DONALD TRUMP’S PRESIDENTIAL campaign came slightly unstuck at the first hurdle last night as he lost out to Texas senator Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses, the first votes balloted in anger in what is set to be a very long campaign.
Common perception around the globe, and certainly in America, had been that Trump was set to take his first step towards earning the Republican nomination for the presidency, quite the journey for a candidate initially seen as a no-hoper.
That he didn’t do so is the first stumbling block that the former reality star’s political juggernaut has hit in months.
So what went wrong? No less a media outlet than the New York Times had called the entire GOP (Grand Old Party) presidential nomination as over 50% likely to go to Trump on the eve of Iowa. That’s the overall nomination, not just the Iowa caucus. How did everyone get it so wrong?
Iowa is important, but it’s also small and hard to predict
Through a truly convoluted series of historical political actions, Iowa is permanently installed as the first US state to conduct its nomination caucuses every four years. It’s one of the few things that the midwestern state is internationally renowned for. Once the race kicks off properly it will be a flyover for the most part for candidates of all sides. But at the very beginning, it’s the most important state of all.
Iowa’s population (very small, at roughly three million) and demographics (very, almost 92%, white, very conservative) are not indicative of the nation as a whole. It’s also significantly more complicated to vote in a caucus than in a regular election, meaning that most of those who do so tend to be a bit more politically savvy than your average citizen.
General turnout in Iowa for the Republican caucus has often been in the 120,000 region. Last night’s turnout was 185,000. With such a small population a big shift in voting (last night saw an increase of 5.4% on the turnout in 2012) patterns can leave a situation looking very different from what’s expected.
Trump doesn’t understand the importance of grassroots political action
The end result of the Iowa caucus was a formality. That’s what Team Trump had been telling everyone who would listen for months now. And a lot of people listened. As Trump himself tweeted back in December 2013: “No one remembers who came in second”. Trump’s never-ending certainty and conviction that losing is something he simply does not do, and his constant citing of his advantages in the polls, left most considered commentators forgetting that anything can happen in politics.
“One of the biggest difficulties with something like this is that polls are generally an awful predictor of what’s going to happen,” Samuel Brazys, lecturer at the UCD school of politics, tells TheJournal.ie.
Trump supporters are the kind of voters that pollsters have little experience of, and little understanding of. Having enormous rallies is one thing, getting these people to vote is another.
And it seems that many of them didn’t vote. The flipside is that Ted Cruz’s army of grassroots activists have been working in Iowa for some time, knocking on doors and getting the vote out in a way that Trump has essentially not bothered with.
“This is an understandable mistake,” says Brazys. “This is his first election after all.”
Skipping the final debate was a mistake
Trump’s decision to opt out of the final Republican debate before the caucus proper now seems to have been one giant misstep.
His feud with Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, which guaranteed his absence, left the stage open to his competitors, and it seems they may have made hay while the sun shined, particularly Cuban American Marco Rubio whose polling has jumped from circa 10% to 23% in a matter of weeks.
Slowly but surely Trump may learn that you can get so far with extensive media savvy and a bulldozing personality (and the distance Trump has come is extraordinary, and almost entirely something he hasn’t had to pay for), but you may find that at some stage playing to certain political conventions is a necessary evil.
Turning poll numbers into reality is a political skill Trump may not yet have mastered
The Donald’s endless citing of the polls has become one of the tropes of this election – talking about how high he’s riding in them has become his default substitute for coherent policy or debating rhetoric.
But unfortunately polls don’t count for anything in the heel of the hunt. “For the most part conventional rules haven’t applied to the Trump campaign,” says Brazys.
Now the Iowa result may prove something of a wake-up call for him. Having a good ground game is essential, and Ted Cruz has that. But it costs a lot of money; he seemed to think that he could sail right through with massive rallies but not get out there to meet the common man.
You need people on the ground to do the hard work.
What’s next for Trump?
Losing Iowa is far from the end for the Trump bandwagon (George W Bush is the only Republican candidate to have won Iowa and gone on to claim the presidency in the same year in recent memory), but he’s going to have to pick himself up quick-smart. The next vote is in New Hampshire (a primary, or state-wide secret ballot similar to the Irish voting process, rather than a caucus) in a week’s time on 9 February.
The big problem for Trump is that he has so frequently described himself as a winner, that once that has been disproved the stigma may be difficult to shake.
“It’s not a surprise how well Cruz did in Iowa,” says Brazys. “It’s an arch-conservative state, exactly the kind you would expect to vote heavily for a staunch evangelical conservative.”
The big surprise is how Rubio surged. To more than double his support in a couple of weeks is very impressive.
Often when support coalesces a more moderate candidate will emerge as a credible alternative. That’s what seems to have happened in Iowa with Marco Rubio.
All of which doesn’t sound too positive for Team Trump. Nor for Ted Cruz. Neither of the two men are popular with the Republican hierarchy, regardless of whether or not Trump means what he says (as Cruz certainly does) or if he’s just saying what he believes is necessary in order to get elected.
New Hampshire in a week’s time is beginning to look very important for the billionaire’s political future.