WTF Happened at the Iowa Caucuses, Explained

Trump is now officially a loser — in Iowa, at least — while Sanders and Clinton are locked in a "virtual tie"

The Bernie Sanders campaign called Monday's Iowa Caucus outcome a "virtual tie."
WTF Happened at the Iowa Caucuses, Explained

Following Monday night's Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton has claimed victory over Bernie Sanders, and the Iowa Democratic Party says she barely eked out a win, after a race so close some precincts needed to be decided by a coin flip. Sanders called the outcome a "virtual tie." 

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz — buoyed by evangelical voters and a strong ground game — scored a convincing win, turning the GOP's billionaire frontrunner into Miss Colombia for the evening. There will be no coronation for Donald Trump. Instead, a strong showing by Marco Rubio — who tied Trump's delegate haul, despite trailing him by more than 2,000 votes  — has the potential to turn the Republican contest into a three-horse race.

Here's what you need to know. 


What is this "virtual tie" stuff? Tell me who really won in the Democratic race.
Prepare to get frustrated: There's no way to know which Democrat won Iowa as a matter of raw votes.

Iowa Democrats don't practice direct democracy. Under the convoluted rules of the party's caucus system, nobody keeps a grand vote tally. Instead, the contest is fought, precinct by precinct, over each precinct's share of county-convention delegates. In several precincts there were ties or disputed counts, leaving "orphaned" delegates to be apportioned by a coin flip. No joke. Clinton reportedly won six such coin flips.

Adding to the complexity: The county delegate count then gets re-calculated as the "state delegate equivalent" tally published by most news outlets. As of early Tuesday morning, Clinton led that count 700 to 695, a difference of just 0.4 percent.

Measured by delegates to the national Democratic convention — the most important outcome — Clinton appeared to edge Sanders 23-21.

So who won, politically?
The outcome is good for Clinton — but not fatal for Sanders. The Sanders campaign strategy had been to win the first two contests, puncture Clinton's air of inevitability, and build, delegate by delegate, to the convention. The split decision demonstrates that Sanders' "political revolution" has real power — but hasn't yet built enough muscle to topple the Clinton juggernaut.

For Clinton, this result takes disaster — a repeat of her painful loss to Barack Obama in 2008 — off the table. Equally important, it leaves Clinton prepared to absorb a blow in New Hampshire, where Sanders is the heavy favorite, before turning to South Carolina, where Clinton hopes to begin building her "Big Mo."

Who showed up?
The Democratic candidates drew two competing electorates Monday night.

The age splits were striking — with the line of demarcation in the party being age 45. Those younger swung heavily for Sanders; those older favored Clinton by a wide margin. At the extremes, the numbers are almost shocking: Sanders won 84 percent of caucus-goers under 30. Clinton won 69 percent of caucus-goers over 65. 

Sanders lost most of the single-issue voters (health care, terrorism, the economy). But he routed Clinton 61-34 among the quarter of the Iowa electorate that rated "income inequality" as the most important issue.

In the clearest, most revealing split, Clinton won 88-10 among caucus-goers who valued experience. Sanders won 83-10 among caucus-goers seeking a candidate who is  "honest and trustworthy."


I want to hear it again: Trump lost?
You heard that right. Despite a Monday morning Des Moines Register poll showing Trump leading Cruz 31-24, Cruz emerged victorious at the caucus, 27.7 to 24.3 percent.

How did Cruz do it?
Cruz has rightly earned praise for the sophistication of his campaign machinery — likely the best on the GOP side. And his investment in a ground game paid off handsomely. By contrast, Trump has been running on his national brand, and never invested the money or face time that it typically takes to organize a caucus victory.

On the issues: Cruz won over Iowa's "very conservative voters" (40 percent of the GOP electorate) by a 43-21 margin over Trump. He also scored big among white, born-again Christians (62 percent of Iowa Republicans), 31-21. For his part, Trump won over voters who rated immigration as their top issue, and romped among those who want a candidate who "tells it like it is" — 67-11 over Cruz. 

What does this mean, politically?
This is obviously a big win for Cruz. But it is tempered, somewhat, by Iowa's recent track record as a POTUS proving ground. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were the last two winners in Iowa, also on the strength of their resonance with conservative evangelicals, but neither made a serious run at the nomination. The open question is whether Cruz can turn his caucus momentum into something bigger than the eight delegates he won on Monday. 

Trump, loves to lampoon losers. Can he handle a loss of his own? His Twitter account was eerily quiet in the aftermath of Cruz's victory. If Trump dusts himself off and romps in New Hampshire, a primary state where his poll numbers are strong and ground game matters less, Iowa likely doesn't hurt much. But if Iowa signals that Trump's core of support is among unlikely voters — folks who can't be counted on to show up on Election Day — the long prophesied implosion of his campaign could be at hand.

The biggest political mover Monday night was Marco Rubio, who scored a solid third-place showing and actually tied Trump with seven national convention delegates. Inside the GOP, there's strong support for an establishment candidate. The trouble, to date, is that this support is split among at least five candidates. Rubio's strong showing in Iowa — besting Jeb!, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina — underscores the Florida senator's argument that he should be the mainline GOP's new standard bearer. If Rubio can begin to clear the establishment field with another impressive showing in New Hampshire, he could have running room. In Iowa, Rubio was the top choice of GOP voters who were looking for experience, electability and economic stewardship — and he was far and away the top choice of late deciders.

Anything else I need to know?
The GOP electorate was 97 percent white.