Firebrand populists in both parties grabbed America’s attention in the Iowa caucuses as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and real-estate mogul Donald Trump captured over half the Republican vote, while heavily favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton barely escaped a repeat of 2008 by holding off Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Iowa caucuses have a notoriously poor track record in picking the eventual party nominee, however according to UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, they play an important role.
“The caucus does not pick the winner but it does winnow the field,” Burden said. “The contest often gives a boost to someone. Jimmy Carter got his start by winning the Iowa caucuses.”
The candidates on the fringes of party orthodoxy who found traction in the Hawkeye state hope to follow in Carter’s path. Both parties’ establishments are being rocked by a surge in populism stemming from a wide-ranging set of frustrations aimed at everything from America’s changing ethnic and religious makeup to a perceived oligarchy bent on undermining the middle class.
In the GOP, Trump and Cruz angrily lament America’s decline and lay the blame at their own party’s feet. Their embrace of nativist policies and denunciation of party orthodoxy on issues like free trade and military adventurism represents a shift from the restrained conservatism of presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
“The grassroots has turned on the establishment,” Burden said. “It has a Tea Party wing that emerged right at the end of the Bush years and it is pushing in a different direction than the establishment. It’s a battle.”
Opposing the populists is a battered and fractured set of politicians, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich. The fight to consolidate establishment support is not over yet, but Rubio’s strong third place finish in Iowa makes him the obvious choice.
“Rubio appears to be the one crossover candidate right now to some extent,” UW-Madison political science professor David Canon said. “He did surprisingly well among evangelical voters in Iowa. It was a little bit of a surprise to people.”
As the GOP’s identity crisis drags on, the Democratic party finds itself confronting a different type of populism. After a calculated move toward the middle under President Bill Clinton, a rumpled socialist from Vermont threatens to mount a “political revolution” to drag the party back to the left.
Sanders promises to provide free college tuition, break up large financial institutions and implement universal health care combine with his authentic crotchety demeanor to win over throngs of adoring college-aged voters.
“He’s definitely pushing the party to take these issues seriously, sort of in the way that Howard Dean did more recently in 2004,” Burden said. “He really energized the party at a time when it was down and drew attention to health care and foreign policy and then John Kerry became the nominee and got to carry that energy and those issues.”
Sanders is heavily favored in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. In the GOP, Trump is expected to win, but the more secular demographics of New Hampshire present an opportunity for an establishment Republican to pick up delegates at the expense of Cruz.
“Mainstream Republicans like Kasich and Bush will have a much better time in New Hampshire than they did in Iowa,” Canon predicted.
The New Hampshire primaries will take place Tuesday. Follow the Daily Cardinal then and throughout 2016 for election and political coverage.