The year-long process of selecting the person for the ‘hardest job in the world’ has finally begun. Iowa, the very first state to hold a presidential primary (rather Caucus) has spoken, and it has reposed faith in Ted Cruz for the Republicans, whilst it is still an open race on the democratic side. Cruz winning over Donald Trump, the leading candidate according to most pollsters, is by far the biggest story of the Caucus, such that many, if not most news outlets have not bothered with the potentially bigger story of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable neck and neck fight with Hillary Clinton. In this introductory article on our series of the US presidential elections 2016, we shall look at the implications of the Iowa results on the primary process.
US presidential elections 2016: Iowa-Not your average state
Before over-analysing the Iowa results and scaling it to the national level, three considerations unique to the state need to be put into perspective, which might alter how one might view the election results.
Demographics: Iowa can be broadly described as rural, old, white, with a middle-class that is split between liberals and conservatives, mostly of the evangelical denomination.
Election method: Unlike most states, Iowa does not conduct a primary but a Caucus, which involves people gathering at a given place at a given time (not the entire day as in a standard election) to publicly select their preferred candidate. While the Republicans use a secret ballot, the Democrats use an open form of voting wherein people have to openly disclose support for their preferred candidate.
Votes to delegates allocation: The most important thing to understand about the primary process is that voters do not directly elect their preferred candidate, but direct how the delegates (party representatives for a state) should vote in the party conventions later in the year, when the actual presidential nominee is chosen. Most delegates are ‘pledged’, meaning that they are expected to vote exactly how their state tells them, but a few of them are ‘unpledged’ (or super delegates), who are free to vote as they deem fit. Most US states use a winner-take-all system of converting votes to pledged delegates, but Iowa shifted to a proportional allocation of allotting votes to delegates starting from the 2012 US presidential elections.
US presidential elections 2016: Dissecting the results
While indeed Cruz is the clear winner in terms of votes thanks to his on-the-ground campaign and support from white evangelicals, the proportional nature of the Caucus, and the split in the vote share, implies that he has just one more delegate than both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. The latter has emerged as a surprise third choice and going forward, in a tight, three-way contest, he might emerge as a consensus candidate for the party leadership, whose superdelegates might end up backing him over the more vocal Trump or Cruz. Among all the republican candidates, Marco Rubio appears to have the greatest electability, and he’s sure to cause major headaches for Trump and Cruz, particularly while battling for the fence-sitting, liberal-conservative republican voters who are hesitant to lean towards either of the two top candidates.
The man of the hour is undoubtedly Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s put up a historic fight in Iowa for the democratic nomination. At the time of writing this article, both candidates had a vote difference of 0.3%, a first for the Iowa Caucus. Hillary Clinton’s nomination seemed like a mere formality a few months ago, and to some people, her election to the presidency as well, but that is no longer set in stone. If New Hampshire ends up voting for Bernie as current polls seem to suggest, ‘feel the Bern’ might just turn out to be far bigger than anyone anticipated. Sanders however will have an uphill task trying to convince conservative democrats to back him up, thanks to his open declaration of being a ‘socialist Democrat’, a word that has far too many negative connotations in the American mind space, and garnering the older female vote, who are overwhelmingly in favour of Hillary at this stage.
US presidential elections 2016: Pruning the field
While the Iowa Caucus might not be completely representative of the US electorate, it does help in clearing the competition to some extent. If one is unable to gain any delegates in one of the most homogenous and relatively prosperous parts of the United States, it is unlikely that they stand much of a chance in more populous and fragmented states such as California. Ultimately, the primary process is undertaken to find a candidate who is most electable, someone who is closest to the political centre and yet does not compromise on the core principles for which the party is known for. Indeed, Mike Huckabee for the Republicans and Martin O’Malley for the Democrats have already dropped out. O’Malley’s suspension might have come a tad too late for Clinton/Sanders as his 0.6% vote share could have tipped the balance in the democratic contest and granted one of the two a tactical advantage going into New Hampshire. Another notable disappointment is Jeb Bush, Governor of swing state Florida, brother of George Bush, and former front-runner, who has done rather poorly in the Caucus, and does not seem to be doing too well in polls for New Hampshire either.
Despite the media’s insistence on calling the Iowa Caucus in favour of Cruz, the victory is psychological at best, as the arithmetic is still not overwhelmingly in his favour. Trump’s vociferous supporters could not get him over the line, and he might suffer from the ‘last mile problem’ in many states, and a lack of support among the core conservative class. Marco Rubio is undoubtedly the man to watch out though, and in the long run, he might be the one who surprises everyone by getting the nomination. The Republican playing field will be further pruned after New Hampshire, and this author for one anticipates one or many among John Kasich, Jim Gilmore, and Rick Santorum to drop out on the 9th of February.
For Hillary supporters, the Iowa Caucus is a pyrrhic victory. Bernie’s supporters will rejoice at the close fight, and with New Hampshire seemingly in the bag, more states might ‘feel the Bern’. He too however, might suffer from a ‘last mile problem’, and thanks to his anti-corporate stance is unlikely to attract the big donors, factors which play an important role in a long and drawn-out campaign.
In coming weeks, we shall be profiling the leading presidential hopefuls and examine the implications of their presidency, particularly on India. Keep watching this space for more!