Clinton and Sanders tie in Iowa, Trump learns the hard way that field matters

With 99% of precincts reporting, it looks like Hillary Clinton has four more delegates than Bernie Sanders (696 to 692 — Martin O’Malley has eight delegates of his own). Raw vote totals are not reported on the Democratic side; only delegates. If you think that’s silly, then you can add it to the long list of reasons why we should ditch Iowa and make Washington, DC’s primary the first nominating contest.

Even if Sanders winds up on the other end of the narrow victory, though, it won’t change much. Either way, the effective tie in Iowa shows two things: First, that Sanders has undoubtedly succeeded in moving the Democratic Party to the left on core economic issues, taking Clinton along with it. Second, that Sanders could be very hard-pressed to translate an effective tie in Iowa to victories in less-white states around the country. He’s still the favorite to win New Hampshire, but Nevada and South Carolina will be real challenges for him.

But that was all true before Iowa Democrats caucused yesterday. Nothing about those results did much to change the dynamics of the race. On the Republican side, however, something big happened last night: Donald Trump lost.

Not only that, he almost came in third. With 99% reporting, Trump trails Ted Cruz 28-24, but Marco Rubio took 23 percent of the vote. Trump only edged the Florida Senator, who is literally three times the Christian Trump is, by one percentage point and about 2,000 votes. Before the caucuses began, Trump was citing poll after poll showing him ahead in Iowa, all but ensuring a win in the state. His dramatic underperformance relative to all of those polls can be attributed to a number of factors, but perhaps most significantly, it shows that campaigns matter. More specifically, it shows that investments in ground-level organizing and other basic aspects of campaign infrastructure, such as internal polling, matter quite a bit.

This is especially true in hotly contested, complicated processes that require significant investments from voters, like the Iowa caucuses. Republican campaigns are notoriously bad at field, but Trump didn’t even really pretend to have a ground-level operation. Based on what little we know about Trump’s field campaign, one of their most competent organizers was fired for being a woman. And she was working part time.

Trump’s campaign staff that did stay on the ground in Iowa committed basic organizing errors, and didn’t seem to do much by way of voter contact. As the New York Times reported last month:

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Some volunteers in charge of turning out supporters to caucus on Feb. 1 are given lists of all registered Republicans in their precincts to contact, ignoring the large number of independents and Democrats who appear to be leaning toward Mr. Trump. Moreover, the volunteers urge people to caucus regardless of whom they support, which risks turning out voters for Mr. Trump’s rivals.

Davenport appears to be a bright spot compared with other regions of Iowa, like rural Brooklyn, where the Trump precinct captain Clair Kuntz said he had not made any effort to contact people. “When I call, it’s not going to be any more than a week out,” he said, adding that he had yet to receive fliers describing Mr. Trump’s positions, a basic canvassing tool that campaigns provide.

Using an app, Ground Game 2, supplied by the Trump campaign, which also provided a list of prospects in his precinct, [a volunteer] placed calls to all eight names — as many as he had been given for the day by Trump headquarters.

So no matter how many Iowans told pollsters that they planned on voting for Trump, and no matter how many people showed up to Trump’s rallies, the campaign did practically nothing to translate pre-caucus support into actual votes when it mattered.

Which says something about campaigns. For despite the massive amounts of money, time and energy that goes into presidential politics every four years, there’s a well-established school of thought in political science which argues that in the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. Give me the unemployment rate, real GDP growth, the current president’s approval rating and whether we’re in a war, and you can predict with reasonable confidence who’s going to win the election — regardless of how many ads are run.

However, a slightly better way to frame that claim is that, in most cases, campaign effects are canceling. Candidate A runs their race, Candidate B runs their race, and since they invest a similar amount of resources and allocate them with similar levels of efficiency, the end result is a wash: barring any major scandals uncovered by particularly skilled opposition research, the candidate who was going to win all along turns out to be the candidate who wins.

