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Iowa’s Political Weeding

cutouts of the faces of various 2016 presidential candidates, prominently including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
photo by Phil Roeder

If history is any guide, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz will capitalize on his upset victory in the Iowa caucuses to carry momentum to New Hampshire, take a commanding lead in the early delegate count and sweep to his party’s presidential nomination this summer.

Actually, he won’t. And history tells us pretty much the opposite.

While George W. Bush did win Iowa in 2000 and went on to win the White House, he had to run a lengthy and sometimes nasty campaign against Sen. John McCain to get the nomination, and then he had to squeak through the one of the nation’s closest general elections to defeat Democrat Al Gore. Also, the same electorate of socially conservative, evangelical Christian voters that Cruz mobilized so effectively this week handed victory to Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. It was the high point of that year’s campaign for Huckabee, who returned to Iowa this year - and ended his presidential campaign Monday night after finishing near the bottom of the pack. Big-donor money kept Santorum in the race long enough to wound eventual nominee Mitt Romney four years ago, but Santorum, too, was never able to fully match his Iowa success. He remains in this year’s race as I write this, but only technically.

This is a different year, and Cruz is a different kind of candidate than Santorum or Huckabee. His is a smarter, better-funded and more strategically focused campaign operation. While his base is in the GOP’s most socially conservative strata, he is not without appeal to the party’s fiscal hawks (which is where the Tea Party that identifies with Cruz really has its roots) and its sizable anti-immigrant wing. It is noteworthy that Cruz won Iowa despite being the only prominent candidate in either party to oppose the state’s sacred cow, which is not a bovine, but rather ethanol mandates that subsidize corn farmers at everybody else’s expense. People always say they want politicians to stand against special interests, but they usually don’t vote that way when the interest is special to them.

The GOP anti-immigrant wing is, for now, the core of Donald Trump’s support. As long as Trump stays in the race, he probably denies Cruz a significant slice of that vote. But if Trump leaves, Cruz will not be shut out when Trump’s support is divvied up among whoever might be left. Trump was leading in the pre-Iowa polls of New Hampshire’s primary voters, and there is no reason to think he will quit the race at any point before he concludes that a lack of success is damaging his personal brand. There is really no way to know how far his celebrity television persona may carry the policy-challenged New Yorker, but I expect it will be at least as far as the largely southern Super Tuesday races on March 1.

A dismal fourth-place Iowa showing erased the rationale behind Dr. Ben Carson’s candidacy. His campaign organization is clearly rotting from within, and it is only a matter of time - probably not much time - before he is gone. On paper Carson’s supporters have the most in common with Cruz, so the obvious guess is that they will gravitate to the Texan and give him another boost, probably before South Carolina (Feb. 20 for Republicans and Feb. 27 for Democrats) and Super Tuesday. But I’m not so sure. Carson’s quiet temperament is pretty much the opposite of Cruz. I suspect his supporters are amenable to other choices.

The only real other choice left in the game is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose strong third-place finish made him Iowa’s other big GOP winner. We will soon see whether the so-called mainstream Republican vote will coalesce behind Rubio. But first we have to get past New Hampshire’s primary next Tuesday, on which Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich have bet nearly all their remaining chips. Once the presumed overwhelming favorite, with vast fundraising and family connections including two former presidents, Bush managed to muster less than 3 percent of his party’s Iowa vote. Although he has the money to keep going, a similarly poor showing in New Hampshire will bring demands from nearly the entire Republican universe for Bush to get out of the race, since all he could reasonably hope to accomplish is to weaken Rubio for the benefit of Cruz and Trump, along with that of the eventual Democratic nominee.

Carly Fiorina may stay in the race for a while because, in effect, she is campaigning for a vice presidential nomination. She could be useful on a ticket in which she could attack Hillary Clinton without fear of being charged with misogyny, and her California roots would aid Silicon Valley fundraising and potentially force Democrats to expend more resources in what should be a safe sate for them.

Rand Paul, who finished in fifth place in Iowa with about 5 percent of the vote, might stay in the race out of sheer orneriness. Or he, too, might conclude that further campaigning will only benefit Democrats and bow out. I have no idea where his supporters will go, although I would guess that at least a few will be attracted across party lines to the Bernie Sanders camp.

Speaking of Sanders, Clinton and the Democrats, Iowa told us very little that we did not already know. The party’s youthful base wants to hook up with Sanders regardless of the consequences; its more mature institutional bedrock in the union and feminist movements know that Clinton is the safe and boring date that brought them to the dance and might get them home without getting grounded for at least the next four years. Unless internal or external events simply blow up her candidacy, the Clinton machine and the no-holds-barred tactics it employs when threatened should carry her to the nomination. But it is going to be a heavy lift.

Iowa is a small, unrepresentative state with an arcane primary process that tells us very little about the prospects for its winners. But someone once said that elections have consequences, and on that occasion, at least, he was correct. Iowa’s rural caucus results may not be good at picking presidential nomination winners, but it helps weed out the losers.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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One Response to "Iowa’s Political Weeding"

  • Larry Elkin
    February 3, 2016 - 11:14 am

    Postscript: Rand Paul dropped out of the race this morning, shortly after we posted this commentary.