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US 2016: Donald Trump loses his mojo on the Iowa prairie

US 2016: Donald Trump loses his mojo on the Iowa prairie

The surprising results of the just-finished Iowa presidential caucus lead J. BROOKS SPECTOR to consider what’s next in this most astonishing of presidential elections.

This year’s Iowa caucus – the first actual voting in the process of electing a president in the United States – has been a stunner in a campaign that had already been an extraordinary effort in all of the lead-up to this first test of voter sentiment. Nevertheless, almost immediately after the voting, the nation’s attention shifted towards the small New England state of New Hampshire, where the next contest comes in a week. Still, Iowa’s results call for a look at what it may foretell for the long campaign that stretches out ahead until 8 November.

By the time the Iowa caucus voting had ended, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – a long-time, self-described socialist running in the Democratic race for that party’s nomination against Hillary Rodham Clinton – had just missed carrying off an extraordinary upset. With just three tenths of a percentage point separating the two candidates, the actual delegate count will end up essentially being split between them, but the reverberations will be telling.

As The Washington Post reported it, “According to the final results announced by the Iowa Democratic Party, Mrs Clinton was awarded 700.59 state delegate equivalents, the terminology used in Iowa to represent candidates’ share of the total caucus vote. Mr Sanders was awarded 696.82 delegates, and former Governor [of Maryland] Martin O’Malley received 7.61 delegates. Iowa Democrats historically do not release raw vote counts from each of the state’s 1,681 caucus precincts. Based on these results, Mrs Clinton is set to receive 23 of Iowa’s delegates and Mr Sanders will earn 21 delegates. There are 4,763 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, so it will require 2,382 delegates to win the nomination.” Iowa’s actual delegate counts at the July nominating conventions of both parties are around one percent of the total.

But even more important than the fact Clinton squeaked by to claim a win, this first leg of the campaign has now made it abundantly clear this year’s Democratic Party race for the nomination would in no way resemble the virtual “coronation” that had been widely anticipated by political analysts, strategists and most commentators. Clinton’s political experience, her formidable fundraising machinery and mastery of policy details were all supposed to have created a virtually unassailable candidacy.

Meanwhile, among the Republicans, in another shocker, Texas Senator Ted Cruz grabbed first place, while businessman Donald Trump came in second, but a fast-closing Florida Senator Marco Rubio was right behind him. As a consequence, aside from the cheering at the winning candidates’ headquarters, the most distinctive sound to be heard in Iowa on the night the results were announced was the air slowly escaping from the balloon formerly known as the Trump presidency. This was especially true given his pronouncements that he was the best candidate. He was a winner in everything he did, he is the smartest, richest, best negotiator; and the demonstration of that was the fact his name adorns hotels, apartment buildings and casinos everywhere. His second-place finish must now be monumentally infuriating.

These unexpected results have now sent some would-be nominees to the political intensive care unit – and increasingly likely to be out of their respective races – as Republican former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, and O’Malley have already done since this caucus vote. With O’Malley out of the Democratic race, that one is now a two-person match-up, of course. Meanwhile, remaining Republicans such as Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, John Kasich, Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina are almost certainly engaged in intense conversations with their aides, advisors, families and financial supporters over whether they can – or should – stay in until the New Hampshire primary on 9 February, or if they should call a halt to it all before the public humiliations become unendurable – and as they run out of the cash necessary to carry on much further.

A few of the afterthought candidates, and most especially Bush, still have substantial war chests for continued campaigning, but, going forward, the money tap will now become increasingly hard to prise open for these folks. Bush, it has been calculated, for example, spent nearly R50,000 per vote in Iowa in his campaign spending, and the effort captured only a little over 3,000 supporters in the final tally. That wound cannot feel very good right about now.

Going forward, the five candidates who succeeded in scoring a “ticket out of town” from Des Moines, Iowa – Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, Rubio and, yes, still Trump – have now all decamped from the Midwestern prairies for the similarly small population New England state of New Hampshire where there is only a week’s worth of campaigning left.

