Iowa, as ever, was full of surprises. On the surface, the most amazing thing about the state’s 2016 caucus was how easily conservative senator Ted Cruz beat his fellow Republicans, and what a nail-biter Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in. But beyond these surface atmospherics, Iowa did its traditional job: it winnowed out the field for US President, making clearer what had been only a dim outline of what is to follow politically.
For the Democrats, the overall narrative of their 2016 nominating contest remains set in stone, despite the Sanders surge. That is the slow, joyless coronation of a deeply uninspiring candidate (Bill Clinton must be eating his heart out). For all that Sanders in essence tied secretary Clinton in Iowa, and for all that he is likely to win big in the next contest in New Hampshire this week, after that nothing indicates he will go much further.
Practically all young Democratic voters love Sanders, just as older Democratic women overwhelmingly support Clinton. But pivotal African-Americans and Hispanics remain loyal to Hillary, meaning that as the contests head south and west (and away from unrepresentative Iowa and New Hampshire) there is little sign Sanders can actually win much of anything else. Presently, Clinton is leagues ahead in South Carolina (which follows New Hampshire) and seems to be narrowly leading in Nevada, which comes next. After that the contests head south, which ought to be Sanders’s death knell.
Yet senator Sanders has exposed Clinton as eminently beatable. A tousle-haired, shambolic socialist has remained competitive with a woman who was supposed to wipe the floor with him. Why? Sanders is sincere and consistent; Hillary is neither, changing her stance on whether she is a moderate or progressive seemingly every week, depending on who she is talking to. There hangs over her campaign a sense of entitlement which tends to set Americans’ teeth on edge.
However, the most dangerous foe Clinton faces is not another candidate, but the FBI. Having quietly and painstakingly looked at the email controversy which has shadowed over the Clinton campaign, do not rule out the very real possibility that the Bureau could indict either Clinton or (more likely) one of her top aides, for sloppily allowing secretive material to end up on her personal email server. It is a huge no-no in Washington to be so cavalier about safeguarding the nation’s secrets, and at best Hillary seems to have thought such rules were meant only for the little people. But barring this legal pothole, the nomination is hers.
The Republicans are a long way from this certitude, but Iowa played its clarifying role for them as well. After his surprise defeat, Donald Trump will not walk away with the nomination. Iowa reminded us that, to win in America, having a first-rate political organisation still matters (which Ted Cruz emphatically did, just as Trump did not). Also, while Trump undoubtedly brought new voters out, just as many new people seemed to participate to stop him as to help him.
He is at the same time the Republican candidate whose supporters love him the most, just as his opponents will never vote for him. This low ceiling – an inability to win over undecided Republicans and those that formerly supported another candidate – is likely to be Trump’s ultimate undoing. While he will win New Hampshire, and is far from gone, Iowa took the shine off Trump’s invincible persona.
For Cruz, his clear victory in Iowa signifies he will be around for the long haul, in what is now increasingly a three-way contest, with Trump in the maverick lane, Cruz in the conservative lane, and senator Marco Rubio in the establishment lane. The problem for Cruz is that he is loathed by the Republican establishment, sickened by his showboating antics in the Senate. And while evangelicals are an important part of the Republican coalition, there are simply not enough of them (despite European stereotypes) to drag Cruz over the finish line.
That leaves senator Rubio of Florida, long the candidate I have thought the most likely to win the nomination. Rubio has a presence in almost all the Republican camps, evangelical and establishment, young and old, conservative and mainstream. Given this, it is without doubt only Rubio who stands any chance at all of unifying the Republican Party following this already bruising primary season. Over the likely lengthy nomination process, watch him do better as more moderate states such as Ohio and Illinois come into play.
I say again: it will be Rubio versus Hillary in one nail-biter of an election.