SKDK’S Doug Thornell Weighs in on Lessons from Iowa 5 lessons from Iowa

By Doug Thornell
Wed February 3, 2016

(CNN) The Iowa caucuses are history. Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to win the caucuses and Ted Cruz out-organized Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican field to take the top spot in the Hawkeye State. What does it all mean as the candidates head to New Hampshire for next week’s primary?

Here are five key takeaways:

1) Organization matters more than crowd size: For weeks, all we heard about was the size of Bernie Sanders’ and Trump’s crowds. They were packing gymnasiums, and even filling arenas. Anecdotally, this was supposed to be a sign of strength. But it is one thing to pack a gymnasium, it’s another to get those folks to go out and caucus for you on a cold night in February. Clearly, Trump has some work to do on the organizing front and Sanders, even though he finished a close second, still lost.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign for months has been touting its superior organization. The campaign knew where its voters were and turned them out. On the Democratic side, 64% of caucusgoers were over 45, and Clinton did extremely well with them. Looking ahead, this bodes well for the former secretary of state because her voters are more reliable when it comes to turnout, whereas Sanders voters will require more of a nudge.

Cruz, like Clinton on the Democratic side, had the best organization in Iowa and it paid off. He focused his message on very conservative voters and evangelicals, who made up a significant portion of the electorate, and he won big with them. Trump did well with moderates, but given that they only made up 14% of the Iowa electorate, that wasn’t good enough. He also either underperformed with, or didn’t turn out enough of, the white male, infrequent voter demographic that makes up the bulk of his support.

2) Bernie now has to deal with the expectation game: Sanders finished a surprisingly close second in Iowa, but now he has to deal with expectations that he will run away with New Hampshire. The Real Clear Politics average shows him with an 18-point lead, and the latest UMass/7 poll has him up 29 points! If Clinton is able to cut away at his lead and keep the margin of victory within single digits, she could plausibly take from her husband the mantle of the new “Comeback Kid” of New Hampshire. Even though expectations worked in Sanders’ favor in Iowa, they have now become a burden for him in New Hampshire. Sanders starts the last stretch of the campaign in New Hampshire as the clear favorite, but it’s the spread that matters here, and which candidate can claim the all-important “big mo” heading into Nevada and South Carolina.

3) Sorry Marco, but third means you lost: Ron Paul, the late Fred Thompson, Alan Keyes, Lamar Alexander: What do they all have in common? They all finished third in the four most recent competitive Iowa caucuses and none of them went on to become president. The only Republican to ever finish third or worse and win the presidency was Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. So I get why the Rubio folks are spinning his third place as victory, but the reality is that he entered the evening in third place and he left in third place. A participation trophy is nice for your kids, but in politics, you have to win somewhere.

Let’s not forget that Rubio camped out in Iowa for the last days of the campaign and spent a significant amount of money on television advertising, and yet he still lost to a reality star and a guy universally loathed within the Republican establishment. For Rubio and his team, expectations will be very high to do well in New Hampshire. In fact, given the media’s eagerness to write Trump’s obituary, you could argue that Marco should win New Hampshire.

If Rubio fails in New Hampshire, where will he succeed? South Carolina will be very tough for him. It’s a very conservative state and his record on immigration will be a vulnerability. I am circling Nevada: If he doesn’t win there, he will have a hard time making the case that his campaign should continue.

4) Democrats still love Obama and value experience: President Barack Obama and his policies remain very popular with Democrats. Entrance polling of Iowa showed that 55% of caucusgoers would like a president who will continue Obama’s policies, and among that group, Clinton won overwhelmingly. This should be a warning sign to the Sanders campaign as they head into more diverse states. Running on an agenda to dramatically overhaul what the President has accomplished, including getting rid of Obamacare, is fraught with danger within the Democratic nominating contest. At some point the Sanders team will need to refine its message for voters in the party who believe Obama has been a very good president.

Sanders has done a lot of things well, but if he doesn’t recognize and embrace the gains made under Obama, his inequality message will fall on deaf ears. In addition, most polls show Democrats want someone with experience as their nominee. And the entrance polls in Iowa back this up: 28% of caucusgoers wanted someone with the right experience, and among those voters, Clinton won with an astounding 88%.

Sanders needs to do better here, and he can. The reality is that he has been a politician much longer then Clinton and knows how Washington works. This runs a little counter to his message, but Democratic voters don’t want to turn the keys over to someone they worry will need on-the-job training. Sanders clearly doesn’t, but he needs to address this weakness.

5) Clinton needs to show she cares: The second most important issue to Iowa caucusgoers was finding a candidate “who cares about people like me.” Sanders dominated Clinton here, garnering 74% of their vote. This is a serious red flag for the Clinton campaign. In 2012, even though Romney was trusted more on the economy, voters felt that Obama cared more about them, and this helped him get reelected. But Clinton’s numbers should improve when we head into contests with more diverse electorates where she connects very well with African-Americans and Hispanics. Clinton is a fighter and voters like that about her, they always have.

This caring-gap is a fixable problem for her campaign. We need only remember back eight years when she limped into New Hampshire after losing Iowa where she finished third on the “caring” scale, and won a stunning upset over then-Sen. Obama. Along with winning the votes in that momentous New Hampshire victory, Clinton also handily beat Obama out as being the candidate who cares.

Perhaps we’ll see her do it again.

Doug Thornell is a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting and public affairs firm. He is the former spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was a senior adviser to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland. You can follow him @dthornell. The views expressed are his own.