I figure I owe that portion of DSW’s readership which is passionate about politics a “state of the race” post since we’re only a few days out from the Iowa caucuses. Before I dive into where the candidates stand for each party, let me be clear on one thing: Early primaries, especially the ones in Iowa and New Hampshire, are completely pointless. They in fact undermine the whole point of the primary system, which is to nominate a candidate for president that is representative of their political party as a whole. It’s hard to argue that states like Iowa and New Hampshire are representative of reality in the rest of the country, for a number of reasons.
But that’s for another post, most likely immediately following the results on February 1st. For now here’s where both parties are:
On polling, the Real Clear Politics spread tells very different stories depending on which party’s primary we’re talking about. While one poll (Quinnipiac) only has him squeaking ahead in Iowa, every poll on the Republican side for almost every contest shows Donald Trump in the lead, one national poll by as many as 22 points. It’s also notable that in every one of those polls Ted Cruz takes second place and Marco Rubio takes third in the vast majority. Depending on the polls one takes a look at, it’s arguable that the contest in Iowa specifically has narrowed in the past six weeks, though far from certain.
The same spread shows a much closer contest for the Democrats. The FOX News poll pus Clinton ahead by 6, ARG puts Sanders ahead by 3. National polls show Clinton with a ten to fifteen point lead, and a comfortable lead in other primary states like South Carolina (CBS News puts her up by 22) and Minnesota, where she’s up by 34. But Sanders is dominating New Hampshire, CBS News saying he’s up by 19 there, while the Suffolk University poll has him up 9 points.
While a lot of analysis has focused on how high-stakes the Iowa caucuses are for both parties, the truth is more complex than that. The Republican challenge in Iowa is far different than the Democratic challenge.
Republicans have to decide how they want to identify themselves, and whether that particular conflict is going to be settled in a state like Iowa. Nate Silver argues that Donald Trump hasn’t been stopped by the GOP perhaps because not all of them are actually trying to win the presidential election this time around because there’s no “professional incentive” to. I think the issue is a bit simpler than that. The Republican party has for decades carefully crafted the image of the conservative commander in chief, one that acts with strength, behaves like a toned down alpha male with a folksy appeal and a blue collar aura about them, but one that is still intelligent enough on policy matters to handle themselves adeptly on the world stage and propose the occasional sweeping reform of a long-standing domestic program. They had rebuilt this image from its previous low point at the end of the Nixon administration so successfully that Bill Clinton had to all but copy it in order to get to the White House in 1992. But in 2008 they had the commander in chief image stolen from them by Barack Obama, who in addition to checking off many of the boxes the GOP thought only their candidates could, did so while maintaining an identity as a black progressive politician with a background working in marginalized communities. I cannot state enough how much Obama was able to capture that commander in chief image and completely shatter the idea it belonged more naturally with the GOP (the Palin factor helped quite a bit as well). Ever since then, without the commander in chief image to hold it together, the Republican party has returned once again to swaying back and forth between conservative extremes like a drunken Barry Goldwater stumbling in the night.
Democrats have a different question, though there are a few similarities which I hope to touch on in a different post. Having won this image battle they have almost taken the spoils from their victory too far. The Democratic primary is dominated even more than the GOP contest by a cult of personality. The two leading candidates voted the same way in the Senate (during the years they were both Senators, that is) 93 percent of the time, and yet the primary contest between them couldn’t be more divisive. The ironic part about this is that the contest centers on key personality questions (who’s most trustworthy, who has the temperament to be commander in chief, etc) but the only way to see which candidate is best in that category is to see which candidate makes the most sincere call for a return to a sane level of discourse between the campaigns and actually gets their supporters to follow them (that second part is by far the more important).
It’s possible that Iowa will end up being a more decisive contest for the Democrats than for the Republicans, but the potential is there in both parties for open and contested primaries.
Image credit to The Atlantic