Iowa Recap (No, I’m Not Waiting for All Precincts)

Hi! Fun last 24 hours, eh? I have lots to say on the future of the Iowa Caucus, what recent disaster this mess reminds me of, and a pile of other things, but this can all wait until we take a look at the data we have and the immediate lessons from it as it relates to the candidates. For now, we have 62% of precincts reporting, with at least some results from all 99 counties. It’s my strong belief that nothing crucial will change between now and when everything is in.

Let’s start by comparing what happened to my pre-caucus assumptions. I didn’t think Mayor Pete would win the caucus, so can’t declare victory, but overall I’m proud of myself. Here’s what played out as expected:

Andrew Yang beat his poll numbers by a little, but couldn’t reach viability most of the time.

Bernie Sanders got the most first alignment votes, and added to that on the second round, winding up with the most votes overall.

Pete Buttigieg benefitted the most from how the caucus works, picking up a good amount of final alignment votes, distributing his support to State Delegate Equivalents (SDEs) better than any other candidate, passing someone who started out ahead of him.

Elizabeth Warren would do ok, and pick up a few more votes in final alignment, but would get hurt by the SDE allocation, because her viability, particularly in IA-4 wasn’t as consistent as Buttigieg.

And then there were a few things that were different:

Turnout was disappointing. Looks like it will be the same or slightly less than 2016, roughly 70% of the record in 2008.

Klobuchar didn’t fade at the end with potential voters thinking she wasn’t going to make it. Instead, she contributed to Biden failing to reach viability in many precincts and wound up almost even with him.

That lower turnout cost Bernie the votes he needed to stay ahead of Buttigieg in SDEs. It also looks like some of the older voters who Biden needed decided to stay home. The percentage of over-65 participants dropped from 2016. My guess is they didn’t care enough about the difference between Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar to bother, but who knows.

The combination of Klobuchar doing a little better than expected and Biden worse wound up benefitting Buttigieg. There were many instances where neither of his competitors quite reached viability, leaving a lot of voters for him on final preference. The only way he could win was having Sanders near the middle/low-middle of his range, with neither Biden, nor Klobuchar able to pick up votes from the other on a consistent basis.

Let’s go candidate-by-candidate and see what else we can determine:

Pete Buttigieg: This is as much as he could have possibly hoped for. Based on the final poll set, there was little chance of him winning a resounding victory. Squeaking out a technical SDE win was best case. There’s a reason his first-ballot nomination odds dropped from 20% to 4% from Christmas to Caucus Day. Even winning, he’s nowhere near 50/50 yet.

He needed this badly. Here’s what he’s up against going forward:

Iowa is demographically one of his very best states. He spent a ton of time there. He spent more money than anyone not named Tom Steyer. The best candidate from a bordering state was Klobuchar. And even with Biden being unable to close, and Sanders unable to turn out tons of first-time voters, he still didn’t win the first alignment popular vote.

New Hampshire is well within reach, at least for a very strong second. Buttigieg has established a range in national, New Hampshire, and Iowa polling. He won Iowa without hitting the top of his range. At his peak, Mayor Pete would have won the popular vote too. This was like an 80th percentile outcome based on his standing between last May and now.

He polled better in Iowa than New Hampshire. A 95th percentile outcome in the Granite State would leave him in about the same position. The problem is New Hampshire is a normal primary system. People arrive, go in to a private voting booth and pick somebody. Under those rules, he finishes second in Iowa, a little closer to Warren in third than Sanders in first.

To win next Tuesday, Buttigieg needs a post-Iowa bounce that will leave him at about 110% of any previous New Hampshire standing. This will require lots of moderate Independents breaking in his direction, along with both Biden and Klobuchar losing some existing support to him, under the idea that Democrats need to nominate somebody more moderate than Sanders, and he’s the winning horse. I’m not going to say this is probable yet, but it’s possible.

However, this still wouldn’t make him even odds for the nomination. Two problems. One, African American voters. To be clear, it’s not all voters of color. Buttigieg is running at least as well with Asians as whites. He’s doing decently with Latinos. Remember, in national polling, he’s in upper single digits with white voters too. Aside from Biden who’s strongest, Sanders, Warren, Bloomberg, and Steyer have all shown more ability to attract black voters than Buttigieg so far.

The second issue is Bloomberg, who is ahead of Buttigieg nationally. In several recent polls, there was a noticeable gap. Emboldened with Biden’s Iowa slip, Bloomberg is doubling his Super Tuesday ad spending. The two ex-mayors are in a pretty similar lane. It’s going to be a struggle for either to win any states that both are competing strongly in.

Buttigieg can’t keep Bloomberg from dropping another quarter bil. The only way he’s got the Super Tuesday jump on him is to finish far ahead of his center-left competition in New Hampshire (ideally winning) and then place a strong third in Nevada. We’ll worry about that part in a few days, but at the moment, he’d risk finishing fifth behind Sanders, Biden, Warren, and Steyer in some order. That won’t do.

