Tuesday, February 02, 2016
The Iowa Storm
You can see why Iowa has a state law mandating that it be the first state to hold caucuses in presidential election years. If she wasn't, few candidates would do much listening to this small Mid-Western state. As it is, every four years she gets huge amounts of love and attention lavished on her and it must feel good.
How much the Iowa caucuses can determine the course of presidential nominations remains moot of course. In 2008 the Democrat race took a new and irrevocable turn when Barack Obama beat the "unbeatable" Hillary Clinton. In 2012, however, Rick Santorum was victorious in the Republican race - and now he is merely a footnote in presidential election history.
So we should be wary of predicting long-term trends from the informal votes of a small but committed Iowa population. That said, this is at least the first time real people have committed themselves to different candidates, and whatever lies ahead it's the first indication we have of how much or little these candidates appeal to ordinary voters.
The Democrat race - still neck and neck as I write - represents something of a success for Bernie Sanders. The small-time senator from Vermont is giving the big-time former Secretary of State and First Lady a real run for her money. She's not been buried, and the Sanders insurgency hasn't got the steam - it appears - of the Obama one eight years ago. But by pipping or equalling Hillary in the final count, Bernie is keeping his race alive and the Democratic party benefits in consequence. Hillary does too. The Sanders campaign keeps her both grounded and sharp, and the whole party gets energised, as Slate notes here.
There are few similarly positive gains for the Republicans, even with the much vaunted Rubio third place showing.
Trumps' bubble hasn't been burst, but it has been pricked, by Ted Cruz's victory and that will send moderate Republicans into a tailspin every bit as bad as would a Trump victory. Worse, possibly. Where Trump makes outrageous noises to gain attention, he is in fact a pragmatic businessman-turned-politician who would probably show some executive competence and, when it came to real-time decision making, would be unlikely to take stupid risks. The same cannot be said for Cruz. He's a flip-flopper, certainly, and has all the sincerity of Lucifer, but you get the impression that this snake oil salesman par excellence would be just the man to take America down a disastrous ideological path because his base demanded it.
Cruz is the preferred candidate of the evangelical vote. This is a potentially huge vote, and the last Republican to really energise it effectively was George W Bush. Take from that what you will.
There is an episode of the popular American TV series "Supernatural", made in 2008, when one of the demon-hunting Winchester brothers is catapulted into the future to see what the apocalypse would be like once it's run its course. He goes just 6 years ahead - to 2014 - and one of the most horrific indications that the world was indeed doomed was a newspaper headline proclaiming "President Palin Bombs Houston"! It undoubtedly spoke to the real fears of 2008 liberal America about the then fiery - if monumentally inarticulate - Republican vice-presidential candidate, even if it now comes across as a piece of nostalgic whimsy. Well, look again, because the idea of a President Cruz is ten times scarier than the (even then) unlikely prospect of President Palin.
Then there's Marco Rubio. His strong third place finish is giving rise to comments which suggest that he is now the establishment candidate poised to take down the Trump/Cruz rising. Rubio is more polished than either of his rabble rousing rivals, but only in this Republican race could he possibly be seen as a moderate influence.
Iowa has shown us trends that may or may not continue as the primary season lengthens, but it already shows us the depths to which US Republicanism has fallen, and heightened the need for the Democrats to be as battle-fit as possible in the autumn.