Iowa 2016: Five Things We Learned

by | Feb 2, 2016 | Faith & Politics


It’s 9 months until Election Day, and here are five things we learned from the Iowa Caucuses:


1. Cruz Won; Clinton and Sanders Tied

Ted Cruz pulled well ahead of Donald Trump, while Hillary Clinton virtually tied with Bernie Sanders.  For the details, see here. To compare that to the most reliable predictions, see here.


2. There’s More Than One Way to Lose

Donald Trump by Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Trump lost. While he can recover, his aura of invincibility is gone. New Hampshire has just become yugely important for Trump.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic caucus, Sanders has scored a victory. He ran a tight race against Clinton, and that’s troubling for Clinton going into New Hampshire, where she will probably lose. The Iowa race was predicted to be close, and she can afford to lose both Iowa and New Hampshire. But this tie maintains Sanders’ influence in the race, keeping Clinton on her toes and raising continuing questions about the Obama legacy and her credentials as a progressive.

Marco Rubio exceeded expectations, and by a wide margin. For those concerned about the electability of Cruz and Trump, Rubio showed that there is a plausible alternative.

Jeb Bush may wait until after New Hampshire to make any major decisions, but watch to see how he makes his exit. He and Rubio have been fighting for the same middle ground in the GOP. Now it’s clear that the money and support he has attracted would be much better served with Rubio.

And then there’s Martin O’Malley. Remember him? Neither did Iowans. But he’s young and has learned lessons that will be valuable when he no doubt runs for office again in the future.


3. Sometimes the Media is the News

A big story last week was the media’s failed expectations on a number of fronts.  Perhaps the biggest was the oft-heard claim “Months ago, no one thought Trump would launch a viable campaign. Now he has… Wait! Maybe he won’t win Iowa, though…” Those statements say more about the media than it does about Trump. 2016 is shaping up to be a reminder that conventional wisdom is merely that: conventional.

The most important narrative, however, is that polls determine destinies. And the media loves them. As David Axelrod jocularly quipped on CNN in the midst of incoming caucus results: “I can’t wait for the voting to be over so we can get back to the polls.” But we do well to remember that elections — not polls — elect presidents.


4. The Parties Are Broken

That said, the political parties are certainly not in good shape these days. For most of U.S. history, two parties have alternated power over Washington, typically for several decades at a time. Since 1968, however, neither party has successfully held the Congress or the White House in the long-term.

Bernie in IowaIt has been argued that the parties since ‘68 have become more ideologically sorted, that the two parties better represent left and right than they did before the turbulence of the so-called “culture wars.” But the story now seems to be that advocates of ideological purity are threatening the parties. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are signs of widespread dissatisfaction with the political parties, with profound effects on the electoral process.

With that in mind, perhaps the most over-used phrase in this year’s cycle is “The Establishment.” Many use the term to evoke the image of a monolithic, omnipotent, shadowy, anti-democratic force that steers politics from a smoke-filled room. “The Establishment” may be all that, but it’s time to admit that neither political party is controlling its faithful in this way.

5. Iowa Is Weird…But It’s Ours.

Many Americans are bemused by Iowa’s caucus system. But for many, the caucus system represents Democracy In Action — and it’s not going anywhere.

Even more Americans are confused by Iowa’s status as first-in-the-nation. There are good reasons for Iowa going first, at least according to our Iowan-in-Chief, Michael Rossmann. Most of the arguments assume that the primary system is fine as-is. But it’s important to recall that the current primary system is relatively young, and has been tweaked many times. The U.S. will likely continue to reevaluate our primary system, and that could well include Iowa’s placement in the schedule.  For now, however, we’ll have to content ourselves watching small herds of Midwesterners flocking to different corners of gyms.  It isn’t perfect, or efficient — but it is Democracy In Action.


Title Image, by Flickr user DonkeyHotey, is available online here.


Bill McCormick, SJ   /   All posts by Bill