Iowa is a small state that’s nowhere near representative of America either politically or ethnically, but it is the first nominating contest and did its job, starting to sort the presidential contenders from the pretenders.
On the Republican side, the big winners in the caucuses Monday were Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, sons of Cuban immigrants who are tussling over who is the most loyal to the party line against immigration reform.
Cruz, a smooth-talking Texan by way of Canada and the Ivy League, finished first with his hard-right message that appeals to conservative true believers but will not be as attractive to the moderate majority in November.
Rubio, a youthful Floridian, broke out of the establishment pack to come in a strong third. The conventional wisdom – not that it’s been accurate in this unconventional campaign – is that if he follows up with a top-tier finish in the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday, he could consolidate support and money and elbow out the other mainstream candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
Donald Trump, who narrowly beat Rubio for second and gave a surprisingly gracious concession speech, needs to hold his lead in New Hampshire, or his brand as a “winner” will be further tarnished and his circus of a campaign may finally falter.
The GOP field is being culled. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas dropped out after scarcely registering in Iowa; others may follow before or soon after New Hampshire, heading into the Republican primary in South Carolina on Feb. 20.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders, but just barely. They appear headed for a long slog in a two-person race now that former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland has ended his campaign.
Both Clinton and Sanders face big challenges ahead. Clinton carries the baggage of trust issues, made worse by the scandal surrounding her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Sanders must get past the socialist label with many voters and has to prove he can win in more diverse states.
Clinton could be forgiven a severe case of déjà vu. She was also the presumptive favorite for her party’s nomination in 2008 – until an upstart named Barack Obama caught fire and galvanized young people and new voters.
While millennials are “feeling the Bern,” Sanders is no Obama.
For all his railing against the establishment, Sanders has been in Congress for 26 years. He doesn’t have Obama’s oratorical gifts, nor is he the same kind of historic figure.
And Democrats who back Obama should take note that the president picked Clinton for his Cabinet and gave an interview published last week that sounded suspiciously like an endorsement. Clinton is smartly attaching herself to Obama and promising to build on his accomplishments, especially health care reform.
Clinton and Sanders were campaigning bright and early Wednesday in New Hampshire. Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, has a double-digit lead in the polls, but Clinton came back to win the state in 2008 and has more opportunities to make inroads at a town hall Wednesday night and possibly a debate Thursday night. If Sanders does win in New Hampshire, she hopes the Nevada caucus on Feb. 20 and the South Carolina primary a week later will blunt his momentum.
Then comes Super Tuesday on March 1 with primaries and caucuses in 11 mostly Southern states (12 for the GOP). It seems unlikely that either party’s nomination will be wrapped up by then.
Who knows? Maybe California’s primary on June 7 will actually matter in this crazy election year.