These visible obstacles and weaknesses aside, one thing became brutally clear to his opponents yesterday. Team Buttigieg has their shit together. His precinct captains performed flawlessly, both in moving support their way and passing clean data back to headquarters, allowing Mayor Pete to accurately claim victory with almost zero publicly available data. For all of his even demeanor, that declaration was even bolder than Hillary Clinton claiming a win in 2016 when there were still plenty of precincts reporting. In terms of framing, it’s probably the most effective since Bill Clinton called himself the “Comeback Kid” after losing to Paul Tsongas by double-digits in New Hampshire back in 1992.

One of the toughest tasks for any campaign is to accurately know exactly where you’re at, keeping from panic or failing to seize an opportunity. Well done guys.

Bernie Sanders:

I’m going to argue this was the perfect outcome for Bernie. Of the four candidates who combined for a 98% chance of winning, Buttigieg was the one made least safe. Had Biden won, this would be close to over. If Warren had bested Bernie, he’d have plenty of chance to recover in New Hampshire, but it would be a dogfight between the two for progressive supremacy for the next several months.

Not only is Buttigieg the least dangerous (for now), but Sanders won two of the three measures. He can and will point out that the greatest amount of Iowans showed up to caucus for him. Even after realignment, he was still ahead. Only the particular arcane rules cost him a win. This almost definitely happened to him in 2016 too. Because of that experience, his team lobbied to have the raw vote totals released. This requirement encouraged the Iowa Democratic Party to use the app that failed.

So Bernie didn’t have to give a concession speech last night, and some of Buttigieg’s win is blunted. Most importantly, the Berners will be fired up like never before heading to New Hampshire, and perhaps more crucially, the Nevada caucus. Sanders is a clear favorite in New Hampshire and is in good position for Nevada. Turnout is always questionable for him, since a part of his base isn’t in the habit of regularly voting. Now many of his volunteers are feeling wronged. There’s gonna be energy.

The moderate side is now potentially split four ways (Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar, Bloomberg.) And Sanders finished ahead of Warren in one of the couple states where she had the best chance of besting him. You can reasonably argue now, if she couldn’t beat him in Iowa, where will it happen? Perhaps in her home state of Massachusetts, but she’s not getting the nomination over him, even as a compromise choice, if he finishes ahead of her in 75% or more of the contests.

Sanders has now replaced Biden as the most likely, if still short of 50/50 odds, nominee. If he can win New Hampshire and Nevada by several points each, neither of which is a reach, he’s the favorite against the field. Make no mistake, Bernie had a very good Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren: Strategically, Warren had a bad night. Based on polling numbers, which had her fourth on average, her first alignment results were strong, closer to Buttigieg in second than Biden in fourth. Warren’s ground game worked. She didn’t close the gap with the two ahead of her, who had successful efforts themselves, but the difference between Team Warren and Team Biden was clear. She is boasting about finishing ahead of the former VP and former presumptive front runner, no small achievement.

But what now? Where does she move ahead of Bernie? He’s got double her poll numbers in New Hampshire. Nevada is notably light on the type of progressives with post-graduate degrees who form her base. She shares upscale, educated voters with Buttigieg and Klobuchar. The most moderate/centrist of them would likely move to Biden (or more likely later on Bloomberg), and the most progressive are already with her. But there are some semi-moderate voters who would prefer a female candidate who can still pick Klobuchar. And voters looking for an eloquent candidate with a lot of brainpower, who can win, are now able to stay with Buttigieg or move over to him.

A year ago, Warren might have happily taken this result. And it will be more than a minute until the nomination is locked down by anyone. I just don’t see her path right now. Much as Bloomberg is waiting on the sidelines, running ads, and hoping for the right pieces to come together, Warren will need to hang in, finish second or third more often than fourth or fifth, and wait for just the right sequence of events to have a shot at controlling her own destiny again.

Joe Biden: Ugh. It could have been worse. The impeachment trial could have ended sooner or started later and Klobuchar could have had more time on the ground to close. She could have polled just a bit better and given wavering voters more thought she was surging. Another few voters here, another couple there, and Biden finishes fifth and is completely done. I don’t care how devoted he thinks his South Carolina supporters are, the electability candidate can’t finish fifth. Exactly zero candidates have finished fifth in a contested Iowa caucus and survived.

He’s in trouble, but those few extra voters, magnified in the final alignment, and further elevated in the SDE allocation, pushed him to a recoverable point. Biden now sits where George H.W. Bush did after finishing an embarrassing third behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in 1988. Ronald Reagan got knocked down in Iowa by Bush in 1980. Hillary was reeling in 2008. These things happen.

