The people of Iowa have chosen their presidential favorites, but the potentially race-altering impact of those votes is only just beginning to reverberate.
Take Ted Cruz. Does his victory Monday make him the new front-runner or simply the latest candidate destined to win Iowa and lose most everywhere else? Likewise, does Bernie Sanders’ photo-finish second place count as a surprisingly strong showing or a near-miss? We won’t know until more voters, from other states, start to join the fray.
Next up is New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary, which leaves confident candidates a bare week to build on their Iowa momentum, and disappointed ones the same seven days to undo any damage.
Derided as these early contests sometimes are — for privileging two small states with overwhelmingly white voters — New Hampshire and Iowa really do set the terms for the nominations process.
Since 1976, only one candidate has managed to claim a nomination without capturing at least one of these two early states. And that candidate — Bill Clinton — pulled off a surprisingly strong, if not quite winning, performance in New Hampshire in 1992.
Iowa alone may not be a great predictor. But by next Tuesday, when New Hampshire voters have had their say, the contours of the presidential race should be a lot clearer.
Here’s what each of the candidates needs to accomplish before then if he or she wants to be a contender a week from now.
Cruz’s victory wasn’t a complete surprise. Iowa is friendly country for Cruz, given the large numbers of evangelical Christians and people who describe themselves as “very conservative” — two groups known to be in his camp. And polling had long shown Cruz fighting Trump for the Iowa lead.
New Hampshire is a different story, with a much smaller number of evangelical voters and less of an appetite for Cruz. With poll numbers consistently in the 10-13 percent range, Cruz is some 20 points behind Trump.
For that reason, a Cruz win in New Hampshire is wildly unlikely. But if he can close the gap with Trump, and finish a competitive second, that would cement his standing as a leading competitor.
Even if he underperforms, expectations are low enough that he can probably regroup as the primaries move south to states with larger evangelical populations.
Trump needs to demonstrate that he can win — and fast.
Placing second in Iowa probably isn’t the death knell for Trump, since he never really had a secure lead. But a loss in New Hampshire — where he’s up by over 20 points in the polls — could be fatal, dissolving Trump’s aura of invincibility and melting his presidential hopes.
Yet, if the risk is high, so is the opportunity for redemption. Should Trump hold his big lead, and emerge next Tuesday as the clear and definitive victor, it would confer a whole new kind of real-world legitimacy on his campaign.
Finishing third in Iowa was a triumph for Rubio, who has struggled to break free of the peloton of second-tier candidates.
Suddenly, Rubio looks to be the clear leader among establishment Republicans, earning three times more support in Iowa than Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich combined.
If he can repeat that showing in New Hampshire, his mainstream rivals may quit en masse, leaving Rubio alone as the party standard-bearer moving into the thick of primary season. And with Cruz and Trump potentially fighting it out for insurgent voters, the insider-supported Rubio might find his path to victory relatively smooth.
But this outcome is far from assured. Recent polls show Rubio behind Kasich and just a nose ahead of Bush. If he ends up in the middle, come primary day, the Republican field could stay crowded for a long time.
Every other Republican
New Hampshire provides the last, best chance for flagging candidates to turn things around. Bush, Christie, Carly Fiorina, and others are each hoping for a version of the success Rubio enjoyed in Iowa — not victory necessarily, but enough of a bump to make them look newly viable.
Otherwise, it’s probably time to drop out. No candidate has ever won the nomination, after starting poorly in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Close though the final tally was, Hillary Clinton stopped Sanders from claiming victory, which was important, because she probably won’t be able to stop him in New Hampshire.
With Iowa behind them, the Clinton campaign is probably looking past New Hampshire to South Carolina, where Clinton’s big advantage with minority voters could ensure a first decisive win.
Still, she has to get through New Hampshire first. Winning is probably too much to expect, given her double-digit deficit in the polls, but assuming she avoids an embarrassing performance, Clinton’s status as the likely nominee probably won’t be tarnished.
The big question for Sanders is how much momentum he gets from being close in Iowa — closer than expected, and close enough that coin-tosses seem to have made the difference at several caucus sites.
To ultimately win the nomination, Sanders needs to develop an image as the unstoppable, ever-climbing candidate of 2016, attracting voters to a campaign that bills itself as a political revolution. It’s not clear whether his finish in Iowa was enough to advance that cause.
A New Hampshire win wouldn’t tell us this either, though. The state is a poor test of Sanders’ viability, not just because he has a near-home-field advantage but also because New Hampshire lacks the kind of demographic diversity that Sanders must ultimately attract in order to prevail.
Even a big Sanders victory in New Hampshire may not provide much of a boost in the states ahead. By the same logic though, a loss, or an unexpectedly close finish, could be deflating, as voters would see Sanders underperforming in his easiest state.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the Unites States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.