Voters in Iowa gathered to caucus yesterday in the first electoral event of the 2016 presidential contest. The campaign has been in full swing for months, but the real contest has now begun. There was no political earthquake, but there were perhaps a few tremors.
There was a mild surprise in the Republican race, with Ted Cruz beating Donald Trump into second place. The real winner, however, was Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, who finished a strong third, just behind the Apprentice star and well ahead of Doctor Ben Carson, who came a distant fourth. Mr. Rubio gave a passionate speech after the result in which he said that he refused to wait until it was “my turn”. The Florida Senator may now appeal to moderate Republicans as the safe viable option in a field where the frontrunners are a Tea Party darling and a populist celebrity who used to be a Democrat.
As for Jeb Bush, it was not a good night for him. 2.8% of the vote was a poor result, even in such a crowded field, especially when you account for fact that he has the name recognition and financial backing other candidates would kill for. Like fellow moderate establishment candidates Chris Christie and John Kasich, he has been focused on New Hampshire, where he must finish strongly to remain in the contest. No nominee in recent memory has failed to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire and it is likely that the field will thin considerably over the weekend if the losers in Iowa fail to make a significant impact on Saturday.
On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders declared the result “a virtual tie”, as he finished just 0.4% behind the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Sanders called the result a “revolution” against the establishment, in which he was up against the largest political machine in the country. For her part, Secretary Clinton said she was “excited” about the contest to come. It is unlikely, however, that she truly relishes the prospect of another long, drawn-out primary contest such as the one that saw her defeated by Barack Obama in 2008. Like Obama, Sanders appeals to younger voters including those who have never been involved in politics before. Interestingly, women under 45 are much more in favour of Sanders than Secretary Clinton.
Although there is still a long way to go, there have already been casualties. Martin O’Malley, a former Governor of Maryland, suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination after securing just 0.6% of the vote. In a three-way race, this was a disastrous result. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee has also bowed out, officially suspending his campaign. Neither has yet formally endorsed another candidate, although Donald Trump called Huckabee a “great friend” in his concession speech. A Huckabee endorsement would help Trump enormously with evangelical voters, whose support for Cruz likely made the difference last night.
The race continues to be unpredictable, and it is impossible to forecast who the nominees will be. The fight continues; next stop, New Hampshire.