Every election season, candidates seek to make an impression in Iowa, which has the distinction of being able to host the first caucus in the presidential primary season. Iowa can put an underdog in the spotlight and give a reality check to the establishment, as shown in Obama’s upset over Clinton in this state’s caucus in 2008. Ever since, every candidate who is positioned as leader has been careful to watch their back, and the 2016 races only proved this.
For the Democratic Party, it appeared that the situation in Iowa could not be farther from what they imagined only a year ago. Where Hillary Clinton took a commanding lead over any potential challengers before, the field now was without a clear leader. Gillibrand held an extremely narrow lead nationally, but Iowa had much different dynamics: Nixon and Schweitzer were more popular in Iowa as well as O’Malley and Castro less popular. Gillibrand maintained support from the strong liberals, but also had strong credibility in the eyes of more rural Iowans because of her experience representing a rural New York district during her time in the House. Nixon had a strong appeal because of his success as a Democratic executive in a state that leans Republican, the ability to appeal to rural and urban populations. He also, over the course of his time campaigning, grew to hold an enormous sway over blue collar workers. Schweitzer took a wild card spot with strong support from rural populists and party members who have become increasingly disenchanted with establishment Democrats.
These candidates campaigns only furthered the insecurities that the party was harboring. Gillibrand came out passionately for “real reform” of healthcare, education, and a guarantee of equal rights for the LGBT community and women. She also stated that she would stand up to the antics of the Tea Party in order to get this kind of reform passed, which energized the liberal base but left her open to attack from Nixon and Schweitzer, who were worried that she would be uncompromising. Nixon spoke some about policy, but kept the focus on a desire to get government running again. Schweitzer emphasized that the other candidates were merely party insiders who would keep the status quo and not bring the change to government that was sorely needed.
The one thing that the candidates could agree on was that Obama would not be on the campaign trail with them. Gillibrand called him a “president who had all of the right intentions and made most of the right actions, but had a absolutely uncooperative Congress,” while Nixon spared nobody fault (“Congress was uncompromising and the President gave up trying to work with them, giving us a completely immobilized government.”). While the president maintained his staunch allies, people on the ends of the Democratic Party did not have a favorable view of him, and neither did the general public.
The Republican Party was lucky for the partial media break it got due to the surprise of the overcrowded Democratic race. However, that did not mean that the party infighting got any better. Many of the Tea Party supporters still stuck with their mantra that the last candidate didn’t win because they were not conservative enough, and Cruz, Huckabee, and Fallin all pushed the idea of ideological purism and a strong base in Christian morality to excite the base. However, Cruz became the undisputed frontman for the Teas in his crushing and memorable debate performance in November that was reminiscent of the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.
Kasich managed to put himself in the front running through an excellent and very personal campaign strategy. He traveled to many rural towns across Iowa, meeting in diners and talking with small business owners. Most of these people had only heard of his name once he became a candidate for president, and they received his message of bringing change to the government by breaking the overreach of the executive branch and getting Congress to reach across the aisle in order to prevent anything like a government shutdown from happening again. Interestingly, his message was quite similar to that of Nixons, but Kasich chastised the executive for government overreach as well as accusing the president of lacking the ability to compromise just as Congress has. Kasich did aired very few television ads, and the ones that were made were all positive. His strong grassroots campaign, combined with his very strong midwestern personality, quickly propelled him to the point where he was polling neck and neck with Cruz. However, Cruz was not afraid to criticize Kasich, calling him a “repeat of the baseless moderates the party has succumbed to nominating.”
Senator Paul, although pushed out of the top two, still found himself a growing number of supporters, and placed himself as the single candidate who truly wanted to shrink government. He was the single candidate who strongly rallied his base around the point around support of civil rights by completely eliminating any programs related to the NSA and ensuring that no violation of basic rights would come about under his administration. He was also the only Republican candidate to strongly support isolationism. He had certainly developed a strong niche, but it seemed unlikely that he could break out of it to win in Iowa.
As the caucus approached, people across the nation began to watch very closely. Some candidates in the top had taken some slightly unorthodox campaign measures, such as Gillibrand focusing on social media and Kasich focusing on grassroots and staying away from television ads. For the Democratic Party, Gillibrand managed to maintain the slightest lead over Nixon, but often within the margin of error, and Nixon would lead in the odd poll or two. The Republican Party seemed deadlocked between Kasich and Cruz, both holding leads within margins of error in most polls. Paul maintained a close third, but it might as well have been distant to him due to the constant near 2% gap there was between him and Cruz and Kasich. Generally, the more politically and ideologically motivated voters tend to show up for caucuses, but Nixon and Kasich did an excellent job of sending a straightforward and sensible message to people who had lost faith in the government.
As the first county results began to trickle in, the polling seemed to hold true to what was predicted. Gillibrand dominated urban areas while Nixon dominated rural ones, with Schweitzer winning the odd county. However, the Republican map seemed quite chaotic. Kasich and Cruz fought for rural counties, with many very conservative ones surprisingly voting for Kasich over Cruz due to his very effective grassroots campaign strategy. Paul managed to take counties here and there, remaining in that close, yet distant third place.
As the night went on, the races remained close. So close, that votes were being counted very meticulously, and sometimes being counted twice before being released. At around 9:00 PM eastern, Cruz gained a small, but significant enough boost from some western, socially conservative counties, many of whom’s inhabitants stuck with the socially conservative candidate through Kasich’s thorough campaign. Cruz lead by about 0.4% at this point, which was unfortunately a deficit that Kasich could not make up for. By 9:30 PM, Senator Cruz was projected winner of the Iowa caucus. Kasich did not call for a recount, but congratulated Cruz and spoke on this caucus being a demonstration that everyday Americans can have an impact in politics.
The Democratic Party was not so lucky. Once all votes were counted by just past 10:00 PM, Gillibrand held a lead over Nixon that was only 856 votes, and the process of recounting votes ensued. Many people were concerned that election judges in rural counties were making mistakes due to the combination of higher turnout and less sophisticated technology to count the votes. Inconsistencies in counting ballots in 10 different rural counties turned up higher numbers of ballots in the recount, which was perceived as a boost for Nixon. By next evening, around 5:00 PM, major news networks finally projected that the winner of the Iowa caucus was Governor Nixon, by only just under 1,000 votes. Gillibrand’s more modern campaign seemed to be effective, but it just did not quite make the cut against Nixon’s more traditional campaign and pragmatic rhetoric in the still largely rural Iowa.
Iowa did not fail to bring surprise: it gave victories to the star of the Tea Party for the last few years next to somebody who was nearly unknown outside of his home state until 5 months before the caucus. However, New Hampshire was a much different ballgame. Cruz or Nixon were not even in the top two contenders according to polling, and Kasich’s midwestern style would have to be reevaluated. All they could say is that things would not get any simpler from there.