Judging by media narratives, the Iowa caucuses compose an odd little contest.
A candidate can win third place, as Marco Rubio did in the Republican caucuses on Monday night, and be declared something of a winner. Another can come in second, as Donald Trump did, and be designated a big fat loser.
Or one can achieve a near tie, but lose in a squeaker, as Bernie Sanders did in Monday’s Democratic Iowa contests, and be seen as a winning weirdo. On the other hand, the candidate who won in the nearly even squeaker might be seen to be leading a campaign that’s in trouble, as in the case of Hillary Clinton.
In the universe, Einstein taught us, everything’s relative. In Iowa, it’s even more so.
On caucus night in 1996, I strolled through the victory party hosted by Bob Dole’s campaign in Des Moines, and it was one glum scene. People were talking in subdued tones. An organizer for the Christian Coalition, who had corralled evangelicals to the caucus sites for the senator from Kansas, stood alone and dejected, a glass of wine in her hand. Dole had won the caucuses with 26 percent of the vote—nearly the same percentage earned by the gloating Ted Cruz in this year’s caucuses So why the long faces in Doleville?
Cut to the scene at the party hosted by the campaign of insurgent Pat Buchanan. Utter jubilation. The pugilistic pundit had come in second, winning 23 percent. Not only was his campaign alive; he was now nipping at the heels of the establishment’s chosen one. Patrick J. Buchanan, who threw rhetorical bombs in the land of Iowa Nice, who railed against gay people, who cozied up to figures in the far right.
Dole represented everything that Iowans were said to value: He was respected; he fought for his country and paid the price. He knew how to compromise, how to get a deal. But deals were not what a good chunk of Republicans in the land of Iowa Nice wanted. They wanted someone who referred to gay people as “sodomites,” or who claimed that slavery in America was good for black people.
At that time, Buchanan was so far outside the mainstream of American politics that his Number 2 rating by Iowa’s Republican base was a big story, and such a positive one for him that he emerged the contest’s real winner.
But for a candidate who wins outright but is not gauged by news analysts as a party’s likely nominee, a win in Iowa can be written off as a blip caused by the quirkiness of the Iowa electorate. Suddenly the Hawkeye State’s popular definition as the bellwether of American values gives way to a story that reads, Hey, these people aren’t quite like the rest of America, after all.
In 1972, George McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in a shocker of a primary season. How did he fare in Iowa? He lost; he came in second.
In 2012, Mitt Romney lost the caucuses by a handful of votes to Rick Santorum. In that virtual tie, Romney, the establishment candidate, was seen to be a big old loser, even though odds were long that Santorum could actually make it to the Republican National Convention as the party’s nominee.
In media narratives coming out of the Iowa contests, Hillary Clinton might actually have done better to lose outright, as Bill Clinton did in 1992, as Michael Dukakis did in 1988.
The story might have been, well, Iowans are not representative of the Democratic coalition—the state is too white, too rural to predict how she’ll fare in places where the delegate count really matters. But her extremely narrow victory yields the story of an even match with Bernie Sanders in the nomination battle.
Poor Hillary. She can’t lose for winning.
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