If you predicted that Ted Cruz would beat Donald Trump by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton would beat Bernie Sanders, you deserve a special pundit medal of honor. But, the topsy-turvy results of the Iowa caucuses actually make some sense when you dig into the reasons behind them. In looking through the Iowa entrance/exit polls (voters are surveyed before they go into their caucus precincts as opposed to after they leave a polling place), what you find is that while Trump may have brought new people out to vote, he may have brought out as many detractors as supporters. Meanwhile, Sanders was able to hold Clinton to a tie not because he got a bigger group of younger or new voters into the process, but because he won by much bigger margins among those two groups than Obama did in 2008.
Donald Trump is a force of nature. But, as we learned in introductory physics class, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The prospect of a Donald Trump nomination indeed expanded the voting pool - but not all of those who turned out Monday night were excited to back Trump. Moreover, of the people who are regular voters, Trump lost by a wider margin than Rick Santorum did in the 2012 caucuses. According to the entrance polls, 45 percent of those who turned out to vote on Monday night had never caucused before - a seven point increase from 2012. But, Trump only won these voters by seven points (30 percent to 23 percent for Cruz and 22 percent for Rubio). In 2012, Ron Paul carried the first time caucus goers by 10 points. Meanwhile, among the 54 percent that had caucused before, Cruz handily beat Trump by 13 points. In 2012, Mitt Romney narrowly won this group over eventual winner Rick Santorum by four points. In other words, those “traditional” voters were much less enthusiastic about Trump in 2016 than they were Santorum in 2012; a signal that Trump’s appeal has a ceiling among the folks who most often turn out and vote in a GOP primary.
Another sign that Trump brought out as many traditional Republicans as non-traditional ones, is the fact that GOP voters were evenly divided about the prospect of electing a president who had experience in the political realm versus one who was “outside the establishment.” Back in late September, a national Pew poll found that just 29 percent of GOP voters thought that having “experience and a proven record” were the most important qualities for a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, a whopping 65 percent of GOP voters believed that “new ideas and a different approach” were the most important qualities for a presidential candidate to have. Under that scenario, a Trump victory looked probable. However, what we saw in Iowa on Monday night was a GOP electorate that was evenly divided on the question of insider vs. outsider. Forty-six percent wanted a president who had “experience in politics” while 48 percent wanted a candidate who was “outside the establishment.” Among those who valued experience, Rubio narrowly led Cruz 39 percent to 35 percent. Trump, meanwhile, took just THREE percent. Among those who valued an “outsider” Trump was dominant, taking 46 percent to Cruz’s 19 percent. However, the fact that almost as many Republicans valued experience as “outsider” credibility suggests that Trump brings out as many people fearful of his candidacy as those who are attracted to it.
On the Democratic side, the take-away here is enthusiasm: Sanders has it among younger, non-traditional voters, while Clinton has it among older, more experienced voters. On its face, the make-up of the Democratic electorate on Monday night should have benefited Clinton. Young voters (17-29) made up just 18 percent of the electorate according to entrance polls - a four point drop from 2008 when Obama-mentum brought scores of young college students to caucuses. Moreover, the percent of voters who said they were voting for the first time was just 44 percent - a 13 point drop from 2008. So, how did Sanders do so well when the electorate looked more like 2004 than 2008? He got a bigger percentage of the “insurgent” vote than Obama or Kerry had been able to do. In 2008, Obama won the 17-29 year old vote by 43 points. On Monday night, Sanders carried young voters by an overwhelming 70 percent (84 to 14 percent). And, while Obama carried first time caucus goers by 12 points in 2008, Sanders carried them by 22 points. The reason the overall outcome ended in Clinton squeaking by is that she did as well among older voters and more traditional caucus goers as Sanders did among young people and new voters. She won among those 65 and over by 43 points, and carried the 56 percent of Democrats who had caucused before by 24 points.
What does this all mean going forward? To be sure, Iowa is a quirky and often unrepresentative sample of the overall electorate. But, the dividing lines set here are likely to remain with us for a while. Sanders has deep support among those who are traditionally the least likely to turn-out - first time voters and young people, while Clinton does best among the more traditional and older segments of the Democratic electorate. On the Republican side, Trump is bringing a lot more attention and participation to the GOP side, but don’t assume that all of it benefits him.