The challenge for Biden is he’s got multiple opponents to worry about. Reagan turned the tables on Bush in the New Hampshire debate. Bush bested Dole with an attack add, calling him “Senator Straddle.” Hillary had her moment where she teared up in a diner, and voters decided they weren’t quite ready to anoint Barack Obama just yet. He’s also going to be the worst debater on stage this Friday. Biden needs a moment. He needs to close successfully for the first time since November, 1972.

Winning would be a huge accomplishment, and vault him back into the nomination lead. More practical is a 4-3-2-1 finish from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. That would give him a fighting chance. He needs to beat Buttigieg to be in decent shape (which might mean finishing 3rd, might mean finishing 2nd), and must beat Klobuchar to stave off extinction.

Amy Klobuchar: She needs to finish ahead of Biden in New Hampshire to have any purpose in this race. We’ll worry about how she gets nominated after this is accomplished. More likely, this is like John Huntsman getting a ticket out of New Hampshire (GOP side) in 2012, or John Kasich in 2016. Yes, she closed relatively well and has a constituency of sorts. No, I don’t see how someone who only appeals to white voters over 50, usually with higher incomes, can contend for the nomination.

If you took Buttigieg, removed some of his funding capacity, shrunk his team, and eliminated his support among Gen Xers, and more moderate Millennials, you’d have Klobuchar. Who just lost to him by double digits in a state bordering hers. Half the counties she won literally border Minnesota. But she can end Biden’s political career in 7 days. They’re not separated by *that* much in New Hampshire polls. Independents may like her better. And she’s spent limited time there. A good debate, plus a few days on the ground and she’s a spoiler to reckon with.

Andrew Yang: He won’t say so out loud, but Iowa was a disappointment. He didn’t spend January on a bus, careening from one corner of Iowa to another, to wind up with 1% of the SDEs. Yang’s slim odds of being a major factor (if not a nominee) in the race took a big hit. In retrospect (and I’m pretty sure I mentioned this ahead), Yang would have been far better served camping out in New Hampshire and contesting 2016 Trump voters with Tulsi Gabbard, along with the sort of ornery New Englanders who voted for Ron Paul. There was a path to 10-12% in New Hampshire, and an extended run of relevance.

The story isn’t necessarily over. Yang has climbed up the acceptability ladder and now has high favorability numbers. It’s the exact opposite of Gabbard, who is also popular with wavering Trump voters. Yang has qualified for the next debate, and whatever slings and arrows are flying, none will be at him. He’s got a chance of becoming the “pox on all their houses” candidate.

I don’t see how he gets nominated, but if the contest takes a long time to resolve, an increasingly likely prospect, there’s a universe where later state voters turn to him as a safe harbor from increasingly distasteful options, setting him up very well for the future.

Tom Steyer: This was always going to be his worst early state. I’d assumed he’d underperform his already modest (3.6%) final poll averages, but he wound up at about half, and then as expected, with few exceptions, wasn’t viable. Steyer’s best early state is South Carolina. Second best, Nevada. Third, New Hampshire. Waiting as a richer version of him on Super Tuesday, Bloomberg.

As long as underperforming a little doesn’t keep him from 5-7% in New Hampshire, and as long as that doesn’t prevent him from being fairly viable in Nevada, Steyer could shock everyone in South Carolina. He registered 18% in a recent survey from Change Research, and while they’re sometimes an outlier, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It’s also not his only poll in the mid-high teens. At this point, we shouldn’t assume anything regarding Biden. And Steyer is one of the few candidates to show strength with African American voters.

There’s no path to Nominee Tom Steyer. But a South Carolina upset would greatly impact the race. We’ll start finding out in New Hampshire if his Iowa finish mattered.

And the big winner…..Mike Bloomberg: It’s almost mathematically impossible for him to win a majority of delegates ahead of the convention. He’s rooting for chaos. There’s chaos. He needed Biden to stumble early. He did. He needed Sanders, who is less acceptable to the establishment to get the lead on Warren. He did. Having Klobuchar stick around a bit longer is even better. Either she holds down Biden’s vote a little in New Hampshire, and then exits, which still helps Bloomberg, or she finishes ahead of Biden, and Bloomberg’s wildest dreams come true.

His perfect world has Sanders winning New Hampshire, with Buttigieg and Klobuchar both finishing ahead of Biden, but not on Bernie’s heels. That’s very possible now. He’s got the second best nomination odds on PredictIt right now. I don’t agree. Until he actually does well on Super Tuesday, that’s way premature. But it shows how favorable the chessboard is becoming.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, when the final numbers are in, I don’t have to issue many retractions. Sanders may well close within fractions of Buttigieg on the SDE count. And Pete could get even closer to Bernie on the final alignment numbers. But most of the data crunchers are mostly comfy the current standings will hold.

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