STATESBORO, GEORGIA – A coin flip.
In six caucuses the difference between Secretary Hillary Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders was the flip of a coin.
Each time, the coin fell Clinton’s way, a statistical oddity that could only be the case in the storied and odd history of American politics.
Coins or otherwise, the exodus out of Iowa is a swift and disorienting race to the border and, beyond that, New Hampshire and its changed race. Clinton leaves after a “big sigh of relief,” the tent pole of her address after miscommunication among staffers and advisers led to a premature declaration of victory in a race that still hasn’t been settled at twelve-thirty and probably won’t be for at least another day.
Sanders has seen the invigoration of a campaign that, a year ago, barely made a blip on the news. He has fought a woman The New York Times recently called one of the “most broadly and deeply qualified candidates in modern history” to a standstill. By anyone’s account, tonight’s virtual tie is an impossibility, an anomaly that should not be. The coins, even though they fell the secretary’s way, should never have been tossed.
On the Republican side, what we expected has more or less come to pass. Ted Cruz, world-class smarmy ass, won the caucus even though his numbers had dipped dangerously in the days leading to the contest. His victory, and Marco Rubio’s ascent, could be attributed easily to a groundswell meant to unseat Donald Trump’s candidacy, which is the only explanation considering the all-time record turnout tonight. Now, we’ve got a brand new race in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Rubio added Senator Tim Scott to Congressman Trey Gowdy’s endorsement, and gave him a “heads up” heading into one of the most telling primaries in all the country.
Boy. And. Howdy.
With fifty percent of precincts reporting Bernie Sanders trailed by three points.
By sixty-two that dropped to 2.
Seventy-seven percent and the lead fell to a slim 1.3.
At 10:31, Sanders cut the lead from .9 to .7 and strangely, in one of the most unpredictable moments in Iowa caucus history, somebody in the Clinton campaign leaked to the press that they were declaring victory. Not a half hour later the sum was Clinton 50 and Sanders 50 with O’Malley standing pat at .6 of a percent as the former governor of Maryland announced the end of his campaign, effective immediately. As O’Malley prowled his wake with a Heineken in hand, the lead slimmed to .2.
The Clinton campaign wisely backed off form their victory, but never retracted or explained the earlier announcement. Secretary Clinton took the stage at 11:28, interrupting Cruz’s rambling, batshit insane “speech” in a breech of protocol, and avoided an explicit claiming of victory or anything resembling disappointment. Not twenty minutes later Sanders gave his typical stump speech, thanking both Clinton and O’Malley.
Now. A breath. We’re separated by .3 and there’s no telling where we’ll end things tonight. The stream of counting has slowed to a veritable trickle and already the lawyers are licking their chops. There will be challenges as there always are. Some voter fraud and miscounts have already been highlighted regardless of whether there’s merit. Chances are both campaigns will file injunctions and motions and not a lot will happen.
What will happen however is a major realignment of the race. Sanders has show himself to be a capable foil for Clinton and with a major lead in New Hampshire, it seems like we’re looking at each candidate heading into Nevada with one win and a tie. That’s a tight contest by anyone’s standards. But considering Sanders banked twenty million dollars in the last month alone, he’s more than primed to wage a national ad campaign and take Clinton on state-by-state. And don’t forget, this is a machine that is only getting better as the weeks pile on. New Hampshire could be a rout before the final votes are tallied and that shakes this contest up even more than anyone’s willing to recognize.
Clinton must be distraught. Two caucuses in a row she’s been bested by upstart opponent’s who were arguably not even in her league. You could attribute the rebukes to Clinton fatigue, latent misogyny, and tilted favorable/unfavorable ratings. Entry and exit polls paint a different number though. They show a large amount of Sanders supporters made their choice more recently and placed a major value on “honesty,” a buzzword that might be a stand-in for concern over the continually worsening E-mail scandal that has trailed Clinton for months now. Reports in the past week that more than twenty of her messages were Top-Secret may have influenced enough voters to tip the scales toward a tie.
But there are always more complicated reasons, unknowable reasons, why people select who they select. Iowa is quite sensitive to trends and momentum and there’s the real possibility the Clinton campaign stalled out by turning defensive in the face of Sanders’ push.
However it is sliced, the national polls will tighten and even the most dismissive critics of Sanders will have to admit there’s a potential for an upset of astounding proportions here. You have to hope though that the edge of a coin doesn’t decide this thing.
