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Cruz Wins, But Iowa Barely Winnows Field

Caucus goers raise their hands to be counted at the State Historical Society of Iowa, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Precinct 47 went to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders with a 84-83 result. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Caucus goers raise their hands to be counted at the State Historical Society of Iowa, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Precinct 47 went to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders with a 84-83 result. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Bulletin: The Iowa caucuses did not nominate a presidential candidate in either party.  

Okay, that wasn’t much of a news flash. But it is a reminder how easy it can be to over-hype the results from an overwhelmingly white state where just over one quarter of the voters bothered to turn out on caucus night.  

Traditionally, Iowa winnows out the field. But this year almost all serious candidates have been winnowed in. Even the mercurial Ben Carson (the likely 4th place finisher in Iowa) has the money, but maybe not the will, to continue.  

Sure, Martin O’Malley and Mike Huckabee didn’t make it to midnight as active contenders, and Banquo’s Ghost candidates like Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina will probably decide to schedule sudden news conferences in the next 24 hours.  

But in a weird political year, most candidates will soldier on.

In the end, Ted Cruz’s belief in the power of organization may have trumped Trump’s arrogance in giving a middle finger to the final pre-Iowa debate.

Back in 1980, George Bush claimed that he had the “Big Mo” after upending Ronald Reagan in Iowa. Marco Rubio will probably claim the mantle of the “Big Mo” when the final Iowa results are in. But it is hard to spin a likely third-place bronze finish into electoral gold, even though Rubio appears to have been the choice of a plurality of Iowa late-deciders. But these Iowa results are just a snapshot of a 50-state mosaic. Mainstream Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich recognized weeks ago that their best hope was in New Hampshire, where 47 percent of the GOP primary voters in 2012 called themselves moderate or liberal. It is hard to grasp the incentive for any of these three governors to drop out as long as they have the money to continue — which may be iffy in Christie’s and Kasich’s cases.  

As for Bernie Sanders, who raised $20 million in January, there is no reason why he won’t still be in the race until, at least, the June 7 California primary.  

By every measure, Hillary Clinton should have romped home easily in Iowa. She had eight years to learn from her third-place finish in the 2008 caucuses. Her current approval rating in Iowa (based on the final pre-caucus Des Moines Register Poll) is over 80 percent. She is, in fact, the best-known woman on the planet (eat your hearts out Queen Elizabeth, Angela Merkel and Adele).  

And yet Hillary Clinton is locked in a long-haul race against a 74-year-old left-wing senator — a legislator who has little interest in the niceties of politics or the ideological blandness supposedly necessary to prevail in big-time politics. Hillary’s plight is a reminder that no one (aside from incumbent presidents) has been handed a nomination without a fight since Richard Nixon in 1960.  

Sure Bernie Sanders boasts advantages in what should be an uneven fight. Coming from Vermont gives him a boost in New Hampshire where he has been holding hefty leads in recent polls. And Iowa Democrats who caucus have always tilted towards the party’s left flank. In fact, 68 percent of Iowa Democrats likely to caucus said in the Des Moines Register Poll that they would be “OK with a president who described himself as a democratic socialist.”  

But most of the burden is on Hillary Clinton herself. Despite her high approval rate, there is a lingering enthusiasm gap. Her campaign so far has been a theme- less pudding of Democratic applause lines punctuated by occasional attacks on Wall Street designed to woo Sanders voters. It is telling that her strongest moment since she declared her candidacy last April was her ability to survive the 11-hour House Benghazi hearing without giving ground to the Republicans.  

Whatever the final numbers from Iowa (and Democratic caucus arithmetic requires an advanced degree in calculus), the Democratic establishment has to be a bit nervous about Clinton’s second-time-around candidacy. The furor over her private email server (which she tried to wave away last March with a marathon press conference) looks like it will continue to dog her into a general election campaign. And at a time when the voters crave authenticity, she remains a cautious candidate whose every gesture can appear calculated.  

The danger for Democrats who dread the electoral prospects of Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket is that they are operating without a safety net beyond Hillary.  

But the decision facing the GOP leaders in Washington — and rational Republicans around the country — is more daunting. Do they want to subordinate their 160-year-old party to Donald Trump’s ego?  

Put aside Trump’s more hateful positions (deporting 11 million undocumented immigrations and banning Muslims from our shores). Forget about the evidence demonstrating his ignorance of national security (a failure to grasp what the nuclear triad is and claiming he gets his foreign policy advice from Sunday talk shows). And skip over his advocacy of punishing tariffs (just what the export economy needs is a trade war) as his favorite threat against Mexico and China.  

Instead the relevant questions for Republicans are:  

Do they want to nominate a presidential candidate who routinely uses slurs like “bimbo” and “bastard” in his public speeches and tweets? Do they want a standard-bearer who comes close to encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies? Do they want to choose a nominee whose public anger is only matched by his narcissism?  

As Roll Call columnist Matt Lewis and others have pointed out, the failure of the Republican moneyed gentry (the Super PAC billionaires and Chamber of Commerce types) to fund a major assault on Trump remains baffling. The growing notion among some Republican leaders that they can negotiate with Trump is even more perplexing.  

In business terms, Trump is attempting a hostile takeover of the Republican Party — and few so far have mustered the gumption to fight back.  

But after 18 months of listening to talking heads yammer, it is refreshing to remember that eventually … if you wait long enough … voters do get their say.


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