Election 2016 officially kicked off with the Iowa caucus on Monday, February 1. While the attention of political pundits has already moved on to next week’s New Hampshire primary, the outcome in Iowa provides an interesting preview of the road ahead. The Democratic results went down to the wire, with Hillary Clinton not formally declared the winner (which was essentially a tie) until the next day. Yet, Ted Cruz winning the Republican caucus provides a clearer picture of GOP voters and what the eventual Democratic nominee will be up against – and always has been.
In 2008, at a fundraising stop during his initial campaign for president, Barack Obama spoke about the frustration of the small town voter. “They get bitter,” he said, “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The quote caused a media storm, giving his primary opponent Hillary Clinton ammunition to use in the remaining primaries. The man who would be president eventually apologized for the comment, even though his only mistake was that he spoke the truth.
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Eight years later, these are the voters that are keeping Donald Trump at the top of the polls, and the ones that gave Ted Cruz the first primary win of the season.
Both have resonated with the bitter, gun-loving, anti-immigrant, white male, as well as the women that love them. This was made abundantly clear in the interviews with 100 Republican primary voters published last month in New York Magazine. Gabriel Sherman spoke with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to get sense of what the voters wanted. While they highlighted the issues they were most concerned with when asked, the candidates’ positions on them did not influence their support. The voters Sherman spoke with saw America as a crumbling nation, with the foundation of the life they had known crumbling around them.
In short, the Republican voter is scared. Scared of change, scared of non-white people and scared of women – particularly Hillary Clinton. Their desire was to seek someone who could keep them safe and stand up to all the bad things. As one voter interviewed stated, they wanted someone with the “testicular fortitude” to make America great again.
Not surprisingly, the most fearful were Trump and Cruz supporters. The common theme was the desire to have someone willing to stand up to the perceived dangers. The xenophobia was strong, with many “get off my lawn” types wishing for more focus on the nation’s needs than those in other countries. They are tired of the “PC” culture and their belief that everyone wants a handout. Ironically, many of them were down on their luck and even on assistance.
Cruz’s supporters shared these sentiments, highlighting his anti-Muslim rhetoric and appreciating how he stood up to those that are willing to capitulate. Many of the “undecideds” were weighing their choices of either Cruz and Trump, seeing them as the best options for “decider in chief.” For many, it was his promotion of Christianity and a desire for a nation based on biblical laws that propelled him to the top.
In the weeks leading up to Iowa, Cruz’s religious surrogates were more visible. All represent the most extreme fringes of the evangelical right. Bob Vander Plaats is the head of Iowa’s Family Leader and believes that God’s law should outweigh all others. Cruz’s “Pro-Lifers for Cruz” is headed by Tony Perkins, the leader of the anti-gay and designated hate group Family Research Council. Other endorsements have come from people who believe abortion doctors should be executed and that America should be a theocracy because that is what the founding fathers envisioned.
While it is common for Republican candidates to claim to have received a calling from God to run for president, Cruz has taken it further by claiming that he is a religious prophet called to lead a religious war. His supporters are called “believers” and they are told they are building an army for the coming attacks. Glenn Beck has said he is convinced he is touched by “the hand of divine providence.” Rafael Cruz, father of Ted, has implied that his son is a messiah.
The good news is that Ted Cruz is unlikely to make it to the Oval Office if Iowa’s track record of being really, really wrong about the Republican nominee continues. However, it does highlight the desperate desire of the Republican base to return to a time where they – meaning straight, white males (and the women that love them) – were the default when it came to public policy. Furthermore, these voters are also very misinformed on how policy actually works, which will be difficult for a Democratic candidate to overcome.
In our very polarized political climate, the candidates on the right are truly representative of the people that vote for them. They don’t want information or the factual details on how a candidate will improve their lives. Platitudes and emotional appeals are what will get them to the polls and what will put people like Ted Cruz into office.