There are two ways to look at the Iowa Caucuses. A rational person might point out that approximately 300,000 voters represent a small fraction of Iowa voters and a tiny portion of voters who will cast ballots in the primary season. The voters there are not demographically representative of the two parties or of the country as a whole. Fair enough. But politics is not rational and by the estimation of nearly every member of the media, the candidates themselves and the voters the results will be viewed as simply stunning.
Starting with the Democrats, it would be foolhardy to write Hillary Clinton’s political epitaph. However, Barack Obama put a mighty big dent in the Clinton armor and has given himself the opportunity to end the Clinton’s domination of Democratic politics and threat to once again seize the White House. The number of voters including Independents who turned out should give the Republicans pause. He is a non-polarizing figure who, although every bit if not more left leaning than Hillary, carries none of her baggage and personality flaws. Hillary has the resources and tenacity to come back but Obama has potentially set a new course for his party. No small feat. John Edwards in a virtual tie with Hillary will likely fight on as well but if his populist message and incessant campaigning in Iowa could not deliver a win it is doubtful he will pose any further threat. That in turn will only strengthen Obama’s hand as the anti-Hillary alternative.
On the Republican side the loss and the size of the loss is devastating for Mitt Romney. No amount of spin can conceal that he spent $10M to lose to a severely underfunded, little known opponent. Romney had spent a year, held hundreds of Ask Mitt Anything voter meetings, lavishly funded an Ames Straw poll win, and declared Iowa crucial to his strategy of building momentum in the early states. Although he had garnered support from many establishment conservatives the voters simply did not buy a candidate who had made so many policy conversions and who did not personally connect with voters as his main rival did. He is not finished by any stretch of the imagination and has the resources to fight on for weeks and weeks. He however faces a newly emboldened John McCain in New Hampshire in just four days and must somehow prevent another calamitous loss in what his opponents will accurately describe as his own backyard.
For Mike Huckabee the results are more than he could have imagined. With much conservative and MSM media attacking him daily he withstood the barrage and did what he does best — relate to voters on a personal level as an authentic social conservative. He will face harder challenges ahead however in states like New Hampshire with a smaller contingent of evangelical votes and as his foreign policy and fiscal views are put to the test by candidates who may have fewer vulnerabilities of their own. For now however, he must survive New Hampshire and show he is not a one trick pony by picking up a win in another early state.
The next big winner is John McCain. Back from the political dead after the immigration reform debate and financial ruin he has climbed in the national polls, risen to first in New Hampshire and now finished in a near tie with Thompson for third. With Romney wounded McCain stands an excellent chance to win in New Hampshire and repeat his 2000 victory. He will tout his national security credentials which in a time of international peril seem more important to many voters and provide a stark contrast to the inexperienced Huckabee.
Fred Thompson can also be counted among the “winners.” Written off my much of the media as lazy and hounded on the last day of the race by an internet story purporting to quote those close to him as saying he would withdraw if he did poorly, few expected him to finish in a virtual tie for third. But he did. Despite media harping he has done what he declared he would do — present a mature figure with detailed policy ideas on immigration, social security and defense. It would be foolhardy to write him off. He must now show he can win. His chances likely depend on a win in South Carolina where he must fend off Huckabee for social conservative support and McCain and Rudy Giuliani for national security voters. His best chance may line in corralling establishment conservative support who now perceive Romney as a losing bet.
Giuliani’s sixth place showing with 4% of the vote would be disastrous in normal circumstances but he too comes away pleased. His greatest fear was a sweep of the early primaries by Romney which is now impossible. Indeed, Romney’s substantial setback may give Giuliani a chance to draw close or even pass Romney in New Hampshire, particularly if he can turn in an impressive debate performance on Saturday. In short, he lives to fight on without the threat of his most potent foe.
So the Iowa result will give pundits and voters plenty to chatter about until the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. Then we will find out if McCain is the new frontrunner, Romney or Giuliani can steal the mantle of the “comeback kid” and whether Huckabee or Thompson can find some momentum to take them into South Carolina. The time for prognostication is past and the time for voting has begun. Finally.