Never one to shrink from a spotlight, Trump’s speech tonight was noticeably absent a certain…enthusiasm. You can forgive the asshole if he couldn’t muster some eagerness to get in front of the cameras and eat a little humble pie. The banks of journalists he’s berated and called “scum” and “slime” for months now must’ve enjoyed their assignment as Trump struggled to affect even a swallow of optimism.
“I love you people,” the reality television monster lied, “and I tell you, we thought we’d give Iowa a shot. No one thought we’d even be in the top ten.”
Reports from out of the campaign are that Trump feels duped, like he’s been robbed of good money and has put his trust in the wrong people. Considering he had nothing even resembling a traditional ground game in Iowa, an operation designed to drum up support and handle the logistical challenges the caucuses pose every four years, and didn’t bother to campaign locally or store-to-store-to-restaurant-to-restaurant in the traditional fashion, he probably has cause to be angry. We saw a confirmation of what Iowa wants and that is the opposite of zipping in on your 757 and rallying stadiums and gyms full of frothing morons. They want to shake hands and they want to chew the fat.
No one understood that better than Ted Cruz. After harnessing the momentum that should’ve been his all along, he marshaled his supporters to a less-than-impressive win built on old-fashioned campaigning, the coopting of Ben Carson’s fundamentally trusty machine, and his status as a somewhat more palatable alternative to Trump.
Any good will Cruz might have earned, however, was summarily lost as he delivered one of the most tone deaf and appalling victory speeches in recent memory. It was heavy on rhetoric, queasy with strange, threatening language, and ungodly long. Though Clinton interrupted his speech, or, as some put it, saved Cruz from himself, it continued for another twenty-five minutes and clocked in at well over a half-hour long. I would have a concrete number, but unfortunately FOX News cut off its own party’s victory speech when they decided he droned on long enough.
I’ve spent some time over the past week wrestling with the possibility of Cruz winning the nomination and have come to the realization it’s an impossibility. Cruz was made for Iowa and comes prepackaged as the perfect descendent of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, a religious zealot who not only wants to change Washington but to save Washington. His speeches, much like the past two winners, are sermons dripping with not just acknowledgements of God but rather calls for Holy Crusade. There’s not another market where this will play like it did here, and Ted’s incapable of another tune.
Marco Rubio though, that kid can play a whole host of songs.
If it weren’t for the Democratic photo-finish and Trump’s humbling, the story on the front pages tomorrow would be Rubio’s close-third finish, a result that is both the expected outcome but also surprising. When the numbers are settled a single point will separate Trump and Rubio where yesterday it appeared Rubio would more than likely finish third but by a margin of more than ten points.
Wisdom explains the improvement by highlighting the worsening blood feud between Trump and Cruz, a veritable demolition derby whose destruction opened a lane for the young senator from Florida to chart a course. He’s consolidating the so-called Establishment vote and, if given the crumbs of also-rans like Jeb, Kasich, and Christie, he would’ve taken the whole damn thing. This finish will be enough to coalesce the Anybody-But-Trump and My-God-Not-Cruz forces in the following week, a task that’ll be made that much easier with Tim Scott and Gowdy’s endorsements and the predictable flow of Super PAC money that’s coming his way.
In the next week or two we’ll see a whole rollout of endorsements that will float the Rubio campaign toward South Carolina. New Hampshire is a wash for Rubio, but he has to be considered the odds-on favorite in the Palmetto State after tonight. The question is whether Trump and Cruz will continue their suicide pact and grant him the space to continue gathering momentum.
Postscript – 1:40 a.m. and, depending on what poll you’re obsessively checking at the moment, Clinton either leads 49.8 to 49.6 or its all tied up at 49.7. Haggard pundits stare into the unblinking eye of the camera and pray for finality or gruesome death, whichever comes first. The Sanders campaign has just announced they’re filing the first of what will most assuredly be many lawsuits. Supposedly, in ninety precincts, the DNC failed to post accountable workers and left the counts in the hands of partisans and supporters. Reporters on the Clinton plane to New Hampshire are describing widespread unrest among the campaign and dueling indictments and denials. Betrayals and bloodlust.
In the distance the rumble of a helicopter.
Tomorrow will come and tomorrow will never be the same.
Photo Caricature: Iowa Caucus Winners by DonkeyHotey