Iowa caucuses: Seeking clarity among the shadows

     Precinct chair John Anderson, center, directs voters before a Republican party caucus in Nevada, Iowa, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

    Precinct chair John Anderson, center, directs voters before a Republican party caucus in Nevada, Iowa, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

    Last night, the Iowa caucuses cast lots of shadows, and provided mere glimmers of clarity.

    Reading the Iowa tea leaves is often a maddening exercise. It’s like Plato’s famous allegory about the cave, where people are chained to a wall, and all they can see are flickering shadows, and all they can possibly do, with their limited eyesight, is give form and shape to those shadows, and all they can possibly know is that these forms and shapes are reality. Whereas, in reality, all they’re seeing are shadows.

    Last night, the Iowa caucuses cast lots of shadows, and provided mere glimmers of clarity.

    Remember, this is the quadrennial contest that gave us President Dick Gephardt (1988), President Mike Huckabee (2008), and President Rick Santorum (2012). If you’re asking “Who the heck is Dick Gephardt?” the answer is: He was a Democratic House Speaker whose ’88 presidential bid peaked when he won Iowa. Heck, most Iowa voters don’t even bother to show up. The cable networks last night reported that Republican turnout was a record 180,000 — but neglected to mention that roughly 70 percent of registered GOPers still stayed home.

    Yeah, Ted Cruz topped the Republican field, winning 28 percent of the party’s caucus participants, and, yeah, that probably anoints him as the favored candidate of the extremist wing. But his entire statewide turnout — 51,000 voters — could fit in one big league ballpark. And it just so happens that 64 percent of all Republican caucus-goers were born-again Christians. No wonder he did so well. Once the race moves to the more populous diverse states, his religious-right fans will be trumped by the mainstream — as, in all likelihood, will he.

    Marco Rubio finished third — which looks like a loss, at least in the literal sense — but he nearly lapped Donald Trump for second place (thanks, Iowans, for labeling Trump a loser), and, most importantly, he won over the voters who made up their minds at the last minute. Many were swayed at the end by the belief that Rubio was the most electable next November; on that key metric, he topped Trump by 20 percentage points, and Cruz by 22.

    Only in today’s unhinged GOP would Rubio be described as an “establishment” candidate — he’s just a friendly-faced, slick-talking purveyor of the usual paranoia and xenophobia, and a climate change denier at a time when seawater is bubbling into the streets of his own south Florida — but Fox News loves him and the party regulars can probably live with him.

    And Democrats should beware of him, as I’ll explain shortly.

    In Iowa, Ben Carson was another flickering shadow. It would appear, at first glimpse, that he did OK by finishing fourth, garnering more voters than Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiornia combined. But we all know the guy is DOA; he was kept on life support last night only because the evangelical turnout was extra robust (in the Iowa GOP caucuses, it’s typically around 45 percent). But voters in New Hampshire won’t indulge a guy whose policy creds could fit in a thimble.

    Speaking of DOA: Jeb Bush at this point is barely a shadow. Judging by last night’s result, it appears that the fall of the Bush dynasty is at hand. Jeb’s father won Iowa in 1980. Jeb’s brother won Iowa in 2000. But Jeb and his friends spent $15 million on ads in Iowa … for a return of 5,200 votes. That tally would’ve been good enough for third place in last year’s school board election in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Hampshire drives Jeb from the race, if only because many of his heretofore patient donors may well defect to Rubio.

    Which brings us to the Democrats, and the difficult task of finding a “winner” in their flickering shadows.

    Hillary Clinton couldn’t close the deal in ’08, and it’s easy to write that same narrative based on what we saw last night. Finishing in a virtual tie with a 74-year-old self-described socialist (the Iowa tie is based on a tally of likely delegates to the state Democratic convention) looks really bad.

    Even with eight years to prepare for the caucuses, she couldn’t erase her weaknesses — namely, the perception that she’s candor-challenged and too wedded to Wall Street. Among the 24 percent of Democratic caucus-goers who cited “honesty” as the top voting factor, she trailed Bernie Sanders by a whopping 73 points (83-10). Among the 26 percent who cited “cares for people like me” as the top factor, she trailed Sanders by 52 points (74-22). And she failed to inspire the young people that Democrats will sorely need in the fall; she lost the under-30ers by 71 points.

    Here’s the flip side: Iowa should have been tailor-made for Sanders. The state’s Democratic electorate is overwhelmingly white (Sanders has minimal support from minorities, as we’ll likely see in the big voting states), the folks who vote in the caucuses are strongly liberal (and are thus broadly receptive to Sanders’ pipe dream of bigger government and tax hikes), and there were huge pools of college students in several regions. And yet, all Sanders could get was a virtual draw.

    Assuming, for the moment, that the Iowa results mean something real, it would appear that the Democrats seriously need to sort themselves out. On the one hand, lots of hearts beat fervently for Bernie. But on the other hand, check out these stats: 28 percent of the caucus participants — a plurality — cited “experience” as the most important voting factor. Among those folks, Hillary pasted Bernie by 79 points (88-9). And among the 20 percent who cited November electability as the top voting factor, Hillary clobbered Bernie by 60 points (77-17).

    Hence the key question for Democrats, as the race shifts to New Hampshire and picks up speed thereafter: Do they want to send a message, or do they want to win? Because if the Republicans settle on Rubio — who has the political skills to go the distance, whose Cuban pedigree could attract Latinos in key states — Democrats wouldn’t have the luxury of running a guy who’s weak with minorities and too leftish for a national election. And with control of Congress at stake, they should shudder at the prospect of topping the ticket with someone who’d prompt red-state Democratic candidates to flee in panic.

    To sort themselves out, Democrats may well require a long slog. That’s no mere flickering shadow; that’s the writing on the wall.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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