Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: dissecting the results of the GOP and Democratic caucuses in Iowa.
Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio can leave Iowa declaring a victory, which isn’t the case for Donald Trump, despite his consistent lead in the Iowa polls leading up to Monday’s caucus. What are the expectations for these three going into New Hampshire?
Before I get to your questions, here’s the one thing that is indisputable coming out of Iowa: Once again we’ve learned that almost all predictions of the 2016 race, whether by pollsters or pundits, are worthless. As of last weekend, Nate Silver gave Bernie Sanders only a 20 percent chance of taking Iowa. Trump was thought a likely Iowa winner by most everyone, including me. I will not make the mistake of predicting what will happen in New Hampshire, though it’s safe to say that as goes Iowa, New Hampshire does not. It’s hard to imagine Cruz winning there without the Evangelical base he had in Iowa. Indeed, Cruz’s Iowa victory may prove an anomaly in the overall presidential race, just as Mike Huckabee’s and Rick Santorum’s were in the past.
But whatever Cruz’s ultimate fate, the most important number in the GOP Iowa caucus results is this: If you add up the votes for the outsider candidates (Cruz, Trump, Carson, Fiorina), it amounts to 63 percent of the total. If you add up the votes for the Establishment candidates (Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Christie), it amounts to just under 30 percent. (The remaining 7 percent went to Paul, Huckabee, and Santorum.) This is a very angry, very conservative party.
In recent weeks, there’s been a press consensus that Rubio was inevitably rising to the top of the pack of the Establishment field. (At the Times’ Upshot column, Rubio is now flatteringly characterized as a relative “moderate” even though he opposes abortions for rape and incest victims, among other far-right positions.) In Iowa, Rubio finally justified the repeated prophesies of his surge: His 23.1 percent of the vote bested the runner-up among Establishment candidates, Jeb! (2.8 percent), by nearly ten to one. Those who have theorized a Rubio surge have also argued that if he pulled it off, then it was incumbent on his Establishment rivals for the nomination, Christie and Kasich as well as Bush, to get out so Rubio can go mano a mano against the right-wing/outsider favorite, whether it prove to be Trump or Cruz. Should the others get out, and should Rubio inherit the fat-cat Establishment donors that have been scattered among them, can he really prevail in a party where a clear majority, in national polls as well as Iowa, prefers Cruz and Trump over Rubio and his relatively “moderate” cohort by a margin of two to one? Somehow I doubt it, unless he moves even farther to the Palin-nativist right than he already has. In any case, we won’t learn one way or the other from New Hampshire, an independent-minded outlier among GOP primary states, but in the subsequent primaries in the solidly red states where the party’s base dwells.
As for Trump, he will no doubt be hurt in New Hampshire by the Iowa results — as Rubio will get a boost. But New Hampshire won’t determine his fate — or that of Cruz, who is unlikely to do well there. The real question about Trump is whether he will deflate like a big fat balloon now that he has been pinpricked by actual vote totals that don’t match the poll numbers he is fond of wearing like a sable coat. He will never rebound from Iowa if he starts to act like a sore loser — a real, and potentially quite entertaining, possibility. But he may well defy such expectations. Those who are pegging Trump as doomed the morning after Iowa are often the same voices who declared him dead back in the day when he had done the unthinkable of insulting John McCain, Megyn Kelly, and the entire populace of Mexico.
On the Democratic side, it looks like Bernie Sanders’s January surge has brought him essentially neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. On the eve of a series of new debates, how will Clinton have to tweak her attacks on Sanders if she wants to hold him off?
Clinton can’t go all out in attacks on Sanders because they will alienate the liberal Democratic base, without which she can’t win an election. The real question is whether Sanders can tweak his Clinton critique to build a national campaign beyond his near-certain win next week in New Hampshire. But the biggest issue for Clinton is not Sanders so much as Clinton herself. She performed better in Iowa in 2016 than she did eight years ago, but she remains an uninspiring candidate with a bland message. The enthusiasm among Democrats, especially the younger Democrats who propelled Barack Obama to victory in 2008, is propelling Sanders with a force the Clinton campaign clearly didn’t anticipate and which it has not found a way to counter.
Clinton’s weakness was further highlighted on the eve of the Iowa vote by the Times editorial endorsing her over the weekend — an endorsement that provoked anger among the paper’s readers, who responded with an avalanche of comments that probably reflect the overall sentiment of the Democratic grass roots. The editorial was fascinatingly defensive. In making the case for Clinton, the paper praised Clinton’s experience in foreign affairs but never mentioned her biggest foreign-policy failure, her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. And the editorial never mentioned the murky finances of the Clinton family foundation, a continuing source of fascination to investigative reporters at every major news organization in the country, including the Times. Even as the editorial was published, Peter Baker, the paper’s chief White House correspondent, was telling CNN that inquiries by the FBI and the Obama Justice Department into Clinton’s email practices as secretary of State could lead to a summer indictment or a request for a special prosecutor — which, in his words, “basically turns this into a complete disaster for the Democrats in which it is too late to change horses.” Even if Clinton had romped over Bernie Sanders in Iowa, it wouldn’t have countered the uncertainty and anxiety that attend her vulnerable presidential campaign in an election cycle when, clearly, anything can happen.
Something else that may cause problems for Clinton is the documentary Weiner, which debuted at Sundance last week amid accusations that the filmmakers faced pressure to change their portrayal of Hillary Clinton and her closest aide, Huma Abedin. Did it show anything (or leave anything out) that she should worry about once it’s released more broadly?
The notion that any movie will have a seismic effect on our politics is oversold. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 didn’t stop George W. Bush, and Bowling for Columbine didn’t stop the American gun epidemic. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, bounteously celebrated by politicians in Washington as a gift to racial justice, preceded one of the most violent periods in race relations since the 1960s. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours hasn’t moved Benghazi into the national conversation any more successfully than Mitt Romney did during his presidential run. Weiner, despite its Sundance success, is unlikely to cause a ripple in the Clinton presidential run. Despite press reports to the contrary, most of the movie leaves us contemplating not Huma Abedin, but her husband, the title character, a self-destructive, if self-aggrandizing, putz who has become no more interesting or consequential in the aftermath of his juvenile sexting scandal than he was while it was going on: He’ll always be remembered as that rare politician who was brought down by a sex scandal without ever actually having illicit sex. Abedin is a relatively small, if long-suffering, presence in the film. That she consented to appear at all in this account of her family’s embarrassing ordeal suggests that she has zero political intelligence. Which does leave you wondering why a presidential candidate could have anyone so naïve as her most trusted aide in the fierce political battle that lies ahead.