Finally, after years (That’s right, I said years.) of rhetoric, exaggerated and speculative media coverage and wild analyses and predictions by so-called “experts,” the people have spoken, at least some of them. It seems like speculation about 2016 began the day after the 2012 election. Aren’t you tired of it yet? Enough already!
Okay, what did we learn last night? In my opinion, a few things, but not much. The Iowa caucuses have been the first primary since 1972. In that time they have not always proven to be an accurate predictor of the ultimate winner. Losers who won the election include Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, winners who lost the election include Dick Gephardt, Tom Harkin (who?) and Mike Huckabee. The point is, although it is better to win than to lose, winning Iowa doesn’t guarantee a thing. Keep in mind, Iowa is not a bellwether state, like, for example. Ohio. It is a small state with few delegates. A victory there is symbolic more than anything else. Clinton earned 23 delegates, and Sanders garnered 21. Cruz won eight, and Trump and Rubio seven each. Furthermore, the state is not at all diverse. It is mostly conservative, heavily religious and has few minorities.
Iowa has used a caucus system since the 19th century. Years ago, the caucuses were not held as early as they are now, and they had little, if any, impact on the Presidential campaign. The turning point was in 1968. That year in Chicago the Dems held what many consider to have been the wildest, most disruptive and violent political convention ever. In addition, the mayor, Richard Daley, was known to be very unsympathetic to the anti-war movement. The combination was like pouring gasoline on a fire. There were numerous clashes between anti-war protesters and the Chicago police. The violence damaged the Party and may have cost its nominee, Hubert Humphrey, the election.
In the aftermath, there was a groundswell within the Party to open up the delegate selection process, to take it out of the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” and place it in the hands of the people. States were encouraged to use primaries to select delegates. Amid all this reorganization the Iowa Democratic Party moved its caucus to early February, so it could be the first state to vote.
As I said, the 1972 Presidential election was the first one for which the new date was used. Since then, as the first to vote Iowa has propelled more than a few little-known candidates to national prominence. George McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976), and Barack Obama (2004) come to mind. Julian Zelizer, Carter’s biographer, credits Carter’s success with making the Iowa caucuses the “substantive, multi-media event” it is now.
The results of this year’s caucuses can be interpreted in various ways, and the “spin doctors” will undoubtedly do so. For example, officially Clinton won the Dem caucus, erasing the bitter taste of her defeat in 2012. But, Bernie Sanders is claiming that the “virtual dead heat” is really a “victory” for him since he went toe to toe with a better financed, better organized Clinton. Will Iowa catapult him like it did Carter and Obama? Anything is possible, but it is highly unlikely.
So, back to my earlier question. What are the takeaways? What, if anything, did we learn?
- Cruz’s narrow victory over Trump represents the first “chink” in Trump’s armor. Heretofore, he was Mr. Teflon. Regardless of what he said or did, nothing “stuck” to him. Everyone has been waiting for him to show vulnerability, and now he has. Trump will try to spin the results as a good showing, but most polls had him as the favorite. Now, instead of having the inside track to the nomination he will be in a dogfight with Cruz and Rubio.
- Clinton’s narrow win has to be disappointing to her supporters and her. Bernie was little known at the start of the campaign and underfunded. Clinton was, and probably still is, the heavy favorite and presumptive nominee. But now, she, too, has shown some vulnerability. Many people have dismissed Bernie as a far left wing zealot, and he is, but nevertheless, I think his success in Iowa was an anti-Hillary vote, and Dems should beware. I still think she will win the nomination, unless she gets indicted, but these results augur trouble for her in the general election.
- Even though he came in a close third, I think Rubio was the big winner. He did much better than the “experts” predicted, and now he has momentum. He probably has separated himself from the other moderate Republicans. The candidacies of Bush, Christie, Kasich, Carson and the others have been severely damaged. Any one of them that does not do well in New Hampshire will likely have to drop out. Remember the words of William F. Buckley, the arch conservative political commentator, who famously admonished fellow conservatives to (and I paraphrase) support the most conservative candidate with a realistic chance to win. That describes Rubio.