Playing Kingmaker

Iowa seems like an unlikely place to play kingmaker, especially so for a nation whose chief executive also happens to be the most powerful person on the planet. Yet in the past week, the world’s attention was turned to this rural state, one which can boast of having more cows than people, as it became the first state in the union to cast the vote that kickstarts the long United States presidential primaries.

As an outside observer of the American election, I’ve found the fact that Americans let Iowa be the first state to vote for the presidential nominees very curious indeed. After all, why Iowa? Iowa isn’t well populated, nor is it representative of the rest of the ethnically-diverse country, with its 90% white population. It isn’t ideologically or religiously aligned with the country, especially on the Republican side with its abundance of Christian evangelists. The state uses an archaic and confusing caucus system, where voters have to physically stand in a room and are either counted, (the case for the Democrats) or vote in a secret ballot (on the case of the Republicans). Its cherished status as the first-in-the-nation caucus came about through chance, not intention, and it simply seems that no one has ever bothered to rectify the situation. And despite such obvious, glaring flaws, the simple act of going first has lent Iowa a great deal of importance, with all candidates vying to win it so that they could roll on with Iowan momentum.

And so the media gobbled this all up and shine more and more attention on Iowa every election cycle. With that, candidates placed even more importance in Iowa, investing immense amounts of money and time into the state and constantly worshipped ethanol which is the life blood of the people of Iowa; in the past, some candidates even went as far as to move their children to kindergartens there. In the end, it became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: the winner of Iowa will have momentum, therefore the media covers it, and since the media covers it, the winner of Iowa does actually have momentum coming out.

That is the conventional wisdom, according to the pundits and commentators at least. In the end, it truly does boggle the mind; in the United States of America, a country that constantly preaches about the importance of democracy and has helped to set up democratic systems for other countries, start their own elections in such a truly strange manner, allowing one otherwise unimportant state to exercise such disproportionate influence over all others. Iowa the kingmaker, a state whose corn fields give rise to future presidents.

Or is Iowa not a kingmaker? On the Republican side, winning Iowa has been more like a campaign death wish. Just ask Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum the 2008 and 2012 winners of the Iowa caucuses respectively; they were both Christian conservatives who appealed to the evangelical Iowan electorate. In the end, John McCain and Mitt Romney won the nominations. Tough luck indeed for the caucus winners, but then again it may not be just luck; winning in Iowa may simply mean that the winner is too off-centre to win.

No surprise, then, that Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus for the Republicans. He built a supremely impressive data and ‘get out the vote’ operation and was a candidate in the mould of Huckabee and Santorum: one who could appeal to Christian evangelists. As my friend, Joe Kaminski, commented, Iowa “chose, for the third year in a row, a pastor in chief” rather than a commander in chief. Perhaps to say that would be unfair to Cruz; he did show off his commander in chief credentials as a man willing to bomb the Middle East to the point where we can find out if sand glows in the dark. What is clear, however, is that Cruz now has the Iowan wind blowing behind his back as he surges to New Hampshire. Donald Trump, who was leading the polls by as much as seven percent before the actual caucuses, came in a disappointing second place, almost eclipsed by Marco Rubio, who surprised by performing so well. For once, the bombastic mogul was humbled, his brand of being a “winner” immediately shattered by a triumphant Cruz.

On the Democratic side, it is difficult to pronounce a winner. Certainly the official results will show Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders. I personally believe that it would be unfair to declare Clinton the victor; the margin of winning was razor-thin. coming in at less than a percentage. Of course, although she admitted that she was able to “breath a sigh of relief”, she still hailed the win. Sanders, for his part, announced that he believed it was a “virtual tie”. In the end, however, it is more easy to see how Sanders benefitted. From the socialist grandpa who everybody wrote off, he was now making a viable challenge to the famous former first lady and secretary of state. Quite a change of fortunes.