Donald Trump just showed us what happens when one candidate unilaterally disarms, running entirely on a cult of personality driven by ego-boosting rallies and earned media (generated in large part through tweetstorms). His supporters consider it a badge of honor that he isn’t running a “traditional” campaign — he barely even ran any ads in Iowa — but one of Trump’s main takeaways from last night may very well be that, while perhaps overpriced, those consultants and quants aren’t totally full of it.

Trump’s decision to completely concede the ground war meant that Cruz and Rubio didn’t have to do all that much to make up some serious ground. Given that caucusers who decided late in the race broke predominantly to candidates not named Trump (Trump is consistently the first choice of many, but the second choice of few), Trump needed to hold serve with voters who decided earlier on. He didn’t have a ground game, which meant he couldn’t identify those voters and turn them out.

Turns out that campaigns do matter, after all.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • I’ve been paying attention to his demeanor this last day and he does seem to have lost some of the cocksure bravado. It’s looking like he really thought he was going to win in a cakewalk, and instead he just barely squeaked out 2nd place.

    I don’t think he’s going to be president either. I went from “he’ll never be the GOP nominee” to “god, he’s gonna be their nom” to (now) “he probably won’t be their nom and even if he is, the professional politicians will eat him for breakfast because he has no clue what opposition research can really do.” For sure, he’s brought a new dynamic to the situation, this idea that he doesn’t need a ground operation and doesn’t have to run many ads in order to get a shitload of media coverage, but when it comes down to GOTV, he has nothing. Hell, Cruz showed how election night rat-fuckery is done, with his people telling Carsons supporters that Mental Ben had dropped out.

    In any case, I agree with you: I don’t think Trump has thought through or planned for this. All it’ll take is a few more setbacks like what happened in Iowa and he’d end up as a Jeopardy question’s answer in 2025.

  • Yeah…and his followers aren’t typically the sharpest knives in the drawer, so the ‘registering to vote’ and ‘get to the polling place on election day’ parts seem to have a lot of ’em flummoxed.

  • The_Fixer

    I doubt anyone but Trump knows the reasons why he is running.

    The problem, if indeed he is doing this solely to boost himself as a brand, is… what is he going to do when he loses – like he did last night in Iowa? How does he spin that as “winning”?

    Regardless of what effort he makes, and regardless of how far he goes before he is out of the race (or not President, in the event he is the nominee), he still has to face the eventuality of having to explain that he’s a winner when he’s clearly lost (I am certain the he will not be President).

    For being a supposedly smart man, I don’t think he’s actually thought this through. Perhaps he has, and has come to an erroneous conclusion. Either way, being an outrageous clown is not how most egomaniacs wish to be remembered.

  • Don Chandler

    remember, he could shoot someone and his followers would still vote for him…the only problem seems to be he doesn’t have enough followers ;)

  • I read the same article over on Salon (then followed the link to Politico’s original reporting) and it made some sense. Trump has gotten more free air-time than any other candidate out there. Fox, MSNBC, CNN — ALL of them have been carrying Trump’s speeches almost without commercial interruption. All of them have breathlessly and obsessively reported on his every movement, Tweet, and outrageous pronouncements. At least once, Trump has admitted to deliberately saying crazy shit just to keep himself in the news cycles.

    I loathe the man and I do believe he’s a malignant narcissist on a megalomanical bender, but I have to give him credit for being the single biggest and most successful professional troll I’ve ever seen.

    But it was Salon which characterized this as a ‘long-con’ as if the author there couldn’t quite believe Trump was serious about winning. I think he is. I also think he means to win in a brand new way, by making the entire American media conglomerate pay for his campaign, not totally unlike his crazy claim that he can make Mexico pay for a border wall. Trump barely needs to run any 30 or 60 second ads: He just announces he’s going to give a speech and he gets wall to wall hours-long coverage.

    The real question will be does he really want to BE president or does he just want to win? Personally, I’m thinking it’s mostly the latter and yes, if and when he starts to lose, when he has to deal with the reality of setbacks and disappointments, we’ll find out how much it’s one or the other.

  • I’m certainly glad Sanders has been pulling the Dems and Clinton to the left. It’s about damned time.

