In Florida, California, New York, Texas – on Super Tuesday and everywhere else – a candidate can campaign by TV commercial and give speeches at big rallies. In Iowa, as in New Hampshire, you campaign by the side of the dusty road – in coffee shops, greasy spoon delis, barns and people’s homes. You do so because it is expected and demanded by tradition. It’s a place where the media’s influence, for a short time, withers on the vine; where candidates actually have to be human beings and not images on a screen speaking in 30-second clips. Many have been called, but few have been chosen; it’s a hard hustle, and many a campaign has wound up burned out by the side of that dusty road for failing to connect with voters they are actually required to shake hands with and speak to nose to nose. It is upon us once again.
The 2016 Iowa caucuses begin Monday night, likely in the teeth of a snowstorm if AccuWeather.com has it right. This changes the math regarding turnout, which changes the math on the eventual results. Those results, depending on the storm’s severity, may depend not on whose supporters want it more, but on whose supporters have good snow tires.
The stakes are high, especially on the Democratic side. Front-runner Hillary Clinton is leading Bernie Sanders by a wide margin nationally, according to every available poll, but I don’t truck much with national polls. It’s the state-by-state polls that matter because circumstances change by the hour, and in Iowa, Clinton and Sanders are in a dead heat. Her campaign is visibly spooked because the situation is exacerbated by Sanders’ lead in New Hampshire; unless the planet crashes into the sun, Sanders is going to win his neighbor state by about six million points.
Here is where the media come back into play, and why Iowa is a grave concern for Clinton: Super Tuesday, the day upon which the Clinton campaign depends, is not until a month from Monday, on March 1. If Sanders manages to run the table in the first two states – Iowa on Monday and New Hampshire next Tuesday – the “news” media will have to fill the next three weeks with content, and that content will consist of report after report on how the “inevitable” nominee isn’t so inevitable after all. If that happens, it’s hats over the windmill for Sanders. The snowstorm may be a factor, but I’m betting there are a lot of people gnawing their fingernails in Clinton’s Iowa headquarters.
As for the Republican side of the contest, who the hell knows. I’ve been covering these things for a very long time, and I’ve never seen a more unpredictable race in my life. Such an assemblage of rogues has not been seen in US politics since senators were beating each other unconscious with canes in the Capitol Building before the Civil War.
The GOP debate on Thursday night was a rank embarrassment to the tradition of public discourse, exacerbated (of course) by Donald Trump, who skipped the event entirely because Fox News commentator and debate moderator Megyn Kelly was mean to him. Instead, Trump held an ersatz rally for wounded veterans, joined by Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who were fresh from the kid’s table debate, and bulldozed his show into the Fox debate’s time slot with the happy help of CNN and MSNBC. He used wounded veterans to step on the Fox News Channel’s ratings, basically. As former Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most once said, this was a typical disgusting display.
So, it comes down to pick your poison. Trump? Cruz? Bush? Rubio? Carson? Kasich is surging here in New Hampshire. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is making loud noises about jumping into the race as some sort of half-baked savior, which leads to the heartwarming possibility of having two billionaires and a failed Hewlitt-Packard CEO on the stage with the rest of this confederacy of dunces. The whole thing is simply ludicrous.
I think Sanders has a solid chance of defeating Clinton in Iowa. His victory in New Hampshire is basically a foregone conclusion if the poll numbers are even close to correct. The geometry gets fuzzy after that. As for the Republicans, it’s a genuine mystery. Is Trump really the front-runner, or just a media creation with support a mile wide and an inch deep? Cruz may well snatch an upset victory in Iowa, whereupon Trump will light his silly hair on fire and storm across the countryside like a berserker looking to sack Rome. One thing is certain: Monday will not be boring.