It’s so on.
Instead of a coronation, Democrat Hillary Clinton, the ultimate political insider, left Iowa on Monday in the middle of an honest-to-goodness campaign against a septuagenarian, self-described Democratic Socialist who’d promised his supporters a political revolution.
For Republicans, Donald Trump, the bloviating former reality TV star who boasted that voters would get so sick of winning with him that they’d beg for the occasional loss, found himself awkwardly trying to be gracious in defeat to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who speaks in the cadences of the pulpit and dresses in the suits of a mortician.
Always full of surprises, Monday’s heavily attended caucuses, held in school gyms, community centers and meeting halls from Sioux City to Cedar Falls, yielded a bushel basket full of them.
And while Monday’s winners may not end up their respective party’s presidential candidates, the Hawkeye State’s charmingly anachronistic and equally quaint nominating contests were about as close as America gets to the kind of direct democracy that our kids learn about in social studies classes.
Nowhere was that image more vivid than at a Republican polling station in Des Moines, where a guy in a quarter-zip sweater plucked folded pieces of paper from a plastic U.S. Mail tub.
One by one, he read out the names of GOP hopefuls, while cellphone-wielding campaign watchers craned their necks for a closer look at the young woman who scribbled those names down on another piece of paper.
At a Democratic caucus site in Sioux City, meanwhile, a throng of college students, some of whom were working for Democrat Bernie Sanders, made passionate entreaties to clumps of uncommitted voters gathered in a school gym.
At one point, a young red-haired woman, swayed by their arguments, moved from one clump of students to another. Those half-dozen or so steps, accompanied by raucous cheers, appeared to signify her support for the Vermont senator.
A defining Iowa win was considered critical for Clinton, who trails Sanders by an average of 18 points in New Hampshire, based on data compiled by RealClear Politics. The Granite State holds its primary on Feb. 9. In 2008, Clinton lost Iowa, and the race, to another charismatic outsider — Barack Obama.
Speaking to reporters early on Tuesday morning, Sanders, who had no political organization as of last year, predicted he would “win states all over the country,” The Washington Post reported.
The Clinton camp, meanwhile, tried to characterize Sanders’ strong Iowa showing as a one-off.
But Sanders’ win highlights ongoing problems for Clinton, who’s faced questions about her honesty and trustworthiness over an email scandal that simply will not go away. Sanders also ran strong among first-time voters, millennials and hardcore progressives, adding fuel to the argument that voters on both sides are sick of establishment candidates this year.
With just five percentage points separating them, Trump, Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida provided Republicans with an unexpected three-way race for the GOP crown heading into New Hampshire.
The Iowa race exposed a fatal flaw in Trump’s campaign — while he may be able to pack stadiums, his support did not translate into actual bodies in the caucuses. He’ll have to up his ground game if he doesn’t want to be handed another defeat in New Hampshire, where a loss could doom his candidacy. Rubio and Cruz, conversely, have devoted resources to building grassroots support.
Critically for Rubio, Republicans who said they were most concerned about winning in November chose him over Trump, 44 percent to 24 percent, The Washington Post reported. That will further buttress Cruz’s ongoing argument that he’s the candidate best positioned to beat Clinton.
A dead heat for the Democrats. A horse-race for the GOP.
It was Iowa in all its quirky glory. And while it may not mean much over the long haul, the first-in-the nation contest did provide Americans with a reminder that they have some real choices in front of them this year.
It’s so on.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at email@example.com