As Iowa readies its inexcusably and alarmingly undemocratic caucuses to kick off the two major American parties’ presidential nomination process, culminating in Americans knowing who will be vying to be president and vice president on both the Democratic and Republican sides, we can pause now to take a measure of where our nation is politically as all eyes focus on Iowa for now and then (rightly) forget it exists for most of the next four years.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 1, 2016
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AMMAN — Looking at Iowa—also known as The Hawkeye State—several thematic observations can be made about the state of American presidential political campaigns as the full election season of 2016 officially kicks off.
1.) The Republican Civil War Has Now Devolved Into Anarchy
The last week before the Iowa caucuses will be remembered as the time when any pretense that the Republican Party was not in an anarchic civil war melted away. There are so many fractures and faultiness being exposed here that this resembles less the American Civil War between North and South than the current Syrian Civil War or the Thirty Years” War. While there is a clear front-runner, the entire rest of the tier—well over half of surveyed Republicans’ support is divided among the dozen non-Trump candidates—is a mess.
A whole separate article (or series of articles!) could be written about how we got to this point. For now, we can look at the the most recent schisms in light of recent events, which together demonstrate beyond a doubt the anarchic state of things for the GOP.
a.) Trump’s war with Fox
Ever since the first Republican debate, it has been clear that Trump has not liked Megyn Kelly; Trump went after her and Kelly’s network stuck by her, escalating the feud to include Fox. Eventually, Fox News head Roger Ailes and Trump spoke, and let it be known they were on good terms. However, it soon became clear that the personal good terms did not seem to extend how Trump felt about the network or Kelly, and over the past few months, regular pundits on Fox have been critical of Trump and Trump has been critical of Kelly and her network. He flirted with the idea of skipping the last debate before the Iowa caucuses since Kelly was going to be a moderator, but did not sounds particularly emphatic regarding this possibility. That changed when Fox News issued an official press release mocking Trump in very a satirical (and unprofessional) tone. Trump responded angrily by definitively pulling out of the debate.
I am not sure if people realize how incredibly unprecedented this is: both that the one major news organization that can be seen as a mouthpiece of the Republican Party was publicly attacking its front-runner a few days before the final debate before the nominating process officially began with the Iowa caucuses, and that the front-runner withdrew from a debate he had committed to almost at the last minute. Either by itself would have been unprecedented enough. This might have never happened before in American history, and certainly has not happened in the modern era.
For a party that has so long been characterized (and characterized itself) as the more organized and disciplined of the two major parties, very few occurrences could so dramatically illustrate the rapid decline and internal chaos now afflicting that party. Thus, a few days before the first contest in which Republican voters would begin choosing their nominee, the nation’s preeminent, most successful, and most dominant conservative news outlet was in open conflict with the the conservative party’s front-runner. As a result, Trump announced that he would hold his own event to raise money for veterans instead of attending the debate, and the debate had the second-lowest ratings of any of the seven Republican debates held thus far. And Trump did manage to raise $6 million for veterans, including a donation he made himself for $1 million. While people can debate about the decorum of how veterans and their causes are used as political football, this is simply how American, and especially Republican, politics operate, and it is hard, objectively, to single Trump out on this measure. At least in Trump’s case, $6 million was raised that would not have been raised otherwise. And he did this while his opponents squabbled and tore each other apart, hurting each other but not Trump. Trump even opened by saying he would have liked to have gone to the debate, but framed it as a matter of principle, but mentioned also that Fox had reached out to him repeatedly, “apologized” (Fox did not use that word in its account), and was very nice, but that it was just too late.
Yes, somehow, Trump managed to (relatively) elevate himself above the debate’s political bickering and actually do something that helped people, and the network that was attacking him and decidedly not favoring him enabled this whole contrast to take place in the first place. Apart from certain conservatives who are decidedly anti-Trump and tried to frame the whole situation as Trump being a coward and wanting to avoid a debate, the consensus from respectable pundits on both the right and the left, from Chuck Scarborough to David Gergen, is that Trump came out on top over Fox.
b.) Trump’s war with the right’s ideological intelligentsia
What passes for the Republicans’ version of an intelligentsia has been very anti-Trump from the start. Now, one of the preeminent publications of conservative intellectual thought, National Review, has devoted almost an entire issue to attacking Trump in one of the biggest media broadsides directed at Trump to date. The problem for The National review is that today’s Republican Party is clearly very much not an intellectual party and the party rank-and-file is in revolt against such intellectual elites, especially since the rise of the Tea Party, thus this little issue will have almost no effect on the race; very few Republicans will actually even read it…
c.) Trump vs. Cruz
They played nice for some time, but once the two were close in Iowa, the gloves came off, and their attacks against each other have definitely escalated. There is something intensely satisfying about seeing such a darling of the Tea Party weighed down by Trump’s birtherism attacks, since the Tea Party has long embraced ludicrous birther conspiracy theoriesabout Obama. Trump and Cruz have been hitting each other hard in the final days in Iowa, but only Cruz seems to have suffered significantly as a result.
