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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