Life is full of surprises, they say, and the Iowa caucuses on Monday night were no exception. For the past two weeks Donald Trump was thought to be a shoo-in on the Republican side, but Ted Cruz won handily. For the past 48 hours a Hillary Clinton victory over Bernie Sanders was a foregone conclusion: the actual vote count showed otherwise, though that didn’t seem to deter Clinton, who gave a virtual victory speech and then moved on to New Hampshire.
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And no one seemed more surprised by his second place finish than Trump himself, whose 2013 tweet “No one remembers who came in second” was brought back to haunt him. But contrary to the fire and brimstone, blame-everyone-else-but-me explosion that some people might expect from what they see as his narcissistic personality, Trump supplied his own surprise by delivering a steady, sober and low-key concession speech. He probably hadn’t seen yet that the New York Times affixed the adjective “loser” to his name, a word that used to famously drive Shimon Peres crazy.
Trump can afford to lose some of the 25% advantage that he holds now in New Hampshire over his other rivals, but after the setback in Iowa, a loss in the northeastern state next Tuesday could finish him off altogether. From being crowned the biggest political sensation of 2016, the decade or even the century, Trump will return home to his mansions and penthouses as a failure and perhaps even a laughingstock. With his thick skin as well as billions, though, there’s no need to worry: he’ll survive.
The second place finish of the anti-establishment Trump may create an optical illusion that the GOP establishment had emerged victorious, but nothing could be further from the truth: in both parties, in fact, the established powers that be suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of its enemies on the edges. Half of the Democratic caucus-goers preferred the nonconformist Senator from Vermont over the tried and tested Clinton; two-thirds of the Republicans gave their votes to Cruz and other candidates who are estranged from GOP cliques, elites and benefactors. The extreme right and the radical left celebrated while the established, moderate center dissipated, as it has in many countries around the world, including Europe and Israel.
Against the backdrop, the victory fete put on by Florida Senator Marco Rubio to mark his surprisingly strong third place finish was mostly smoke and mirrors. Politics, after all, is a game of managing expectations: Rubio in third place did better than predicted, so he’s a hero, while Trump in second did worse, so he’s a bum. And even though Rubio has now been cast as the Great White Hope of the sensible establishment against its mortal enemies, Trump and Cruz, the ultra-conservative Florida Senator can be considered a “moderate” only in an unhinged world in which a preachy and intolerant Christian fundamentalist such as Cruz can be seen as viable candidate for a major American party. A decade or two ago, Rubio would have been lumped together with Cruz as a candidate from the fringe.
If Rubio can repeat his success in next week’s primaries in New Hampshire, GOP leaders and funders will pressure other so-called moderate candidates to clear the way so that Rubio can stand alone. This includes Jeb Bush, who continues to defy expectations for the worse, and whose 2.8% share of the vote once again casts serious doubt on his viability as a candidate: embarrassingly, Bush got far less than libertarian Rand Paul’s 4.5% and much less than flaky Ben Carson’s 9.3%. Along with Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Rick Santorum, Bush will face a make or break, do or die challenge in New Hampshire, because the largely southern states that will follow will be even more difficult for him to survive. Mike Huckabee, who was number one in Iowa in 2008, bailed out a few short minutes after the results came in on the Republican side, while Martin O’Malley, whose candidacy never amounted to anything, retired from the Democratic field, leaving Clinton and Sanders to their one-on-one confrontation.
Cruz showed that even in an era of digital politics in which social media rules, old style organization is still the clincher. The Texas Senator brought in 12,000 volunteers from all across America while Trump was apparently duped to believe by gushing projections in the media that he could win by virtue of his popularity, charisma and entertainment value. Sanders’ victory can likewise be ascribed to the thousands of volunteers who flocked to his side, though contrary to Trump, Clinton prepared her ground game as well.
Evangelicals surprised Trump by withholding their support, contrary to all the predictions: perhaps Trump’s harsh attacks on Cruz boomeranged on him, or perhaps the idea of voting for a thrice married New York billionaire with a troubling liberal past was a bridge too far for them. Cruz will now enjoy renewed momentum, though it won’t change his basic predicament: his Canadian birth casts a dark shadow over his eligibility to be president, his unpleasant personality will ensure the continued enmity of his GOP colleagues and his extremist ideology will continue to make him the Democrats’ preferred Republican candidate. For much the same reason, Republicans were elated by Sanders’ surprising victory, reserving their choicest insults for Clinton alone. Only Trump was the odd man out: he prematurely described Sanders as a “Communist” a word Republicans had planned to use only later, if and when Sanders advances further.
That could happen as soon as next Tuesday when Sanders collects his much anticipated win in New Hampshire, unless it will be his turn to be unpleasantly surprised. Clinton can afford to lose one more time, but only barely, and not by the 20%-30% margin Sanders now enjoys, otherwise her hitherto “inevitable” candidacy will appear more avoidable than ever. She risks seeing the enthusiasm for the “political revolution” that Sanders announced yesterday reach a critical mass that could propel him to victory in states that still seem like sure bets for Clinton. Although the pundits can be expected to treat Sanders with greater respect, after his strong showing in Iowa, Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite to win her party’s nomination, unless the email caper finally wounds her mortally, as her Republican critics predict.
Finally, among the big losers of the night one mustn’t forget the pollsters, who for the past 10 days have been unanimously and steadfastly predicting a victory for Trump over Cruz and, a bit less confidently, for Clinton over Sanders. As in recent elections in Denmark, Britain, Israel, Finland, Brazil, Estonia and a host of other countries, they got it wrong. In the wake of their failure the pundits will come: if Trump takes Iowa, they predicted, no one would be able to stop him. Two hours later the same analysts were administering last rites and saying Kaddish on Trump’s political grave. But he’s still alive, breathing and most likely kicking and screaming, promising that this political season is still full of surprises.