d.) Cruz vs. Rubio
While there were previews of this fight before the latest Trumpless debate, that evening was when the two began their main assaults against each other (Rubio saying then that Cruz is “willing to say or do anything in order to get votes”), and now it is ugly. With immigration as the central issue, Cruz is trying to portray Rubio as a capitulator and supporting what he terms “amnesty,” while Rubio maintains that Cruz’s entire campaign is “built on” a “lie:” Cruz’s sly, morphing position(s!) on immigration. The two seem to have landed some good blows against each other, with neither clearly standing above the other, but Rubio is now trending up while Cruz is trending down. In the final days before the caucuses, Cruz has directed most of his attacks against Rubio, seeing him as the biggest threat since he could emerge as a second second-place Trump-alternative over time, the position Cruz is currently tenuously occupying. Cruz, then, is not running a campaign to beat Trump so much as he is trying to make himself appear as the only viable alternative to Trump.
e.) Most of the other Republican candidates vs. Cruz
Not only Trump and Rubio, but most of the rest of the candidates seem to be going after Cruz now, especially Rand Paul, because they see Cruz as the biggest obstacle between them and Trump; it seems no one wants to hurt Trump if it will only help Cruz run off with the nomination, something that says a lot about how fellow politicians—the people with whom a President Cruz would need to work—view him. Maybe they also just don’t like him and see through his blatant posturing…
f.) Cruz vs. the media
Cruz has always portrayed the media as his enemy, and has tried, unsuccessfully, to play negative coverage and questions on his flip-flopping on immigration, his loan scandal, and about his constitutional eligibility to run for president as smears by the media. His attempts to outright dismiss these issues when pressed by the press (especially during and after the last Trumpless debate) have fallen flat.
g.) Iowa Republican leaders vs. Cruz
Iowa’s long-term Republican governor, while not endorsing anyone, has come out strongly and somewhat unprecedentedly against Cruz. And his Secretary of State has condemned Cruz’s campaign for mailing out false, manipulative flyers (see section 2.)
h.) Cruz vs. The Republican Establishment
i.) The Republican Establishment vs. itself
Early in Trump’s candidacy, The (vaunted) Republican Establishment was decidedly anti-Trump and some of them had helped Gov. Jeb Bush build up a well-over $100 million war chest. My, how things have changed: now, on one level, many of Bush’s donors are looking to bail on him and find a new candidate; on another, The Establishment is so anti-Cruz that some of themhave begun supporting Trump against Cruz as the lesser of two evils, though it remains to be seen both if this is a temporary measure or not, i.e., if they will turn on Trump if they can first vanquish Cruz. For those who aren’t resigned to, or leaning towards, Trump, there are too many other candidates they favor collectively to be able to say any one of them has a clear advantage (“buzz” about Rubio has been constant, especially from Fox, but as of yet this has not materialized into enough support to mean anything significant for Rubio). Where The Establishment will end is anyone’s guess, although we can certainly rule Cruz out.
j.) Rubio vs. Bush
Bush and Rubio have been going after each other for months, but one of the most intense moments was at the last, Trumpless debate, when Rubio hypocritically called out Bush for changing his position over immigration, citing Bush’s book; Bush had one of his best moments of the debates as he literally laughed off the charge, saying “So did you Marco!”and sold himself well as someone able to get things done, while Rubio just feebly repeated the same charge against Bush, again citing Bush’s book (where was this JEB! before?). As the race goes forward, this rivalry between a former mentor and his former protégé looks only to get worse.
k.) Rubio vs. Christie
For whatever reasons (most likely because they are now competing for some of the same Establishment support) Gov. Christie and Rubio have been really getting into it recently. Both in recent debates and on the campaign trail, the two have sharpened their attacks against each other are attacking each other more and more frequently. At least in the debates, Christie seems to have gotten the best of Rubio usually; like Bush, Christie has skillfully pointed out Rubio’s hypocrisy, even sort of coming to Bush’s defense. How these two interact, especially coming up in New Hampshire, where they are neck-and-neck, will be worth watching.
