The Truth Amid The Tea Leaves
One very simple truth about politics is that nothing ever matters……until finally it does. That can aptly sum up the Iowa caucus. For all its vaulted status, the caucus actually has a pretty poor track record of selecting the eventual nominee; Huckabee stormed to the top in 2008 only to be completely steamrolled by McCain on Super Tuesday, and Santorum’s victory by a nose in 2012 did nothing to derail Mitt Romney’s eventual ascension. For all practical purposes Iowa was a three way split between Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, with the three of them monopolizing the bulk of the State’s delegates between them and Cruz marginally taking a few more votes which ultimately gave him the princely reward of one more delegate than the Donald in the final score. With fifty one States to go, and hundreds more delegates to be selected, this does not really matter that much.
Except in the ways that it does. Iowa’s significance at this early point is that it can solidify trends or arrest momentum. Barack Obama’s surprise triumph there in 2008 had the double whammy of shattering the perception surrounding Hillary Clinton that she was inevitable and untouchable, while simultaneously sending the message that a black urbanite liberal could win even in a rural, white bread, bible-clutching part of the good ole US of A. “Yes We Can” was not just a chant, but a realization that smooth-tongued Barry could in fact go all the way to the White House (sadly once there he turned out to be an utterly incompetent disaster whose legacy of wrack and ruin will haunt America on a scale likely only to be rivaled by the negligent fiasco that was the reign of Louis XVI….but that is another story). In that sense Iowa matters very much on several fronts.
Last night was a bad one for Donald Trump no matter what way one looks at it. It is important to neither minimize or exaggerate this fact. Had Trump won it is very likely the momentum from that victory would have made him unstoppable. That is no longer the case, and the race we have now is a very competitive three way between himself, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio . However, the flip side of that is we are now in a very competitive race. Trump has been wounded, but he’s certainly not “finished” as has been predicted oh so many times before that the score is now beyond count; I again emphasis that at this moment he trails Cruz by exactly one delegate. What has been revealed is that Trump’s lack of on the ground organization is a serious liability he will have to face going forward; he actually beat Cruz among first time voters and ultimately, it seems, lost due to his inability to get enough of those newcomers out to the caucuses. This will be less of a liability in New Hampshire, which is a primary, not a caucus, and therefore somewhat less dependent on ground game, and where polls have put Trump as much as twenty points ahead (giving him a far greater margin of error to gamble with). However, unless he takes the lessons of last night to heart and applies them it is certainly not unimaginable that an upset might occur in a few days’ time in the Granite State. Trump ultimately failed to secure victory last night; that is not the same as defeat.
In a similar vein, last night was a very good one for the Senator from Texas, otherwise known as Ted Cruz. Again, however, this should not be made out to be more or less than what it was. Had Cruz not come first despite the rash of polls that had shown Trump pulling away in the final days before the caucus it is very likely his names would be added to those of Caron, Fiorina and others who ever so briefly rivaled Trump for the frontrunner status only to wither as stamina and staying power proved to be elusive; instead he has received a fresh shot of adrenaline right when it matters. Cruz’s great challenge will be to keep that momentum going. Pulling a second rabbit out of the hat in New Hampshire will be inestimably more difficult; Trump’s lead is much stronger there and Cruz’s name has not been one of the ones oft mentioned as having the ability to bridge it amongst the far less religious and instead more libertarian inclined voters of New England. Cruz ironically shares with Trump questions, albeit less spoken of, about his ability to grow his vote beyond the Tea-Partier, evangelical base that propelled him to victory in the caucus. Ted’s time in the Senate has made him few friends amongst the GOP as a whole, and many enemies who are now running against him. It is hard to see any of them throwing their support to him, except perhaps Ben Carson should the neurosurgeon ever get back from his newly proclaimed quest to seek a new wardrobe in Florida and realizes that being an awfully nice chap is not enough on its own to cinch him the nomination. These are issues Cruz will have to face if he wants to secure his own victory. Ultimately he has only won one battle in an ongoing war.
Indeed, it is with tremendous irony that I note that the ultimate recipient of the fruits of Cruz’s victory might not be the Texas senator himself, but rather Marco Rubio; the Florida senator came third in Iowa showing such surprising strength that he came only a few hundred votes short of surpassing Trump. This better than expected showing has likely made Senator Rubio the unquestioned candidate of the establishment in this primary race and it is a sign of how far to the right Trump has managed to drag the political center that the pro-life, pro-traditional marriage,
former Tea Party favourite from Florida is now deemed the candidate of moderation simply because he quibbles a bit on the question of immediate mass deportation of over ten million people. Jeb, Chris, Rand, John and Co. might as well close up shop because there’s only one man approved by the GOP brass who has a shot of winning at this point, and it isn’t one of them (Carson might as well join them as well should he ever finish searching for those “fresh clothes” he’s gone looking for…..perhaps someone should tell him New Hampshire does in fact have clothing stores of its own).
Rubio’s great challenge going forward is that he does remain an establishment candidate in a very anti-establishment election cycle, as evidence by the fact over half the vote in Iowa went to candidates that could be classified as such. As I have written before, Trump, and to a lesser extent Cruz and Carson, have managed to achieve the degree of dominance they have in the race thus far by tapping into a tremendous vein of frustration among many voters that stems from the feeling that their concerns and discontent with the modern world have been ignored for far too long. If Rubio wants to win the nomination, let alone the general election, he will have to somehow convince these folks that on issues such as illegal immigration and the hollowing out of the American economy he will at least do something to address their concerns. He certainly needn’t adopt the “build a wall and deport them all” approach that has worked so well for Trump, but Rubio will have to make the case that his strategy will amount to something more than the old sops of saying “I completely understand your concerns” then proceeding to precisely nothing about them that have been the status quo for so long. And he possible might be the man to do so. Only Nixon could go to China. Perhaps only Rubio will prove capable of producing an immigration policy that both meets the needs of America’s demographic realities while also answering the very legitimate worries that the States’ southern border is rapidly becoming but a line drawn on a map with no actual meaning behind it.
This has proven so far to be one of the most interesting election cycles to watch in my living memory. None of the candidates truly have the potential to be America’s next Ronald Reagan, despite how often his name is invoked by all of them, but the sad reality is this is no longer Ronald Reagan’s America. The United States indeed has become in many ways a country in ruins; the sense I get is that voters are not looking for someone to lead them into a new America Century but instead just want someone who might make the remainder of their sad lives a little less miserable. In truth, this race has only begun in earnest now. It is still a very long road to the convention, and while Iowa has settled nothing with any finality it certainly has done much to confirm certain realities of this race. Let us now look forward to New Hampshire, where once again we will have a chance to observe a primary that will ultimately mean nothing and everything both at the same time.