The morning after the 2008 Iowa caucus, Hillary Clinton held a painfully awkward conference call with her campaign team. Having just lost badly to Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination she asked each of her advisers what the next step was, only to be greeted with stony silence.
Imagine how awkward that same conference call must have been this morning.
Having had eight years to learn the lessons of her defeat to Obama in Iowa, last night’s virtual tie with Bernie Sanders must be a huge psychological blow, even if the narrowest of wins was eventually secured. Clinton may have publicly breathed a ‘sigh of relief’ but it is hard to image that she is calm. Not only does she begin the year on the back foot but she does so after a night where Marco Rubio – probably her most threatening opponent – got back in the game and Donald Trump – her most useful opponent – had his first wobble.
Inevitably I watched the caucus results come in surrounded largely by Democrats and an ironic cheer went up as the networks declared victory in for Ted Cruz. Most of the audience were delighted to see Trump defeated partly for its own sake but also because so many on the left believe that any bad news for him is a boost for the Clinton campaign. Plenty of Democratic insiders know, however, that Cruz or Rubio pose far more of a threat to the Democrats in November. Proof of this can be found among the Republican commentariat, plenty of whom saw last night’s setback for Trump as a step in the right direction for the GOP.
Before getting carried away with what Iowa ‘means’, it is important to remember that last night’s caucus does not really change much for any of the frontrunners, and many of the pithy insights you will hear about how this impacts the candidates will be forgotten or confounded in a week’s time after the New Hampshire primary. Rubio may flounder, Trump may rally, Cruz may remain out in front. Right now it does not matter – what will remain is a race that set to be stretched out over the long term. The real losers of Iowa are those in either party who want this primary season to be over any time soon.
Not only did Cruz win handsomely but he did so after much of his party’s establishment decided to turn on him rather than Tump. The fact that he won Iowa while being publicly against ethanol subsidies speaks volumes about his political staying power. Trump is not going anywhere – how could he? After building his campaign on bluster, bragging and boasts of a third party run, the notion that he will quietly step down for the good of the party even if his numbers start to slide seems unthinkable.
With his strong third place showing Rubio defied expectations (although it is hard to recall the time when he was talked of as a frontrunner). The Florida senator has the wind in his sails for the time being and is likely to stick around. And Jeb Bush, with a sizeable campaign war-chest and the backing of so much of the Republican establishment, can afford to stay in the race for months if he chooses. Bush may believe he can bide his time, waiting for a frontrunner to stumble or some X-factor like a third party run from Michael Bloomberg to throw the race wide open.
On the Democratic side the Iowa results confirmed that Bernie Sanders is also in it for the long run. He said as much on the eve of the caucus, declaring that he will fight until the day of the Democratic convention. Of course, talk is cheap and he will doubtless find it harder and harder to keep up with the Clinton machine. And yet, just like Trump, it is hard to imagine him slipping quietly into the night for the good of the party, particularly as he has always kept his distance from the Democratic establishment. Having spent months offering a revolution to overturn a broken political system it is hard to imagine a Sanders concession speech endorsing Clinton in the near future.
All of this is terrible for Clinton. She will, of course, be her party’s eventual nominee. But the more Democrats who feel the Bern now, the fewer who will be knocking doors and signing cheques in the fall after their preferred candidate has been formally knocked out. That risk only increases if either Cruz or Rubio becomes the GOP nominee. Plenty of Democrats and swing voters are less than enthusiastic about Clinton. These people may be wary of Trump but know less about Cruz and Rubio’s swivel-eyed tendencies and – believing that the terror of extreme rightwinger in the White House has been avoided – decide to stay home come election day. Just as every superhero needs a villain, Clinton needs Trump.
The results of the Iowa caucus were not decisive enough to significantly help any one candidate, but they were indecisive enough to signal that the primaries may run well into the summer and possibly all the way to the convention for both parties.
If you are already bored of American politics you are going to hate the next six months.
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda
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