more time in the state than any other candidate. There was no path beyond New Hampshire if Ted Cruz lost in Iowa.

But he didn't lose. The Donald did. Kinda. For Trump, Iowa was a decent performance. 

He never planned a major effort there (thrice married is a hard sell to the evangelical community) and only recently changed strategy, reallocated resources and tried to stop Cruz. 

He didn't manage that but, remember, this was his first campaign ever. Using a type of populist message not dissimilar to that heard across Europe these days (immigration, crime), he found an angry minority of supporters. 

One of the most interesting takeaways from the caucus will be whether or not the Trump campaign learnt a lesson about the need for and the importance of a major 'ground game'. If so, can they build and mobilise fast enough to hold on to his double-digit lead in New Hampshire? A failure to win 'The Granite State' - having led for so long - would be a significant blow for him.

In a system defined by unlimited campaign finance, this wouldn't drive him from the race – but it would raise questions about his ability to win in November.

The one very necessary job Iowa performed - and that New Hampshire will continue - is the winnowing of the field. The big headline has been the better-than-expected performance of senator Marco Rubio. And it may be that he does become the more moderate choice that mainstream Republicans want. 

We will see. On paper, New Hampshire is more amenable to the charms of Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush. All three have invested much in New Hampshire; the Bushes have an extensive historic network there and Christie has been through the state constantly for the past four months. If Rubio could swipe second place, he really would then have a path to the top tier.

What New Hampshire will also do is extend the shelf life of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. And while it remains hard to believe that the 'independent' Democratic socialist can topple the Clinton machine, he has been the favourite for months here (the New Hampshire voting system allows for independents to vote), has a double-digit lead and hails from a neighbouring state.

Sanders has filled the 'passion' gap. He has excited the idealistic base of the Democratic Party. Those activists enthused by Obama the candidate but disappointed by Obama the President have flocked to a 74-year-old Larry David lookalike who promises free university education and an even bigger, better healthcare system than Obamacare has created.

In the end, absent of an indictment, Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. 

Even though less than half the electorate like her and even less 'trust' her, she is battle-hardened. The coming calendar - Nevada, South Carolina - suits her and her organisation.

Her challenge, starkly underlined in Iowa, is clear: 17- to 29-year-olds preferred uncle Bernie to her by a score of 84-14. That's an extraordinary gap and just the demographic a campaign needs to breathe excitement into a national effort. Young people don't know why they should support a 69-year-old former First Lady for President. 

If she is to follow Barack Obama, she'll need to answer that question better than she has so far.

Nick DeLuca is the chairman of Open Road

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