Rubio may very well become the next Cruz, both to his benefit and to his detriment…
l.) Evangelicals vs. themselves
Evangelicals are divided. But Evangelicals are more divided in Iowa than in they are nationally; Cruz’s higher margin of support with Evangelicals over Trump is weaker in Iowa than it is nationally. In Iowa, Trump, by various measures, has the support of slightly more than two Evangelicals for every three Evangelicals that support Cruz. Since Cruz is placing almost his entire candidacy on the support of Evangelicals, this is something of a problem for him. Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent endorsement of Trump also suggests problems for Cruz. Additionally, Dr. Ben Carson is also taking a significant chunk of the Evangelical vote, even though he is far behind both Trump and Cruz. It Trump wins Iowa and does well among evangelicals there, does this translate into more support for Trump among Evangelicals nationally? It very well may…
m.) The Republican base vs. The Republican Establishment
No surprise here: this was one of the major stories of 2015 and even before that (just look at John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House and the rise of the Tea Party) and will continue to be a major theme this election year; Donald Trump’s rise is only the main manifestation of this trend…
Reuters/Brian C. Frank
2.) The Last Stands of Ted and Bernie?
First, let me be clear: I am not making an outright comparison between Sens. Cruz and Sanders. While Cruz is clearly an amazingly calculating liar, I will show in an upcoming piece that Bernie is not as extreme as some would make him out to be. But the one thing they do have in common, other than being sitting senators, is that they need to win Iowa to give their campaigns any real chance of being competitive going forward.
Cruz’s desperation, in particular, is showing, as his pitches grow weirder, his tactics more extreme, even downright dirty: the Republican Secretary of State for Iowa has even called out Cruz for sending out misleading flyers to voters likely to support him falsely claiming that they would be guilty of voting “violations” that would be on their “public record” if they did no go to the caucuses, essentially scaring voters who favor him into turning out. Here, we truly see the level of respect that Cruz has for people in general and his supporters specifically. Incredibly and tellingly, Cruz essentially defended the move by saying that the end justifies the means: “I will apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.” The latest polls in Iowa have shown a steady Trump lead, a Cruz drop, and surge for #3 Rubio, while in New Hampshire, Cruz, far behind Trump, also appears to be losing ground, where others are gaining on Cruz or pulling even with him; if Cruz fails to prevail in Iowa, he could very well fall out of the top few places in New Hampshire, making it ever harder in a crowded field to build support nationally, where Cruz has only held a distant second place to Trump for less than two months, a spot he gained only just after rising to the #2 spot in Iowa, suggesting the two situations are related. As I wrote a week ago, all the major signs point to a Trump win, whose support is also deeper than Cruz’s. However, if Cruz does manage to defeat Trump—most likely by poaching other candidates’ supporters—he might be able to go forward successfully as the main anti-Trump candidate, as his success there would make it difficult for Marco Rubio or anyone else to build much momentum going forward.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images
As for Bernie, I don’t think a single sane commentator would suggest otherwise than that his campaign has surprised all and outperformed expectations by a large margin. That being said, seventeen out of twenty-three polls since January 1st, including the six of the last seven polls (and one of those seven is the gold-standard final poll by polling virtuoso Ann Selzer), have Clinton ahead of Sanders, and her support is also more committed. It seems the only way Bernie could beat Hillary is if he was able to have an Obamaesque effect on voter turnout, and while he does seem to have generated substantial enthusiasm, the level seems to fall far short of the unique, historic, Obama-level Iowa caucuses support. Still, it remains close, and since, unlike Cruz, he was not trending down in the final polls, it would seem Bernie has a better chance of prevailing than Cruz. At the same time, if Bernie cannot win in Iowa, it is extremely difficult to envision a path for him to the nomination save for some disaster for Clinton, like a health problem or an FBI indictment regarding her e-mail situation, both of which seem highly unlikely. Why is Iowa so crucial for Bernie? That’s because Bernie’s core support comes from white liberals, and, apart from his home state of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire, no state has a higher percentage of white liberals than Iowa, and only Massachusetts ties it; these four states are also the only states out of fifty where white liberals make up at least half the Democratic electorate. So Bernie is quite fortunate in that the first two contests for the nomination are in states that are as favorable as possible to him, two among the four states that are most predisposed to support him; if he is unable to win in Iowa, it would reconfirm the suspicious of those who have reasonable doubts about his ability to have widespread appeal and to win a general election, let alone a nomination. It will be close, but Clinton has reason to be confident in victory (though hardly overhwhelmingly so), while, at the same time, Bernie really needs this a win here to stay relevant.
3.) “Iowa, You’re Fired!”
One final thought: especially if Trump (but also, to a lesser degree, if Sanders) wins in Iowa, expect (respective) Party elites to seriously begin a discussion about demoting Iowa from its current spot as the lead state in the nomination contest calendar. This would be quite welcome and healthy, as Iowa in 2016 does not represent America as a whole well and Iowa’s caucuses are inherently undemocratic and involve a lot of social pressure and no privacy in voting.
Read follow up article: Politics From Iowa to New Hampshire: Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire
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