They’re gathering, as you read this, in the snows of Iowa, to decide who they believe should be the two candidates to be the next president of the United States. They’re gathering in church halls and high school gymnasiums, in cafes kept open and a few farmhouse living rooms. The snow and wind started to come in towards the start of evening, sparking all sorts of suppositions, based on nearly no evidence at all. Will Trump’s support — many of his supporters have never been to a caucus before — be maximised by good or bad weather? A storm might dissuade them. On the other hand, they’re true believers. Who’d risk pneumonia for Jeb!? Over the course of the evening they’ll straggle to more than 1600 caucusing places, to thrash it all out.
Well, the Democrats will anyway. Thrash it out, I mean. The Republican caucus is really a semi-primary. You turn up, people may speak for or against a candidate depending on how it’s being run, and then everyone votes via secret ballot. The Democrats’ process is more complicated — they gather, have speakers, and then have an initial physical vote, with people moving to different areas of the room. A candidate needs to get 15% of the vote to proceed to the next round. There is then half an hour, while groups try to persuade other groups’ members to come over to them — especially those in the orphaned under-15%ers. The vote is then held again, until there are no more under-15% groups. The votes from that caucus are then awarded proportionately.
But wait, there’s more. The votes are for the selection of delegates to party county conventions (Iowa has 99 counties), who in turn select delegates to the state conventions. Those delegates — you still here, in the unheated school gym, with me? — then select delegates to the presidential nominating committees, of whose total complement they form about 1%. As you would expect in this process, run by amateurs, spread across the state, mistakes are made, if indeed they are mistakes. In 2012, Mitt Romney “won” the Iowa caucus by eight votes. Subsequent investigations found that eight precincts had misreported, and in fact Rick Santorum had won it. Had Santorum been known as the winner from the start, he might have had a much better run in the ensuing primaries, pulled the party culturally to the right, and caused them to lose by a bigger margin than they did.
In this contest, the processes are mismatched. The Democrats have a complex process and only two real candidates — third runner Martin O’Malley is running at 1% — which should make it a short night. The Republicans have a huge field of candidates, who will bob up and down around 15%, and yet the process is a one-off vote. Ya sucks boo, no fair.
The consequences are also mismatched. Donald Trump may win or lose this contest, but it’s the one place he wasn’t leading in, and there won’t be huge consequences if he loses. Bernie Sanders was running behind Hillary here. Now he’s running neck-and-neck with her. Were he to win, it would be a huge upset, but no guarantee that he’s a viable candidate, given his lack of support in the south. Comparisons with Obama won’t work; he was on fire in the south by the time the Iowa caucus occurred (which he won).
Trump is certainly taking the contest seriously, blitzing the state, by jet. Last Friday he pulled out of a debate jointly hosted by Fox News after demanding, and failing to get, the withdrawal of journalist Megyn Kelly as one of the hosts. Trump has previously clashed with Kelly, accusing her of having “blood coming out of her nose, blood coming out of her whatever” after she questioned him about his episodes of public misogyny. The clash did Trump no harm — to the wonder of right-wingers who have spent years banging on about “PC” — and constructed Fox News as part of the liberal elite.
This more recent move was assessed by many as a “Trump misstep”, even though it appears to have been taken straight out of the David Cameron playbook. The effect was to make Trump an intriguing absent presence — and to focus attention on the next frontrunner, Ted Cruz. Cruz initially revelled in the limelight, doing a Trump impression — “I’m the frontrunner here, and everyone else is ugly, fat and stupid, and Ben Carson, you’re a terrible surgeon” — to general merriment, before the other candidates turned on him like Little Orphan Annie thrown into the shark tank. “If these questions get any meaner I’m going to have to leave,” he said, another joke (in my opinion) that fell flat.
Trump presumably realised there would be no upside to being there — everyone would unite to take him down, so that Cruz would win Iowa, Trump New Hampshire, with no frontrunner going into South Carolina, the third primary. Trump is polling well ahead in South Carolina. Were he to win Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, he would be the only Republican candidate to have done so (South Carolina moved its primary up to third, in 1980). Lose Iowa, and he’s still in the game. Win it, and the game just became that much closer to over. We’ll know either late afternoon Australian time, or, if it’s delayed to the next day, midnight. Midnight is the word that will be on a lot of lips, if the Donald triumphs, in the snows of Iowa.