The Iowa caucus came along in 1972 as the first contest of the quadrennial presidential marathon, but the New Hampshire primary has continued to maintain pride of place as the first primary for presidential elections. The state has been known to destroy the hopes of presidential wannabes – perhaps most famously in 1968 when incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, challenged by anti-Vietnam War activists, was nearly beaten by Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. Johnson, sensing the real possibility of major embarrassments looming in the near future, pulled out of the race entirely and Vice President Hubert Humphrey eventually gained the nomination against challenges from Robert Kennedy and McCarthy in a struggle that had virtually split the party in two as a consequence of the Vietnam War.

New Hampshire is also an open primary. This means voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – can pick which party’s race they wish to vote in, making this primary a particularly tough one to predict accurately. Of course turnout more generally – including how weather affects peoples’ willingness to come out and vote – is also a crucial factor in determining whether pre-vote polling will be accurate or far off the mark. As a result, next week’s New Hampshire voting ultimately remains something of a black box still, even in spite of all the polling predictions. New Hampshire is also a small state in population terms, and, again, like Iowa, hardly representative of the country as a whole – racially or ethnically, as well as in rural or small town versus urban terms.

New Hampshire’s big impact may well come in reaffirming the Bernie Sanders wave of support, thereby giving his candidacy a sense of momentum, or in proving that it is a much closer race than polling has indicated. Similarly, among Republicans, the big question to be answered is whether or not Marco Rubio can actually begin to consolidate the GOP’s not-Trump and not-Cruz enthusiasts – since all of those voters, collectively, could be a strong base of support, if he can begin corralling them away from those walking dead, now-marginalised candidates still in the race.

Ultimately, the five remaining major candidates must use this next vote to refine how they define their appeals to voters – both in New Hampshire as well as the nation as a whole. In Clinton’s case she must make the sale that, yes, she is a principled reformer, but she is a supremely practical one who has a real sense of the do-able in politics, rather than the persona of her opponent, that lovely old utopian dreamer from Vermont. As for Sanders, he must now deliver the goods that all that anger about the unfairness of the nation’s current economic rewards to the rich truly demands a veritable political revolution by the common man and woman and that, astonishingly, remarkably, he has become the perfect person to lead that charge.

Among Republicans, Trump will probably continue to make his over-the-top case that he is simply the brightest, most talented, sharpest negotiator in the room, and that his enemies (all those evil Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims, stupid people and, of course, broadcaster Megyn Kelly) deserve to be every American’s enemies as well. Rubio must try to seal the deal with voters that he represents the challenge and promise of the imagined future (once he finally gets out of the thicket he has put himself into over immigration reform), and that he is the perfect embodiment of the newest iteration of the American dream. And, as for Cruz? It is now seems to be his task to complete painting that picture of himself as the Republicans’ mirror image of the Sanders rebellion against the old-line establishment, and that he is the man to lead the charge to reclaim the country for all those people who pay their taxes, do their jobs, help their kids with their homework, and attend church regularly – but who are mystified about why the country seems to be slipping out of their control and comprehension.

The pollsters and analysts – even the redoubtable Nate Silver – may still stumble over the results in New Hampshire, leaving real puzzlement about how to game the rest of the race. But there will be little time to stew too long about that. Right after the New Hampshire primary comes the contests in Nevada and South Carolina, and then there will be a slew of others, most especially the so-called Super Tuesday voting day on the 1st of March, and then the smaller but still big voting days on the 8th and 15th of March.

By then, the yawning uncertainty of who will become the nominees may have become much clearer. Or not – or at least, not yet. And remember, out there somewhere, too, is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, making his polite muttering noises about running as an independent to save the nation – if the race boils down to one in which it is Trump versus Sanders. Don’t touch that dial! DM

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

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