The Limits of Enthusiasm: Iowa 2016
Before addressing Trump’s failure in Iowa last night, I would like to dispel some enthusiastic spinning currently coming out of the Bernie Sanders activist community regarding his showing.
This will hurt many Sanders fans to hear, but Bernie needed to win Iowa more than Clinton did. Hilary barely beat (or did she?) Bernie, but the Sanders campaign is going to need decisive victories over Clinton in the early voting states to build the momentum necessary to take the nomination. Having lost the caucus to Obama in 2008, team Clinton needed to demonstrate that this time around, things were going to be different. She didn’t win by a large margin, but I disagree with those who argue her victory looked more like a defeat. At MSNBC, Chuck Todd wrote:
Winning essentially by one vote (err, five state delegate equivalents) instead of 1 percentage point, denied Clinton the opportunity to use ANY win as momentum heading into New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys a sizable lead. And…if you don’t want to take our word for it, here’s the attitude inside Clinton Land. “Clinton advisers … said they did not know if a significant staff shakeup was at hand, but they said that the Clintons were disappointed with Monday night’s result and wanted to ensure that her organization, political messaging and communications strategy were in better shape for the contests to come,” the New York Times writes.
Based on current polls, Bernie is likely going to win the New Hampshire primary next week. I doubt a more decisive victory in Iowa was going to change that. However, if Bernie were to win Iowa and then NH, the accumulating losses for Clinton would taint her campaign with the smell of defeat that could accumulate and dog her moving into the states she is best situated to win. Clinton just needs to hold her own against Bernie in the early states until she can rack up a slew of victories in more favorable markets.
That isn’t to take away from Bernie’s “victory” in Iowa. The fact that an old Jewish socialist performed so well throughout the state says something about the desire for something (or anything) different from the status quo. I am rooting for the guy, and he is the most desirable character in the bunch currently running. Yet, I find his chances of actually winning the primary slim, even as he has edged closer to Clinton in national polls. The real test for Sanders will be his ability to perform in western states and those with large black constituencies.
The Republican Nominee is…
Many snide jokes were made in Twitterland over the readiness by some to celebrate Rubio’s third place finish as a “victory.” There is no doubt that Ted Cruz was the clear winner of the caucus, demonstrating just what a focused game plan and electoral strategy can achieve. Cruz knew what he needed to accomplish in Iowa, and put the resources, effort and time into making it happen.
Nick Baumann of the Huffington Post had this to say about Rubio’s third place “victory”:
The pro-Rubio narrative will be that, as the “establishment” candidate who did best in Iowa, he is well-positioned to gather the full strength of the Republican establishment behind him. But Monday night’s results showed just how weak that establishment is: With 99 percent of the results in, Cruz, Trump and Carson, the candidates most often described as anti-establishment, took a combined 61 percent of the vote. Everyone else combined for 39 percent.
This is true, but Nick assumes that every state race across the country is going to favor “anti-establishment” candidates the same way Iowa did. It also assumes that the energy surrounding Cruz and Trump will sustain indefinitely, a claim I find historically suspect. At this stage Rubio simply needs the mainstream of his party to get behind him as the Bush/Christie/Fiorina crowd gives up in defeat. Unlike the other establishment figures like Walker, Perry, and Bush, Rubio has run a strong campaign thus far. As Marco’s competitors in the establishment fade away, his chances of receiving the nomination improve exponentially. Jeb has demonstrated quite vividly how money and connections do not guarantee a primary victory, but to say these variables mean nothing is deceptive. If Marco can consolidate the party’s establishment figures around his campaign in the next few months, he will likely earn the nomination.
Cruz’s overwhelming victory and Rubio’s strong third place showing revealed the inherent weakness in Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. It wasn’t until recently that Trump was even expected to do well in Iowa, but his loss may be the terminal political moment his foes have been anxiously anticipating.
Yes, Trump is not finished. He still has a commanding lead in the polls in the state primaries to follow. The man will continue to get an abundance of free press, something any candidate would kill for. Nor should one overlook his robust showing in Iowa. Without a viable strategy or ground game, he drew thousands to caucus for him, a real rarity in this form of electoral politics. Trump’s vague message of rebirth clearly inspired enough citizens to show up and vote without the typical administrative campaign choreography. That is impressive.
However, Trump is now seen as having failed. The entirety of his campaign has focused on his ability to triumph over his adversaries by the sheer will of his personality. Trump’s message to his supporters was that he would accomplish great deeds unthinkable by the lesser politicians before him. He could win by saying and doing just about anything, and his popularity in the polls appeared to confirm that.
In failure, Trump gave the most affable speech in his political career (perhaps his first concession of any kind), but you could see the sting of defeat on his face and the subdued stillness at his event last night. It was a single defeat, but it pierced his invincible aura and deflated some of the perceived inevitability that has fueled his rise the last few months.
Watching his followers on Twitter lament his failure was telling as well. His defeat seemed shocking to many; a number believed it illustrated why they should give up on electoral politics altogether. I felt similar watching Ralph Nader fail to attract much support in 2000 after tirelessly campaigning for him. That was my first political campaign, and I imagined that the country at large would share the enthusiasm I shared for my candidate. My young mind could not believe that this candidate was unpopular and did not possess the strategy or resources necessary to make an honest bid for the presidency. I blamed the voters and doubled down on my radical political leanings without reflecting on the factors that made Nader’s triumph impossible. Perhaps these young Trump supporters are just getting their first taste of electoral defeat after being assured limitless success and victory by their candidate.
Trump and his followers may reassure themselves that the Donald is still doing very well in the polls in many of the early primary states. But as the polls demonstrated in Iowa, people need to actually show up to vote. As our own CK mentioned last night in our extended Twitter conversation, the polls are mirages at the moment. With every win or loss, misstep or endorsement, the polls will shift. As candidates drop out and others pick up steam, Trump’s game plan appears to be the same one he pursued in the early days of his candidacy: Get media attention for outlandish statements, pack large venues for campaign speeches and remind voters that he is a winner who will win America back for Americans by winning.
If Trump is going to need more than nebulous policy statements and massive rallies to win the nomination, has he demonstrated the ability or willingness to change tactics and do the hard work required to get voters into the booth? Perhaps now would be a good time to demonstrate his advertised intellect and produce a strategy that goes beyond the blowhard visage he has relied on thus far.