Since I’ve become the latest writer to fall casualty to the irresistible game of writing about the Iowa results, allow me to make a few predictions:

1) Cruz, like Huckabee and Santorum before him, will not be able to win the nomination. Pandering aggressively to the Iowan electorate is one thing, but appealing to the rest of the Republican coalition is another. Although Iowa handed Cruz the win, it also gave him what seems to be a curse that arises from its cornfields: being unable to ultimately win the nomination, because the type of politician who is able to win the GOP Iowa caucuses is simply not the type of politician who can win elsewhere. Cruz is still far behind in New Hampshire and a week is not a lot of time to catch up to Donald Trump, who still leads by double digits. In addition, New Hampshire simply isn’t the fertile ground that would jump on its feet for Cruz; it has a far greater number of independents who would never vote for the extremist senator. In addition, as helpless as the “Republican establishment” has been this election cycle, they have shown themselves to be completely unable to come around to the idea that the Texas senator, a man they hate so much, would actually become their nominee, and the establishment still has some fight in them.

2) Trump is now more dangerous because of what Iowa did to him. Trump did not handle the defeat well. Despite an initial show of gracious acceptance of defeat, he quickly turned around and is now firing back at Cruz with all his guns loaded. In the space of a few days, he’s switched from talking about how he believes coming in second place is a great honour for him to demanding a revote, due to allegations of cheating by Cruz (which, to be fair, are actually true and admitted by the Cruz campaign). Trump is lashing back, and if there’s anything he’s proven so far, it’s that he’s a master media manipulator who will stop at nothing to destroy his enemies. And if Trump actually manages to win New Hampshire, his momentum could be virtually unstoppable.


Screen Shot 2559-02-05 at 6.25.08 PM3) Sanders will take the fight to South Carolina and beyond. 
After the New Hampshire primaries, where Sanders is heavily believed to win, comes South Carolina, a state that Clinton believes is a firewall that will prevent any gains by Sanders from actually threatening her lock on the nomination. Why is this? Well, Sanders still doesn’t poll well at all among ethnic minorities, and South Carolina is full of ethnic minorities, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire. But the Iowa caucuses proved that Sanders is a viable candidate who can mount a credible insurgency that could eventually topple the Clinton machine. At first Sanders faced impossibly long odds in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but now he’s essentially tied in Iowa and is on course for a massive victory in New Hampshire. If he’s turned around his fortunes by that much, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t turn around his polling among ethnic minorities as well.

4) Regardless of who eventually does win, the Iowa caucuses have already changed the face of American politics. Cruz’s victory and Sanders’s near victory showed one thing: that anti-establishment, against-the-status-quo candidates are the new rage. The two parties are finding the two insurgencies impossible to control; the Republican elite, who were at first planning to throw their weight behind Jeb Bush and his hefty war chest, is now finding their favourite candidate lagging far behind in the polls while Trump and Cruz do whatever they like. On the other hand, the Democratic National Committee have went as far as scheduling fewer primary debates to protect Hillary, but is still unable to stop Sanders’s rise. The party base in both parties are in riot, representing the mass discontent with politics as usual in the United States, and they’ve won the votes to prove it. Even if Bush makes the ultimate political comeback and wins the nomination, or Clinton clings on to her planned coronation as the nominee, there is no going back on the anger that this election has sparked.

And so we have it: as it does every four years, Iowa has tried to play kingmaker, and this year it has had its go. From what I see, I think that Iowa has continued its trend of picking the wrong man who does not have a shot at the Republican nomination; with the Democrats, it is difficult to guess, but we can know that Hillary’s path will get more difficult as a result of it. We will now have to watch who wins New Hampshire, a state that Clinton managed to win in 2008 after losing Iowa to a certain young black senator from Illinois, but that also voted for McCain and Romney. Will the saying “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents” prove true? We’ll have to see.

 

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2 thoughts on “Playing Kingmaker

  1. Hi Ken,

    Your take on the current US political system is spot on. I’m amazed at how much you know even though you’re on the other side of the world! Keep up the great work.

    Mr. Rob.

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