STATESBORO, GEORGIA – A week out from the Iowa Caucuses is when a candidate looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize the face staring back. So many promises have been made. So many lies and half-lies told. There are stretches where a plane settles onto the tarmac and he or she might forget whether they’re stepping off in Des Moines or Concord, and anybody they might rely on to tell them the difference is too besieged by The Fear to set them straight.
This is, in no uncertain terms, where the shit hits the fan. In seven days all of the talking, the posturing, and, more importantly, the self-delusion, comes to a merciful end. The strutting and the flexing of a candidate who has jetted around the country, spoken for every conference and retirement community who’s invited them, and out and out lied through their gritted teeth that they have any chance in hell of capturing their party’s nomination, has an expiration date and the time is fucking nigh.
Weep for the Jeb Bushes of the world, the Rick Santorums, the Martin O’Malleys, the Ben Carsons, the Carly Fiorinas, the ones who have leveraged their brief brushes with notoriety and position behind a podium to join the national discussion while even their most devoted and deluded supporters, their spouses, their children, their diehards and true-believers, knew, deep down in that loneliest shadow of their heart, it just wasn’t meant to be.
The chaos that is the Iowa Caucus, an antiquated and byzantine but ultimately charming model, pales in comparison with the frenzied backbiting and panic after the numbers are reported. In 2004, as Howard Dean watched his meteoric rise fatally wounded, the stench of death was so pervasive he didn’t show his face for over a year. Eight years ago, in the defeat that would doom Hillary Clinton’s first bid for the presidency, she was dealt one of the most surprising and debilitating blows a frontrunner has ever suffered.
I still remember that night. The shock of it. Specifically, I remember jotting down this quote from one of the Clinton campaign’s spokespeople:
“We underestimated this conflagration.”
And now this week:
“The Clinton campaign admits it may have underestimated Bernie Sanders’ strengths.”
The easier of the two contests to divine is the Democrats. It’s fully expected that Clinton will pull out a much-needed victory, possibly by double-digits, but that fact is not as certain as it was as recently as two weeks ago. Coined “The Sanders Surge” by the press, Bernie has enjoyed a shot of adrenaline that has narrowed the gap between the Vermont senator and the former Secretary of State. Depending on what polls you follow, and most Iowan polls are in a word bullshit, he’s either trailing by five points or up two. The sharks have him behind a solid nine to ten, but that’ll all be out the window when thousands of Iowans shuffle into their high schools and armories and begin their great tradition of wheeling and dealing with their wild-eyed neighbors.
That Sanders will lose the Iowa Caucuses shouldn’t surprise many besides the most self-deluded supporters. However, it’s how he’ll lose that’s most telling. When he announced his campaign in May he was a senator with whom only the most ardent politicos and wonks were familiar. Occasionally he’d filibuster and give CSPAN something to air, or would show up on Real Time With Bill Maher to discuss pot legalization and breaking up the banks, but his exposure as a national figure was relatively low.
Now, on the eve of the caucuses, Bernie is poised to lose, yes, but he’s poised to lose close, an outcome that was unthinkable just a few months ago. That loss will, by most metrics, be close enough that he should enjoy some momentum heading into New Hampshire, where he will most likely win handedly, and possibly turn this contest into a dogfight no one could’ve predicted.
While Bernie’s campaign has performed admirably, and will be used as a roadmap for future insurgents, its success has less to do with Sanders’ skill as an orator or ability to manipulate the media. This situation says more about Secretary Clinton and her limitations as a candidate. Or, more specifically, her limitations as a campaign figurehead and strategist.
This new conflagration can be credited in part to Sanders’ message of economic revolution and populism, but his ascension can be attributed to a predictable counterbalancing of Clinton’s presumptive status as the Democrats’ nominee. No figure in the modern politics, save now for Donald Trump, has earned more starkly divided favorable/unfavorable numbers than Clinton, which has been the case since Bill put her in charge of his health care overhaul in 1993.
Consistently the target of Right Wing attacks that have filled GOP coffers with untold hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, Clinton has reveled in the Right’s attacks, but now, with the rise of the New New Left, a coalition of social, economic, and eco-concerned issue voters, she’s equally dismissed by large swaths of her own base.
Many could forgive her for her moderate tendencies and consistently shifting positions. That’s been the case since her days in the senate. What’s driving this surge now, and what’s narrowing the gap with Sanders, is a refrain of mistakes Clinton made in her marathon battle with Obama in 2008, primarily how her campaigns rapidly shift message based on the daily cycle’s developments. In the past two weeks the campaign has been stuck in attack mode, a problem considering Clinton hasn’t proposed a plan or initiative in nearly three months. Those attacks—criticizing Sanders’ usage of the term “socialist,” which has alienated at least ten to fifteen percent of the Democratic party who may or may not come home to roost in the general election—have lent Sanders and the contest an air of legitimacy.
Now, the question isn’t the outcome of Iowa, where Sanders will probably gain some converts from O’Malley’s supporters when the former governor doesn’t reach the mandated minimum level of support and will ultimately narrow the gap further, but whether the Clinton campaign can refocus their message with a rout in New Hampshire looming.
On the other side, who the hell knows?
