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Myth-Busting: Seven Ways the Iowa Caucus Results Surprised the Pundits

The entrance polls of Iowa voters illustrated that some assumptions underlying the coverage of the 2016 election may not be accurate.

The entrance polls of Iowa voters illustrated that some assumptions underlying coverage of the 2016 election may not be accurate.

Here’s a look at a few of the myths, and what the entrance polls showed:

Myth 1: The American electorate is very, very angry

In entrance polls, Iowa GOP voters were asked if they were “angry” with government or “dissatisfied, but not angry.” Republicans in particular would seem to have strong reasons to be frustrated, since President Obama has pushed the country in a liberal direction during his tenure and blocked the agenda of the GOP congressional majority. And the Republican candidates, particularly Donald Trump, have aggressively highlighted the flaws of the federal government, constantly bashing leaders in both parties.

In the entrance poll, 42 percent of Republicans described themselves as angry with government, but 49 percent chose dissatisfied, but not angry.

Related: Iowa Caucus Results, Polls

This number may explain why Trump did not win Iowa and barely finished above Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Among the angry, 32 percent chose Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 30 percent Donald Trump and 18 percent Rubio.

Among those not as angry, Cruz won 26 percent, Rubio 25 percent, Trump 21 percent.

Myth 2: Republicans are obsessed with illegal immigration and that is a fatal flaw of Rubio’s candidacy

Asked their top issue in the entrance polls, 32 percent of GOP voters chose government spending, 27 percent said the economy, 25 percent terrorism, while just 13 percent indicated immigration. (This was a close-ended question, so Republicans could not name abortion, for example.)

Trump did very well among those who named immigration, winning 44 percent of that vote, compared to 34 percent for Cruz and just 10 percent for Rubio.

But that left 87 percent of voters who didn’t view immigration as their top issue.

At least in Iowa, Rubio’s support in 2013 for a bill backed by President Obama and many Democrats in Congress that would have granted a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants was not a political killer. And the caucuses were conducted four days after 12 million people watched a debate on Fox News in which the network showed a series of clips highlighting Rubio’s flip-flops on immigration policy.

Myth 3: Candidates must constantly visit Iowa to win

Rubio was widely criticized, at times even by his supporters in the state, for not visiting Iowa enough. It was constantly noted that his Iowa state director was from Arkansas, and that the candidate rarely ventured outside of the Des Moines area. Trump faced similar criticisms.

The Des Moines Register has tracked visits of candidates to Iowa since November 2012. According to the paper, ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum held 293 events in 95 days in the state, the most of any candidate in either party. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (222) and ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (191) were the next highest candidates in terms of hosting events.

Cruz, who won the state, did have the third-most events among Republicans. And it’s likely that Huckabee, O’Malley and Santorum visited Iowa so often because they were very long-shots, so a deep investment in the Hawkeye State was the only chance they had to become contenders.

That said, Rubio ranked 7th among Republicans in terms of events and Trump in 9th.

Myth 4: Bernie Sanders is the candidate of the rich liberals

About a fifth of the Democrats in Iowa said they had a post-graduate education. Clinton won that bloc, with 53 percent of the vote, compared to 39 percent for Sanders. About 20 percent of the Democratic electorate said their family incomes were more than $100,000. Clinton won 55 percent of this group, compared to 37 percent for Sanders.

In contrast, those with family incomes below $50,000 backed Sanders.

This may in part reflect Sanders’ appeal to young people, who tend to have lower-incomes than those who are older. In interviews, many of those under 30 in Iowa explicitly highlighted the Vermont senator’s plans to make college tuition-free at public universities. That idea may have special appeal to recent college graduates who are not earning as much as they would like and have large amounts of debt from school.

Myth 5: Trump has a gender problem

At least in Iowa, Trump won 25 percent of the male vote, 24 percent of the female vote.

Myth 6: Voters want someone from outside of traditional politics

The weak performances of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina suggest that Republicans do not necessarily prize outsider candidates, but simply Trump. In the entrance poll, 46 percent of caucus-goers said the next president should have experience in politics, while 48 percent wanted someone from outside the “political establishment.” Unsurprisingly, Trump won only 3 percent of those who wanted political experience, but 46 percent of those who favored an outsider.

It’s likely that voters chose a candidate, and then justified that answer by saying they wanted an insider or an outsider. If Trump’s polling lead holds in New Hampshire, exit polls may show lots of Republicans there prefer an outsider.

But the surge of Rubio combined with decline of Fiorina and Carson was telling, in that voters are not desperate for a non-politician. Sitting U.S. senators (Cruz, Rubio and Rand Paul) won about 56% of the vote on the Republican side. Sanders and Clinton have spent decades in politics, and won nearly 100% of the Democratic vote.

Myth 7: High turnout favors the outsiders

Steve King, the Iowa congressman and major Cruz backer, said in the days before Monday’s caucuses that turnout being above 135,000 voters would be a big problem for his candidate. In such an environment, Trump would be the winner, he predicted.

But Cruz won in an electorate with 180,000 people. Similarly, Clinton won (barely) a Democratic race in which more than 170,000 people voted, lower than the 239,000 of 2008 but much higher than the 124,000 who voted in 2004.

Cruz’s “ground game” has been credited with his victory. But King’s words cast some doubt on that. The more likely explanation is that Trump's candidacy helped drive up interest in the caucuses, but many of the more occasional voters who turned out this time did not favor the real estate mogul.