    But for me the bright spot was Trump not winning in Iowa. (In the past, he’s constantly smugly retweeted that quote about “Nobody remembers who came in second.”) In addition, given the way the delegates are awarded and the narrow margin between Trump and Rubio, the result is they actually tied for second place, with both being awarded 7 delegates each. (Cruz gets 8.)

    I was a little surprised Trumpy didn’t have a meltdown after he lost, but not totally. Still, over the next few days, look for him to haul out the long knives to go after both Cruz and Rubio.

  • Skye Winspur

    Very good post, Jon. I’ve heard the “unemployment + GDP growth + wartime” explanation before … now that the Afghan war has no prospect of ever ending**, are political scientists going to clarify the equation?

    **although I have no doubt Bernie would abandon Afghanistan as president, Karzai and cronies be damned.

  • Glen Thompson

    The whole thing reminds me of an episode from “The Good Wife” right down to it being Iowa.

  • 2karmanot

    The Trumpenfuhrer: “His dramatic underperformance” Limp**** Loser

  • Don Chandler

    Problem with that theory is nobody wants to promote themselves as a loser…and trump is now a loser.

    One take: The republican party is using Trump to advertise their more serious candidates and rouse voter interest.
    Another take: Trump has effectively moved the debate to the far right in his party and the politicians have jumped on the wagon effectively. Sort of like Bernie moving things to the progressive side in the democrat race.

    But yeah, he’s always had that side of him that doesn’t seem like someone that is being serious.

    One person I know said his type of supporters are often the least likely to vote. That actually isn’t true with Bernie anymore. He got a tie in Iowa and that is a big time win. Hillary needs to convince people that she is a progressive…good luck with that.

  • Agreed. That doesn’t make Trump’s alleged actions okay, but wow. I can’t even think of an analogy that isn’t offense to the situation I’d compare this to.

  • judybrowni

    Hmmm, not to blamenthe victim, but didnt that woman ignore trumps obvious sexism to her own detriment?

  • The_Fixer

    I read an article yesterday that expressed the opinion that Trump had this all set up to prove that a candidate who spouted populist nonsense could actually get elected solely through a large media presence and little else. The author opined that Trump’s candidacy was actually a “long-con.”

    I’ve never thought he was that serious of a candidate, in spite of the apparent time and effort he’s put into it. As time went on, I figured that he was believing his own bullshit and might actually start to become serious, rather than give up and walk away. He brought Caribou Barbie into his campaign, a personality who spouts nonsense, has a certain popularity, but in all ways is a caricature of a serious politician and a grifter. She’s right up his alley (and of course, I am sure that he thinks she’s “beautiful”). His Twitter rants and bombastic comments are, according to the article’s authors, largely off-the-cuff, ad-lib things designed to confirm the biases of his audience – and they do. However, they’re primarily designed to get and keep his name in the public eye.

    In the end, it’s all in the service of self-promotion, but not for political purposes. I think that it’s some kind of amalgam of business and ego-centered self promotion. He is a brand – and promoting that brand as a Presidential candidate is what this is all about.

    Putting the work into a ground game is not what this is about – it’s using the media to promote himself. What better way to do that than to pretend to be a Presidential candidate. He can be in the news nearly constantly, and he insures that by saying the things he does. If he’s out of the news cycle, he tweets something outrageous or picks a fight with Rosie O’Donnell, Meagan Kelly, or anyone else he thinks can. Who needs a ground game when public outrage can do all the work?

    I think this will be the beginning of the end for him. He doesn’t want to be President, he wants to promote himself. It’s megalomania and cynicism at its best/worst. He’s a bullshit artist who wants his name out there, and a bunch of dumb-asses have swallowed his crap – hook, line and sinker. The question is, how long will he get away with it?

    On the other side, this is good news for Bernie, but Iowa and New Hampshire are only the early stages and not the best of indicators of future success for candidates of either party. He has succeeded in getting a message from the left out there, no matter what happens going forward. And of course, it puts a message out there for Hillary that it’s not a lock.

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