By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What Iowa said Monday night was: Enough. Enough with business as usual. Enough with conventional candidates. Enough with the tired orthodoxies of politics. Enough with the surpassing power of big -- big banks, big lobbyists, big labor and even big self-interested local industries like ethanol. And enough with campaigns based on personal appeal, boasts and an aura of inevitability.
Even with that clarity -- and that message of insurrection echoed from the Mississippi in the east to the Missouri in the west -- there remained great imprecision in Iowa caucuses whose results were reported in tenths of percentage points. And yet, in muddied outcomes that were supposed to render an explicit and coherent early verdict on the 2016 presidential race, this is clear:
It is perceptions rather than percentages that matter. And in those perceptions there are two big winners -- but two big losers.
One of the big winners is a Texan who won friends by making an advantage of his history of making enemies and asking red-hot-angry Iowans to redeem his white-hot ambition. The other was another Cuban-American who shrewdly balanced his instinct for conventional politics, his hunger for political advancement and his sense that rebellion rather than rectitude was the formula for success in the petri dish of Iowa politics. Now Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio move on to the next stage of the struggle for the presidential nomination of a political party whose nominee lost the Hispanic vote by a 3-to-1 margin only four years ago.
One of the big losers is a man whose entire presidential campaign was based on being one of America's great winners. The other big loser is a woman whose dozen-year drive for the nomination was predicated on the notion that no one could compete with her organization, experience, sense of inevitability and shimmer of history. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton survived scares to fight another day (next Tuesday) in another idiosyncratic state (New Hampshire), but in a contest that is so much about impressions, it is impossible to argue that their first-impression Iowa performances have enhanced their brands.
At the same time, the award for the deftest branding of the year surely goes to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who trailed Clinton by the margin of error and, in at least six of Iowa's 1,681 precincts, a lost coin toss. In his speech Monday he described the results as a "virtual tie" and, remarkably, the phrase stuck. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who trailed former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania by about three dozen votes in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, was never able to match that achievement. Every account of the 2012 GOP caucuses counts Santorum the winner -- though this time he finished with 1 percent of the vote and no delegates. Politics in Iowa may be old-fashioned, but they are not nostalgic.
It was no revelation to learn that rebellion was the leitmotif of Monday night's caucuses (the cries of revolt carried across Iowa's prairies, powerfully and unmistakably), or to discover the power of commitment and organization (Cruz held more than 150 events in 56 days of campaigning).
But the impact of those factors still was stunning and, while the importance of political organizing will fade after next Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, the significance of the rebellion will persist. It was formidable enough Monday to render former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida -- the Republican candidate with the most conventional experience, bearing and outlook -- an astonishing afterthought performance given his prominence, family legacy and financial investment. He finished with 3 percent.
The path ahead is no clearer than Monday's results. Already the candidates have moved to New Hampshire, where, as Terry Shumaker, who was co-chair of Bill Clinton's two campaigns there, puts it, "You don't have to be Donald Trump to do well, as Eugene McCarthy and many others have shown."
There the evangelical vote that powered Cruz's rise is far less a factor than it was in Iowa. There the "good neighbor" factor that Sanders is sowing and that gave John F. Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Romney, all of Massachusetts, early victories, retains its power. There the campaigning may be even more personal and intimate than it was in Iowa, the voters even more demanding.
"They're tough judges," Kerry, the 2004 Democratic winner, said in an email as he was traveling as secretary of state. "They bring those notebooks and they write down their questions and they write down your answers. They care. They really care about their country. It's a wonderfully idealistic responsibility they carry on their shoulders. They let you find your voice.
"New Hampshire can build you up or knock you down, and sometimes, what's really wonderful is that it can build you up again."
That, of course, is the hope of Bush and of the other so-called mainstream candidates, each now fortified with an opportunistic flash of rebellion in his campaign stump speech.
The 2016 campaign presents New Hampshire with the greatest challenge to its being-there tradition. The candidates who have spent the most days in the state -- Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Bush -- are the three regarded as the most traditional. Cumulatively they accounted for 7 percentage points in Iowa. The two top rebellion candidates accounted for 52 percent of the Iowa tally, but Cruz has spent only 15 days in the Granite State and Trump only 22.
The big unknown in New Hampshire is Rubio, the surprise in Iowa. "Iowa is a lot about expectations," said David Redlawsk, a Rutgers political scientist who has written a book about the caucuses, "and in that regard you've got to say that Rubio did very well."
He, more than Trump, is the political figure the mainstream candidates fear as they seek in the clear New Hampshire air the oxygen they need to continue their campaigns. These candidates were banking on Rubio running a weak third in Iowa, but he came closer to overcoming Trump for second place than Trump came to overcoming Cruz for first. Each of these mainstream candidates needs a second or third in New Hampshire. This week that task looks harder than it did last week.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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