It appears that Ted Cruz has solidified a voting bloc in Iowa but no one has any idea what Trump’s ground game has amounted to. There’s a very real possibility the GOP caucuses will be flooded Monday with tens of thousands of new voters and the deed will be done by eight p.m. There’s also a chance that Trump has shortchanged his operation and Cruz will win the contest in a walk. Not to mention, a palpable Against Trump movement is beginning to swell in the party and caucus goers could be turned off, or could hit the campaign with their own rebuttals and appeals, by the campaign’s spokespeople before the voting.
By that same token, Cruz couldn’t have gotten luckier timing-wise. Just as we rolled into the new year Ben Carson’s ramshackle campaign has fallen apart in spectacularly pathetic fashion, a development that probably sent a chunk of supporters scurrying the Texas senator’s way. In numbers this is obviously helpful, but even more so is Cruz’s campaign’s absorption of a great deal of Carson’s in-state infrastructure, a machine that was, up until December, humming along at an alarming pace.
There’s also no telling how many Bush, Christie, and Kasich voters, those loyal to the party, are going to split to Cruz. The lion’s share will most definitely lie with Rubio, who won’t put up much of a showing, but there’ll be some who are going to be willing to hold their noses and give Cruz their nod in favor of stopping Trump. Or, possibly, they’ll decide to stay home and let the freakshow take the spotlight.
Regardless, the old saying goes that there are three tickets out of Iowa. It’s a foregone conclusion who’s coming out in this case. Cruz. Trump. Rubio. The order is what’s up in the air.
If Cruz loses here his campaign is severely crippled and possibly doomed. He’s staked his claim on the far-Right and the evangelicals. There is no great concentration in the country of those two things, and no better laboratory to test on, than the Iowa GOP. These are Cruz’s people. The angry and the disillusioned. Iowa’s Republicans are gun-toting and they are paranoid. Cruz should find no better constituency. All signs point to him enjoying a relatively comparable showing to Huckabee’s ’04 victory and Santorum’s in ’08. The problem is, both Huckabee and Santorum enjoyed at least a modicum of support in their own party. Iowans, despite their anger and paranoia, do love the process of picking their party’s nominee. They revel in the chance to throw a wrench in the works while remaining loyal to party. To give Cruz their support would be as unconventional as unconventional gets.
Trump may win and he may lose. The real story lies in what happens Monday night after the outcome is determined. If he wins, this could be a juggernaut that steamrolls into Cleveland with the nomination firmly in hand. If he loses, the optics could make Dean’s infamous scream look tame in comparison. In his storied life, Trump has never been publicly rebuked by the voting public. How can he take the stage and face defeat? If he’s belligerent, if he’s insulting, and we know he is capable of both, then what happens moving forward? And how will he react to the rise of a viable rival? If recent debates tell us anything, Cruz can definitely get under his skin. What if, heading into New Hampshire, Cruz has this win to hang over Trump’s head? Could the rhetoric get even uglier?
And then, there’s Rubio, who could see his entire campaign go up in flames. A distant third looks like the best outcome for the young senator, but even that’s in doubt. Let’s say the after-effects of Carson’s surge carry him to a very, very distant third and leave Rubio in fourth. It’s an outside possibility, of course, and the sharks in Vegas would give it at least 100 to 1 odds. Those’re still tempting numbers though. Rubio hasn’t done much in Iowa save for the required showings. His offices are few, his visits sparse, and his particular brand of politics isn’t quite in line with what Iowans look for. An unqualified, murderous brain surgeon who rhapsodizes constantly about his special relationship with God fits much nicer within their general parameters. If that comes to pass, if Rubio’s national presence doesn’t at least ring in ten percent in Iowa, will the money dry up and firm this into a two-man race before we even hit New Hampshire or South Carolina, where he at least stands a chance?
The last time I was in Iowa for the caucuses was in ’04 and I was knocking on doors with Dean’s now-infamous “Perfect Storm,” an outfit designed by genius/not-genius Joe Trippi to flood the countryside with wild-eyed college kids. To describe the cold is cliché as Iowa is most definitely cold, but to properly set the scene, one must mention it isn’t the cold, per se, but the savageness of the straight-line winds.
I remember drinking coffee in Davenport as those winds shook the windows, and listening to everyone around me planning their victory parties. The night before we’d caught Jesse Jackson Jr., well before his legal troubles and prison tenure, and he’d whipped the supporters into a frenzy. Later, we’d watch Dean, clad in a sweater designed to make him less angry-seeming, predict his inevitable victory. But first, there were more doors to knock.
On the way I came across an older man standing outside and smoking a cigarette. I can still remember his frozen mustache, the neon orange toboggan sliding off his head. He’d just finished and flipped his butt into the Davenport traffic.
“I tell you,” he said, “if you got any idealism in you, this cold’ll zap that shit in a right goddamn hurry.”
A day later, Iowa senator Tom Harkin at his side, Dean, his eyes glassy and stunned, told a saddened crowd he was going to go to New Hampshire, to South Carolina, to Oklahoma, to Arizona, to North Dakota, to New Mexico, to California and Texas and New York and so on and so on.
The scream that followed didn’t matter. Sure, we thought it did. The history books will tell you it was a game-changer. But Dean’s fate was sealed the moment those numbers were released. Iowa is a killing ground, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
Photo by Donkeyhotey