Littwin: Winners, Losers and Coin Tossers in the Iowa Caucus

The voters have finally spoken, and, in a surprise, at least to the pollsters, it turns out they had a lot to say.

First, they handed the Donald his first-in-the-nation loss, and to Ted Cruz at that. Trump gave a brief, humbled, un-Trump-like concession speech which made you wonder, now that his winners-win tour is over, if we shouldn’t have seen this coming.

Of course his poll numbers were bloated. What about him isn’t bloated? Of course he didn’t have the kind of on-the-ground organization that it takes to win in Iowa. He was too busy strapping on his gold-plated seat belt for the nightly Trump One flight back to New York. At least he didn’t call Iowa voters stupid, so that’s progress of a kind. But the question is whether Trump still gets the same Trump-like treatment from the media now that he is, in Trump’s understanding of the word, a loser.

The winner, of course, was Cruz. Despised by the Republican establishment, and by so many others, Cruz ran on the basis that being despised must mean he’s doing something right. In what other political season could that work? Yes, he also ran as the evangelical favorite in an evangelical-heavy state, but don’t mistake him for a Huckabee or a Santorum. He’s much closer to a Richard Nixon, winning by sending out fraudulent mailers and railing against New York values.

Still, the real GOP winner was third-place finisher Marco Rubio, or so we’re told, especially by Rubio. If you listened to his, uh, victory speech, you understand why people say he tends to get ahead of himself. But he did finish strong and he is the Republican most feared by Democrats, if not necessarily by Cruz or Trump. In what looks to be a three-way race, we can look forward to Cruz and Trump in their tag-team takedowns of Rubio’s Gang of 8 adventure and his adventures with a checkbook and whatever other vulnerable points the oppo boys can find.  (Poor Jeb! would surely love to join in, but after getting 3 percent! in Iowa, why would anyone listen?)

But at least Republicans know who finished one-through-three. The biggest story of the night was on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders forced Hillary Clinton into a virtual tie. If it wasn’t strictly a loss for Clinton, it might as well have been. Clinton said she was breathing the favorite’s “sigh of relief” while Sanders was telling the underdog’s story of how he had come to Iowa having “no political organization … no money …no name recognition, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America. And tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie.”

It allowed Sanders to say that Iowa was the beginning of a political revolution and leaving Clinton — who might end up with a slight advantage in delegate count on the basis of two coin flips – looking for the barricades.

The troubled Democratic establishment — yes, it was a bad night for any kind of establishment – – is now wondering what to do next. Bernie may have proved he’s for real, but that doesn’t mean, however, that a 74-year-old democratic socialist is going to be elected president. And so you can see the Democrats’ problem.

If many Democrats love Bernie and love Bernie’s passion but fear that Bernie can’t win, and if they don’t love Hillary and if Hillary is faced with a long slog against a message candidate and winds up too damaged to win, where does that leave them — other than with a cleared-for-Hillary field that doesn’t provide any alternatives? No Biden. No Warren. No time for a 1968-style Bobby Kennedy intervention. Even Martin O’Malley has dropped out.

Sanders gave a late-night charged speech designed to make sure everyone knew his victory was about something. To the young voters who overwhelmingly turned out for him — the entrance polls, which are like exit polls but different, say he received a remarkable 84 percent of the 18-to-29 vote — the electability argument must be something old people talk about. Sanders is winning the future, even among young women.

A Clinton win in Iowa, a convincing win anyway, was meant to put a quick end to this infatuation. Sanders would win in New Hampshire, where he has a home-field advantage, but Clinton, with expected strong support from minority voters, would then run off a long list of easy victories, and at least one dynasty would survive.

Now, the tie goes to the 74-year-old socialist who, politically speaking, had no business being anywhere close. And now Clinton, a losing veteran of the long slog, may be facing another. She’s still the heavy favorite to win, but it may not be as easy as that. She’s been favored plenty, and, in any case, winning isn’t enough. She also has to find a way to make the case that Sanders can’t achieve what he’s promising and, if she wants to win in November, find a way to sell Bernie’s young supporters on her own unradicalized version of the same message.

In her speech Monday night, Clinton couldn’t declare victory or any kind of revolution. Instead, after the tie vote,  she said how “excited” she was to continue the debate with Sanders. She even tried to look excited. For his part, Sanders, who tends to look more exercised than excited, is happy to debate, but wants a schedule that would have them on stage all the way until May. The voters in Iowa apparently wouldn’t have it any other way.


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