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Here’s a true fact about me: every time I hear somebody talk about “caucuses” I hear it as “Caucasus,” like we’ve turned over our presidential nominating process to Armenia and Azerbaijan. And then I catch myself, think about it for a couple of seconds, and usually say “you know, we really ought to turn our presidential nominating process over to Armenia and Azerbaijan.” If you think that’s a bad idea, consider that we’ve given Iowa, a state that’s too white and too rural to really represent the United States, and the caucus process, an arcane, over-complicated mess of a thing that only attracts a small fraction of the state’s eligible voters to participate, pride of place in winnowing out the primary fields and setting the media narrative for the races. We might as well hand the thing off to a couple of former Soviet republics. At least those folks might be a bit interested in foreign policy.
Now that I’m a serious Twitter user, which I wasn’t four years ago because I was much smarter then, I realize that caucus night is only the appetizer for post-caucus morning, a veritable buffet of ridiculous, self-serving, half-baked takes that stretches as far as the eye can see. This morning, for example, I learned that Iowa went wrong for Hillary Clinton, who’s better off after last night’s “virtual tie” than Bernie Sanders, who had a “surprising success” even though he “needs more than he got” in order to win the nomination. On the Republican side, Ted Cruz won a great victory and Donald Trump suffered a serious setback by finishing in second place, but the night’s big winner was Marco Rubio, who came in third. Cruz’s victory staked him to a whopping one delegate lead in the Republican primary, over Trump and Rubio at 7 delegates each. Rubio is now poised to win the Republican primary by consolidating the “establishment vote,” which if the polls are right tops out at about 20-25% of the electorate nationally, or less than Trump usually polls on his own.
It’s fitting, really, that the morning after this year’s caucus happens to coincide with Groundhog Day. Caucus Day and Groundhog Day. One is devoted to an outdated superstition, wherein normally intelligent people treat a meaningless and subjective event as though it has some kind of real predictive power. The other is Groundhog Day.
Here’s the thing: Iowa doesn’t produce winners. Sure, Obama’s upset over Clinton in 2008 was huge in terms of making him seem like a viable candidate, but Clinton blunted his momentum in New Hampshire, and it wasn’t until South Carolina that it became clear that the wheels were coming off of the Clinton bus. And it wasn’t really until Obama swept the mid-February contests when it became clear who the nominee was going to be. On the Republican side it’s even dimmer: no winner of a contested Iowa caucus has gone on to get the nomination since George W. Bush in 2000 (his 2004 victory, as the incumbent, was uncontested). The rush to hustle out some piping hot take over last night’s results just doesn’t make any sense from an “informing the public” standpoint. Of course, journalism gave up on informing the public in favor of getting clicks a while ago, so you can see why we’re being inundated with Deep Thoughts about What It All Means today.
You can find some thinkpieces trying to explain why these two never got anywhere with the voters, because why write “he was a lousy candidate who never connected with the voters” when you can write 1000 words that say the same thing? There should be more dropouts to come. Rick Santorum can’t possibly continue, can he?
How much longer can Rand Paul, who can’t crack 3% in New Hampshire and pulled all of one delegate last night, keep going? What about Carly Fiorina, who polls below 4% in NH and did so badly last night that she hilariously skipped her own post-caucus party? Sadly, her days of accosting random preschoolers and haranguing them about black-on-black violence or whatever are probably coming to a close.
Frankly, even this function of the Iowa caucus is aggravating, because, to repeat, Iowa is really quite unrepresentative of the country as a whole. This state has no business picking winners or losers in our presidential contests (although, to be fair, if Huckabee couldn’t win here…) and in a saner universe, both parties would figure out a new way of conducting this whole primary process. Clearly we don’t live in a saner universe, so congratulations to last night’s real winners: the pundits. There’s plenty of material here to keep you guys churning out takes until New Hampshire.