What will we learn from the Iowa caucuses?

By: Tom Bolitho, Young Greens Treasurer and youth voice activist. Twitter: @Tom_Bolitho



The primaries for the 2016 US Presidential election have been like none before. The swelling of anti-establishment sentiment has been a huge factor that has never had anywhere near as much weight as it does today. Previously the numbers of the disillusioned were only relevant in conversations about voter apathy and turnout, or lack thereof; it’s a very different story now.

The rise of Trump to the GOP throne has not caught the world’s eye as much as his maintaining of it; surges to the ‘outsiders’ have been increasingly common globally, even in the United Kingdom in the form of both UKIP and the Green Party. The difference is that often the media never expect them to actually get anywhere. It’s merely an indication of the political Zeitgeist so that the big players can tweak their policies to engulf those potential renegades and secure the clean election that everyone wants.

And for a while, everyone was playing nicely. Where Trump pushed a racist agenda that tried to punch down towards society’s most vulnerable, the GOP’s endless list of gormlessly indistinguishable candidates followed. Except, the runaways didn't go back. They still haven’t, and with less than a week to go, it’s looking unlikely that they will in time for Jeb! to make the comeback that the Bush Christmas dinner toast went to, or for Rubio to win and make all the political pundits sleep easily once again in their underground lairs. Trump’s here to stay, whether we like it or not.

Personally, I'm pretty content with that. Trump makes no effort to hide his disgracefully repugnant rhetoric that is openly abusive, racist, sexist and factually incorrect. It’s a Democrat win begging to be taken. Of course, it’s frightening to see a third of Republicans endorsing this type of politics, but the reality is that independent voters would, by and large, never vote for such ideas. And, if Trump somehow did get elected, I would be confident that he would do a satisfactorily awful job pushing through any of his plans, reasonably presuming that the establishment GOP in Congress don’t rally around him.

Trump’s route to the White House is a rocky road. Even in Iowa, a surprise victory from Ted Cruz is certainly not out of the picture. Although the latest polls undoubtedly push Trump into a cushy frontrunner position in the first Caucus state, as well as the nation, some such as those from KBUR and Quinnipiac University show a neck-to-neck fight, with the latter citing a 29% share to Cruz and 31% to Trump. It’s also worth keeping in mind that turnout is everything; perhaps even more so in a caucus system. Trump’s ground game is supposedly almost non-existent, whilst Cruz has understandably put all his effort into Iowa and established himself there. As a Senator with a strong Tea Party, Deep South and religious draw combined with anti-establishment rhetoric, Cruz would be the GOP’s best option to beat Trump if they can get over Rubio and Jeb! in time. I don’t think they will; Trump will win Iowa, has already in all but name won New Hampshire and will most likely steamroll all other states unless something drastic happens on Monday.


Across the aisle, the Democrat primary is at a deadlock that will only begin to resolve itself in Iowa. On the one hand, we have Clinton, a clear establishment candidate from her dynastical name alone. On the other hand we have Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist facing a not all-encompassing but nonetheless undeniably momentous surge in support that has not dwindled but grown. 

For the caucuses, it’s all about the ground game; whoever is mobilising their people, inspiring their supporters and being effective at getting their narrative across wins. Bernie trumps Hillary on all fronts. The disillusioned non-voters are becoming enthused voters, with Bernie as their catalyst, as Trump is in the GOP, with young people in particular coming out in great numbers to support the Vermont Senator. It almost seems as if that notoriously difficult group of voters to engage with are not just apathetic lost causes but are simply looking for policies that they can actually get behind, from a politician advocating drastic changes to a broken system, such as making college tuition free, and providing hope by doing so. Ultimately, it’s a confident bet to say that the passion that Sanders’ campaign has inspired will mobilise his supporters in a way that Clinton’s perhaps less enthused support base will lack.


It’s also about narrative, arguably the single most important component in any campaign. Bernie is talking about economic inequality and campaign finance reform, easily the top two issues in the US today. Hillary is talking about women, Obama and experience. It’s not a narrative, it’s a selection of ideas that focus group feedback suggests have traction. It would be great to have a non-man as a President, and that is probably her strongest narrative point, but is that enough for her supporters to bother to caucus for her? 

The question of narrative is also true for the GOP too. Trump has woven his image as an anti-establishment character that plainly says what he thinks. This is a narrative: that he has no political narrative. It’s about him, not what he says, which is why he only ever rises in the polls when he appears on the news with more of his bile. It’s free coverage, using the springboard of any random policies that he pulls out of his toupee. Apart from Rand Paul’s libertarian drool, no other candidate is presenting a narrative that is inspiring anyone to listen to them, agree with them or vote for them.

The Democrat polls are far too close to distinguish in Iowa; it’s anyone’s game. Anyone except Martin O’Malley that is, but in an interesting twist that I will call the O'Malley Factor, it may be those O’Malley supporters who decide who wins Iowa. The way that the Democrat caucuses in Iowa works requires 15% or more of each caucus to be for a candidate or they are deemed ‘non-viable’, in which case their voters must be wooed to join other camps or register as ‘uncommitted’. O’Malley is consistently polling below 5%, suggesting that in a large amount of the caucuses in Iowa there will be O’Malley voters swinging towards Sanders or Clinton in number that would likely push one candidate above the other. The only question is which way they will go; there’s a strong case to be made that they will go in the former Secretary of State’s direction, as her policies are closer to O’Malley’s, but it would also be fair to argue that they will go to Bernie’s side which matches more of the former Maryland Governor’s rhetoric. No polling has been done to evidence this one way or another and no one can actually find an O’Malley supporter to ask them, so it’s anyone’s guess.

What happens after Iowa? Well, we move swiftly onto New Hampshire where there is a significantly lower level of speculation, based on polling that clearly shows Bernie and Trump to be the frontrunners. It’s possible for Hillary to catch up to Bernie, but it seems unlikely based on his consistently high lead that has shown no sign of breaking. And for Donald, there is next to no chance that he will get toppled there, considering his massive lead. From there we move round the country, which will undoubtedly have been stirred by the early state results. It will also be worth looking out for Independent candidates such as Jill Stein from the Green Party and a potential Michael Bloomberg run if Hillary’s position looks weak. At this point a Democrat Presidency is tangible, in whatever form that may be, and although a GOP Presidency is still possible, it looks unlikely to be anything other than Trump-shaped. Whatever the case, it starts in Iowa.


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