Ted Cruz has “cruised” to victory — to use the term adopted by a thousand tired pundits — in the Iowa caucuses, winning the contest with 27.6% of the votes, to Donald Trump’s 24.3%. A surprising close third was Marco Rubio, breathing fire on Trump’s neck, with 23.1%. After that it dropped away, with Crazy Ben Carson on 9.3%, Rand Paul on 4.5%, and then, in a desperate sixth place, Jeb Bush with 2.8% — scarcely more than that of a joke has-been like Mike Huckabee, who got 1.8%.

The results give Cruz eight delegates, Trump and Rubio seven each, and the others with one each down to Bush. Around 185,000 votes were cast — a large turnout, for a state with 2 million adults, about 500,000 of whom identify as Republican.

On the other side, the Democrats had a turnout of over 170,000, with a narrow victory by Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This was reported by some boneheads as being a matter of four individual votes, which would be a more or less dead heat. In fact, the Democrats record the votes based on a pool of about 1400 votes, based on a formula too complicated to go into here. Clinton won by 701 votes to 697, of the 1406 “chunks” the 170,000 votes are divided into (Martin O’Malley, the quixotic, i.e. pointless candidate, got eight, and promptly dropped out).

The Republican result is a loss for Trump to be sure, and is being portrayed as anything from minor setback to major disaster. It certainly isn’t the latter. Trump was polling behind in Iowa until two to three weeks ago, and most of the polls from then predicted the Cruz-Trump result accurately. So what happened in the intervening weeks? It may be a simple matter of the saturation effect — Trump was so much in the news that an extra tranche of people said “hell yeah, I’m gonna vote for him” when asked (possibly, since so many of these polls are radio-news and newspaper driven, with a degree of push polling). Thus by caucus night, Trump was polling between 27-31%. He fell about four points short of the mid-point of that range.

That unquestionably shows a Trump distortion effect in the polls. They all said the Donald would win it, save one or two out of about 30. So you could reasonably take 4-5% off Trump and redistribute it in other state polls.

The bad new for the Republican establishment is that this doesn’t put much of a dent in Trump’s possible future victories. He’s running 20 points ahead in New Hampshire, 14 in Maryland, 17 in South Carolina, 13 in Nevada. You could adjust those down and he would still win handily.

Yet of course it is still far more complicated than that. From now, the minors may start dropping away. Mike Huckabee has announced that he’s dropping out (he won Iowa in ’08, got 1.8% this time. Fortune is fickle, and symmetrical). Fiorina, Kasich, Christie, Rand Paul and hahaha Santorum will soon be gone, maybe. Only the votes of Huckabee, Paul and Santorum are likely to go Trumpwards, and they may be split between Trump and Cruz. The rest will go overwhelmingly to Rubio as the “stop Trump, stop Cruz” candidate. Bush’s votes will go there too, so much as anyone cares. That leaves Pharaoh Carson the First, with his seven to nine points of hardcore evangelicals. They would go to Trump and Cruz in some combo, rather than Rubio. But the Pharaoh may well stay in the race for the long haul, just to make a point, or represent. He won’t let his people go.

It’s also worth remembering that some of these characters with a state or region-based following may stay in for reasons other than the delusion of eventual victory. With there being a goodly chance of no one getting the numbers in the primary season, and the convention becoming, for the first time in decades, the place where the candidate is chosen, anyone who can amass some dozens of candidates may be in a very good position indeed to ask for anything they want, up to and including the VP slot. They only need to keep the money coming and to outlast the other minnows.

The close third of Rubio is being described as some sort of miracle, surprise, etc. Hardly that. A glance at the depleted votes of the lesser candidates indicate what happened — earlier than usual, people deserted their favoured son or daughter for the best “stop Trump” candidate. Since Rubio was the clear third runner, there wasn’t a lot of discussion needed. That early move, more than anything, may be what drives other candidates out of the race, the shiny baubles at the end of the run notwithstanding. Kasich, Paul, maybe Christie, maybe Fiorina are viable for a future run — they wouldn’t want to be polling zeroes, talking to empty diners this time round.

So, the upshot. No one knows for sure, but Trump certainly hasn’t collapsed on contact with sunlight/reality, as some presumed. This is a man who doesn’t rule out a third-party candidacy polling a quarter of the votes on a cold night in Iowa. That crossing of the polling/voting barrier was the main event of last night. It’s also worth noting that, until Trump came along, it was Ted Cruz who was seen as a dangerous anti-party animal, going whereth he wilt, effectively running against the Republican party. These two, between them, have a majority of the Republican votes. Hardly a stable situation, though no doubt it’s all Obama’s fault. More on Mr Cruz tomorrow.

On the Democratic side, well, the draw is an actual draw — even if only because the pundits calling it a win for Hillary or Bernie cancel each other out. Team Hillary was pathetically claiming a victory, as if it were a French cricket game, or no one could read two numbers beside each other. But the only result that would have made a real difference would have been a catastrophic loss by either, which would have either sunk Bernie decisively or given him the wherewithal to reach into states where his support is three agricultural college students who’ve read a book, and the Democratic organiser sent to get them to vote. Now, as it stands, Sanders will win New Hampshire, lose the next two, and hit the reef of Super Tuesday on March 1, which is largely southern. From there all he has to do is stay in to get a crack at New England, New York and the mid-coast, the rustbelt and California. Whatever it will be, it won’t look anything like Obama’s surge. But it is not impossible, by any means. No cruising to victory here, but the nation’s favourite Larry David lookalike might be feeling pretty, pretty good at the moment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey