With one week to go until the good citizens of Iowa struggle through driving wind and snow to vote in caucuses across the state, what we can reasonably presume will happen is precisely nothing. The New Hampshire primary — two weeks hence on February 10 — has long since been written off by the traditional party frontrunners, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both leading by around 10 points.

Until a fortnight ago, the reverse was the case in Iowa, with Ted Cruz leading Trump by about five points, and Hillary leading Bernie by around 10 points. That has now reversed, and Trump and Sanders have nudged ahead — Trump by about three points, and Sanders by a margin-of-error 1.5 points. Everything is now ready for a virtually unprecedented event: candidates marginalised by the party apparatus, ready to win both of the first two primaries in the nation.

This has been difficult for the political-media establishment to accept, and many still haven’t. The daily roll call of stories on “Real Clear Politics”, the useful if somewhat right-shifted aggregator site, have more than a note of self-help and new-age therapy about them. “Donald Trump is in clear command”, “Stay Sane Please! Trump, Cruz and Sanders are not the answer!”, “The Rejection Election”. On the eve of the actual vote, it has finally dawned on the establishment that the American people are about to make two independents the presumptive frontrunners. Well, a self-selecting 10% in two largely white states, numbering around 2.5% of the national population, anyway.

The symmetry of the Trump/Sanders challenges is all in the mind of the punditry of course. Sanders is a social democrat — a “socialist”, in his words, using the American definition whereby that term covers anyone who doesn’t want their town water supply poisoned by a company called “Freedom Industries” — who wants to enforce tax payment by corporations, a higher marginal tax rate, and then plug the money back into a standard public health system, affordable college, a genuine Keynesian demand stimulus of some breadth, and a withdrawal from foreign entanglements.

This program, differing only in degree from Obama’s and Clinton’s — save for Sanders’ scepticism about free-trade deals — stands in opposition to Trump’s “program”, which is an expanded military, tax cuts, retrenchment of national debt, a revived economy within the global system while not “exporting our jobs to China”, “kicking ISIS’ ass” while not getting involved in foreign wars.

They are both programs, true. But so too are The Wire and Dogs on The Dole (on UK Channel 5 as I write), and there the similarity ends. Trump and his supporters conspire in reality-avoidance — they grant each other immunity from consistency, rationality, etc, by defining that very process as itself “elitist”. To admit that the world is stubborn and resistant to your will, that things are difficult and partial, is to be “un-American”. The mainstream pundits identify that, but they then extend that criticism to Sanders’ wholly practical and detailed schemes.

That determination — to enforce hopelessness, to conflate audacity and boldness with fantasy and delusion — simply reprises the mainstream elite cynicism that people are rebelling against. That in turn feeds a commitment to delusion. After all, if your demand for something “else” is wholly rejected, why take any half-measures? Why not commit to the man who simply rejects reality altogether?

That’s the reality the Republicans may have to face in a week. Should Trump triumph in Iowa, it will vindicate not only Trump, but the accuracy of the polling. But that is no sure thing at this stage. One revealing fact, when you dig down into the polling — which is taken of self-assessing “likely voters” — is that many of those “likely voters” will be first-time caucus or primary voters. There’s no reason why that won’t occur — why both figures might not call out people who never before felt the commitment to the system required to actually vote in a primary — but there are also many good reasons why it won’t. It may simply be that Trump’s appeal is largely confined to the fantasy contingent of the party, people for whom the act of supporting Trump during polling (over a phone, or online) is tantamount to actually voting for him.

That is eminently possible. It’s not straightforward to actually vote in a primary — you have to be registered, or register on the day in some places, find the polling booth without being picked up in a bus to get there, and do it on a workday (Tuesday). Participating in a caucus is even more demanding since they’re held on a winter night, at some living room or public library or school sports stadium, they run on local and ad hoc rules, and you have to hang around for hours while they’re conducted.

It’s quite possible that a whole bunch of Trump supporters will take one look out the window on that evening and decide that they won’t go to this strange ritual for the first time in their lives. Other candidates’ supporters could decide to stay in, too, but they are more likely to be seasoned caucus-goers. The whole palaver is a bit of a ritual that people incorporate into their live. You tend to be a caucus type or you’re not. It’s worth remembering that most people in any other Western parliamentary system never come near anything as raw and genuinely democratic — in form at least — as a caucus.

So we won’t actually learn that much from the Iowa result on the Republican side, since so few states use the caucus method. The extra demand of the caucus may cause a distortion between action and intent in the polls. But with Iowa and New Hampshire together, we’ll be on firmer ground. If Trump wins both, if the margin matches the polls, there is then no reason to believe he will not be the Republican nominee, on the numbers at least. That scares progressives, but nothing like the way it terrifies conservatives, who, in response to magical thinking, have retreated into magical thinking about magical thinking, blaming Trump for everything but their failure to offer their base a rational politics worth struggling out into the winter night for.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey