What We Learned from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses

Photo courtesy of Hillary Clinton via Twitter.

After a long, tense night throughout the state of Iowa, two presidential candidates were declared the first winners of the 2016 presidential election cycle. Political pundits and analysts went back and forth for weeks as to who they believed would win in Iowa. But with polls showing neck-and-neck races on both sides, predicting a winner was all but impossible. In the end, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton emerged victorious in the first primary contest of 2016.

Cruz surprised many by defeating frontrunner Donald J. Trump by four percentage points. Trump, who came away with 24 percent of the vote (according to CNN), finished in second place ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. In perhaps the biggest surprise of the campaign, Rubio was far more successful in Iowa than many predicted — finishing in third place with 23 percent of the vote and just one point shy of Trump.

On the Democratic side, Clinton narrowly defeated Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The race was about as tight as it could’ve been between the two candidates, with Clinton taking 49.8 percent of the vote and Sanders falling just short at 49.6 percent. The victory was by no means decisive and both candidates will get roughly the same number of Iowa delegates at the DNC nominating convention this summer.

With Iowa officially in the rearview mirror, here are a five takeaways from the first primary contest of the campaign and a look ahead to the rest of the nominating process:

1) Iowa Saves Cruz

Over the last several weeks, Ted Cruz appeared to have entered a troubling decline. His polling numbers had fallen in Iowa and the GOP establishment continued to hammer him with attacks. Trump himself had also heightened his attacks on the senator, bringing particular attention to whether or not Cruz is even eligible to run for president since he was born in Canada (to a U.S.-citizen parent).

While it’s impossible to know what would’ve happened if Cruz had lost Iowa, there’s a good chance that it would’ve been a near-fatal blow to his campaign. Trump still holds a strong lead in New Hampshire and at the national level. If the real estate mogul pulled off the win in Iowa, he likely would have run the table and faced a relatively easy path to the nomination.

But Cruz prevailed, and the race for the GOP nomination now appears to be more open than it was just a few days ago. The momentum from Iowa could propel Cruz’s campaign in New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond, and the simple fact that Trump isn’t invincible could give other candidates — such as Sen. Marco Rubio — a chance to chip away at Trump’s lead and win the nomination.

2) Trump Still the Frontrunner, But Not Invincible

Donald Trump entered the Iowa caucuses as the clear national frontrunner and many predicted his support among Republicans to translate into a big win in the state. Unfortunately for Trump, Rubio and Cruz chipped away at his support and ultimately handed Trump a disappointing second place finish.

While Trump’s finish in Iowa is still impressive, the fact that Cruz came out on top shows that the billionaire frontrunner is not invincible.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump could still win the Republican nomination. He’s the overwhelming favorite to win in New Hampshire and he may very well dominate the rest of the primary process. But Cruz and Rubio leave the Iowa caucuses with some much needed momentum, and it might just be enough to tip the scales in their direction in the race for the nomination.

3) Despite Slim Loss, The Bern Is Alive and Well

As we wrote prior to the caucuses, a win for Hillary Clinton gives her campaign a big boost and may very well give her a clear path to the nomination. But given how close the race was, Sanders’ campaign is likely celebrating just as much as the Clinton camp.

While Sanders ultimately fell short of a victory (by the slimmest of margins), he showed that he has what it takes to take on Clinton’s juggernaut campaign.

Should Clinton have come away with a decisive victory, it would’ve effectively ended Sanders’ campaign. But by taking nearly half of the vote and falling just a few decimals of a percentage point short, Sanders demonstrated just how serious his campaign is and ensured that the race for the Democratic nomination could drag on for months.

4) Clinton Avoids Disaster

If polls hold true, Sanders will win the New Hampshire primary in eight days. Had he come away with a decisive victory last night, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist would have won the first two primaries and carried immense momentum into South Carolina and beyond.

Losing the first two states would not have been fatal for Clinton, but it would’ve dealt a major blow to her frontrunner status and created even more doubts about her viability as a candidate. Her shocking loss in Iowa doomed her last presidential campaign, and many wondered if her ghosts of 2008 would return with another loss in the Hawkeye State.

Fortunately for Clinton, she survived her first major test of 2016 (though not without scars). She won by a very slim margin, but the most important thing for her campaign is that she didn’t lose. And for a frontrunner who still has a strong lead at the national level, surviving Iowa might be all it takes.

5) New Hampshire and Beyond

With Iowa officially in the rearview mirror, the race for the nomination should start to heat up even more on both sides of the aisle. The New Hampshire primary is coming up in just over a week, and primaries in South Carolina and Nevada will follow soon after.

Much like Iowa, the results in New Hampshire could have a great impact on the remainder of the race. For Sanders to keep his momentum going, he’ll likely have to come away with a decisive victory in New Hampshire. Polling averages from Real Clear Politics currently have him up by 18 points in the state, so a loss there at this point could be catastrophic for his campaign.

On the GOP side, Trump’s frontrunner status may very well hinge on how well he does in New Hampshire. Right now, Trump has a 21.7-point lead in the state. After a disappointing finish in Iowa, the realestate mogul will have to maintain that lead and come away with a decisive victory in the second early-voting state. In his way will be Cruz and Rubio, who could use their momentum from Iowa to pull off another upset in New Hampshire.

It’s still unclear how the remainder of the nominating process will play out for both parties. One thing’s for certain: The Iowa caucuses are over, but the race for the presidency is just getting started.