Tonight in Iowa, the Democratic and Republican parties held their first nominating events of the 2016 presidential cycle. At hundreds of schools, churches, and homes throughout the Hawkeye State, large numbers of voters and activists showed up to caucus for their preferred presidential candidates.
On the Republican side, a plurality favored Ted Cruz, the militant Texas senator who helped goad the House Republican caucus into shutting down the federal government for several weeks in late 2013. Cruz beat out billionaire mogul Donald Trump, who had been ahead in the polls and was thought to be the frontrunner, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who may wind up as the establishment’s choice if Jeb Bush doesn’t catch fire in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were locked in a tie, with Clinton maintaining a slight lead for much of the evening that gradually diminished, until she was left with only the slimmest of an advantage in terms of delegates. In late evening speeches, Both Clinton and Sanders heaped praise on their supporters and on Iowa Democrats for making the contest competitive. They did acknowledge each other, but reserved their criticism for Republicans and for Wall Street.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who had tried to portray himself as a fresher, more youthful alternative to the Democratic frontrunners, announced midway through the vote count that he was dropping out, having concluded that he was the odd man out in what has become a two-candidate contest. In most places, O’Malley was unable to even meet the threshold for viability.
Republican Mike Huckabee likewise announced that he was dropping out, having finished in ninth place, ahead of only Chris Christie and Jim Gilmore. Huckabee trailed Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. It’s worth remembering that eight years ago, he won the Iowa caucuses, but ultimately lost to John McCain, who cleaned up on Super Tuesday.
Sanders’ remarkable performance in Iowa demonstrates that he has staying power and is likely to remain in the race for a long time.
Sanders’ strong showing is actually good news for Hillary Clinton, whether her campaign wants to admit it or not. See, a competitive Democratic presidential race means a bigger audience for Clinton’s ideas (it takes two to debate!), and it means more people showing up to participate in caucuses and primaries.
Long-term, that’s good for Clinton. If Sanders wasn’t around and she was a lock for the nomination, the mass media would turn its attention to the Republicans. The networks would only be holding debates among the Republicans, and none among the Democrats, because there would only be one Democrat left standing.
I can well remember the acrimony of the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating season. It was divisive and contentious, certainly, but it was also a boon for the Democratic Party. Every state mattered, for a change.
Keep in mind, the last three Democratic presidents to be elected did not sail unopposed to their party’s nomination.
Iowa Democrats’ first choice in 1976 was “Uncommitted”, with Georgia’s Jimmy Carter coming in second. A few of Carter’s opponents dropped out after the early states had voted, but others persisted in running, notably Washington U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who did not exit the race until April 27th. But even after Jackson left, other Democrats got in, including Frank Church and Jerry Brown. Carter was ultimately able to secure the nomination, but it wasn’t a cakewalk.
Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s road to the nomination was not a straight one. He lost many early states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, and South Dakota, to rivals like Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, and Bob Kerrey. But his second place finish in New Hampshire kept him in the race, and in March, he hit his stride.
And of course, in 2008, the duel between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination became one of the most gripping political dramas in American history. Obama and Clinton competed vigorously for delegates for months, and Clinton did not throw in the towel until only a few weeks before the DNC. The Obama/Clinton rivalry was the dominant story for a whole season after John McCain locked up the Republican nomination.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all went on to win against their Republican opponents despite not having the Democratic nomination sewn up at the outset of their campaigns. Hillary Clinton will unquestionably be a stronger nominee if she has to earn the nomination by competing alongside Bernie Sanders. And the reverse is also true: if Sanders wins the nomination, he will have done what many said was impossible, and he will have a stronger Democratic Party at his back during the summer and autumn campaign against the Republican nominee.
Tonight’s Iowa caucuses may have produced an indecisive result on the Democratic side (which has led to much grousing, especially from the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who complained about there not being a clear loser and a clear winner). But Iowa is just one of fifty states that are holding nominating events, to say nothing of the many U.S. territories that will do likewise. The vast majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention will come from outside Iowa.
The mass media may be disappointed that Iowa didn’t produce a victor, but that sentiment is not shared by many Democratic leaders and progressive activists, who reject the sad culture of instant gratification that the mass media is locked into.
“Congratulations to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for both winning half of Iowa’s delegates,” said Washington State Democratic Chair Jaxon Ravens. “They both ran strong campaigns on the issues that matter — expanding health care access, fighting climate change, and on how we can raise incomes for working-class Americans. We look forward to comparing this positive vision with the Republican vision for America of more war, more tax cuts for the rich, and more discrimination against women, LGBT and immigrants.”