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Five Takeaways From the Iowa Caucuses
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign event at Grand View University January 31, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Five Takeaways From the Iowa Caucuses

Walter Russell Mead

We generally avoid day-to-day horserace coverage here at TAI, but now that the dust has settled in the first contest of what looks like it will be a long and memorable primary campaign, here are five thoughts on the state of the race and the country:

1. It’s important to remember two things about Iowa electorate. On the Democratic side it skews to the left, and on the GOP side it skews evangelical. So the Bernie performance isn’t quite as spectacular as some (on the left and right) want it to be, and the omens for Cruz aren’t quite as good as they might seem (as former Presidents Huckabee and Santorum will tell you).

2. In terms of the state of the parties, both parties had a good night. That is, both parties had healthy battles of the kind that mean people are engaged and passionate, but at least at this point the party infighting doesn’t look particularly destructive. The more-left versus more-center left split between Bernie and Hillary voters is a classic Democratic Party primary fight, and nine times out of ten the party is able to unify behind the winner and make a strong run at the general election. Similarly, the GOP, which was looking fragile before caucus night, looks a little bit healthier today. While some would point to the Cruz-Trump first and second-place finishes as a sign that the populists are going to burn down the house, the fact that neither got above 30 percent and that both were within a few points of each other suggests that the currents of discontent in the party aren’t coalescing into an irresistible tsunami. This is just the start of a long campaign season, and a lot of the talk about parties imploding looks overdone.

3. The virtual tie between Sanders might not be the result Clinton wanted, but it might make her a better candidate in the long run. She actually performs better when she’s in trouble than when she’s cruising to a coronation. In 2008, Clinton was at her best when Obama had seized the lead, and she ran very well in some late primaries. When she has a commanding lead, she seems to embrace a “don’t make waves” strategy that makes her look remote and controlling. But when she’s worried and competing hard, she tends to come across as a more appealing personality. Clinton is still the overwhelming favorite for the nomination; unless African-American voters break for Sanders the way they did for Obama in 2008, it is hard to see how he beats her. But putting a good scare into her campaign could push her towards a stronger campaigning style.

4. For the GOP, the question is whether this is the beginning of the end for Trump or just a speed bump on the road. Loss of momentum matters more for him than for more traditional candidates, and a lot of his appeal seems to be based on people’s desire to stand with a winner, and losing to a Canadian anchor baby is not something winners do. We should know fairly soon whether Trump can find a way to regain his momentum, or whether a kind of Palinization process progressively marginalizes him. In any case, Trump’s decision to skip the last debate, something that will likely go down in political annals as a big mistake, probably allowed the GOP to have something more like a normal party caucus, and that was a very good thing.

5. At this point, it’s becoming clear that in spite of everything that is wrong with the American presidential election process (and there is a lot that is wrong with it), there is one thing that it does uniquely well, and that is probably a good thing for the country: It entertains us. It’s got everything that reality TV has, plus it is real—with real stakes. It gets some of the smartest and most ambitious people in the country to spend months and years traveling to places in flyover country they’d normally pay good money to avoid. It offers color commentary almost as good as anything professional wrestling can offer. It offers a theater where people can vent their spleen, vaunt and flaunt their identities, and it gives a diverse and in many ways disunited country a common narrative to follow. The political circus, with its crazy rituals and goofy clown acts, is part of the glue that holds us together. This isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they dreamed of a great Republic, and one doesn’t even want to think what Pericles or Cato would have made of us. Still: long live the American presidential process, and on to New Hampshire.

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