By Cinzia Croce
The Iowa results are in, and the speculation over whether Donald Trump’s decision to skip the last debate cost him a victory has already begun. I do not believe attending the debate would have made any difference: it carried many downsides, and it is more than possible that Ted Cruz might have won by an even larger margin had Trump chosen to attend. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement for a thrice-married, secular, brash New Yorker to finish just four points behind the Evangelical candidate of choice, who had parked himself in Iowa since July 2013 and visited all 99 counties.
Trump took a gamble and decided to try to run the table, knowing fully that Iowa would be a difficult state to win. In itself, this was not such a bad strategy. But to hedge his bets, he should have done a better job at managing expectations. Instead of boasting about his unrivaled ability to win, Trump should have limited his remarks to wanting to perform well. A second-place finish for someone who has never run for office before would have been seen as a perfectly respectable result on its own. Just look at Rubio: he came in third and delivered what was essentially a victory speech.
Going all-in on Iowa was always a major gamble for Trump, which became readily apparent when he started to fall behind Ben Carson in the autumn. The risks of pandering to these voters are high. Iowa caucus voters seem more concerned about the Second Coming of Christ than about the Second Coming of the Caliphate in Iraq. They often seem as if they might be more at home in the Philippines, where abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage are illegal, than in Trump’s native New York. A candidate that is tailor-made for the Iowa caucuses is a complete electoral disaster in November. There is simply no reason for the Republican Party to give such a prominent spot to Iowa. If caucus participants were to prevail, the Democrats would be permanently installed in the Oval Office. If their prayers were ever answered, we would become the Philippines.
Trump’s concession speech was brief and gracious. That’s a good start. Going forward, I would only recommend that he dial down the I’m-a-winner persona and instead focus on the two policy pillars of his campaign: trade and immigration. If he wants to win, he must draw a clear distinction with the other candidates who will continue to drive down wages by enlarging the pool of labor through high levels of immigration and loose trade agreements. That — in addition to being a bit more judicious with the re-tweets.
Trump also must work on bringing his negatives down. This can be accomplished by adopting a more restrained demeanor. Voters already know that Trump is tough. What they are wondering is whether he can also be measured. Obama won in 2008, in part, by adopting the persona of ‘No-Drama Obama’ while McCain came across as erratic and unpredictable. If Trump were to run some spots featuring people he has helped through the years, or projects he has helped turn around, this would help immensely.
The one plus for Trump coming out of Iowa is that he refused to twist himself into posturing as a socially conservative culture warrior like Mitt Romney did in 2008, which would have been very damaging in later contests, in which more-mainstream voters dominate. If he would have done that, he would have looked as ridiculous as Romney did when he called himself a ‘severely conservative’ governor.
Trump leaves Iowa with one delegate fewer than Cruz. Not bad. But the better route would have been to skip Iowa altogether. Maybe if candidates who do not want to pander to Evangelicals band together to skip the caucuses, they might be cancelled just like the Iowa Straw Poll was this summer. We can only hope.