Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Iowa vote will re-energise race to the White House

The direction of the US elections is still up in the air a few days before Iowa caucuses, says James Zogby
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles after speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit in Iowa. Patrick Semansky / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles after speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit in Iowa. Patrick Semansky / AP

For both Democrats and Republicans, this year's American presidential contest is another “Armageddon election”, the outcome of which will decide critically important domestic and foreign policy concerns. Despite its significance, we are just days away from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the direction of this election is still very much up in the air. It’s as confusing as any in recent memory. Iowa, therefore, will be important.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding lead. The prospect of a Trump victory is panicking the party’s leaders, who don’t trust his commitment to conservative principles and fear the damage he may do to the Republicans’ chances of winning the White House and keeping control of Congress.

The establishment’s concerns are compounded by two key factors. They must be careful that in attacking Mr Trump they don’t alienate his supporters, since Republicans will need them to win in November. And there is no logical establishment alternative to Trump. The pretenders to that throne have all run rather lacklustre campaigns and have drawn considerable blood attacking each other.

A recent poll demonstrates the Republicans’ problem. It shows that 20 per cent of Republican voters said they will not vote for any candidate in November other than Mr Trump, with another 20 per cent saying they will not vote for Mr Trump if he is the party’s nominee. It’s a conundrum, indeed.

In fact, at this point, Mr Trump’s only real competition is coming from another anti-establishment candidate, Ted Cruz. While the Republican leadership fear Mr Trump, they truly dislike Mr Cruz.

If Mr Trump wins Iowa and goes on to win in New Hampshire, he would be well positioned to win the Republican nomination. However, if Mr Cruz, a favourite among evangelical Christians, wins in Iowa, it could knock Mr Trump off his pedestal and create a very different dynamic for the contests in New Hampshire and beyond. The problems of no clear establishment favourite and what to do about Mr Trump’s supporters will remain, but it will be a very different election for the GOP.

On the Democratic side, the once inevitable Hillary Clinton candidacy has shown signs of fading in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge by Bernie Sanders. Mr Sanders’ candidacy has been powered by his authenticity and principled, progressive politics.

Recent polls show Mr Sanders in a virtual tie with Mrs Clinton in Iowa and beating her rather decisively in New Hampshire.

Again, Iowa is important. If Mr Sanders loses Iowa, his insurgent campaign will no doubt continue, but without the same energy. If, however, Mr Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, it will change the entire dynamic of this contest, energising his supporters and exposing Mrs Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate. It will not, however, be decisive because the Democratic party establishment has many of the same concerns about Mr Sanders as the Republicans have about Mr Trump.

Another concern shared by many Democrats is that while they want to keep the White House and win control of the Senate, they fear the polarised partisanship that has long paralysed Washington politics. With either Mr Sanders or Mrs Clinton as the party standard-bearer, they are concerned that America will see only more rancorous rhetoric from the Republican side and more paralysis.

Should Mr Sanders win both Iowa and New Hampshire, two outcomes are possible. One is that the Clinton-Sanders contest will get more heated and will continue until one emerges bloodied but victorious at the end of a drawn-out fight. Another possibility is that Joe Biden may be pressed to reconsider his decision to enter the race. While Mr Biden has missed the filing dates to compete in a number of states, there are enough major states (which account for well over one-quarter of all the party’s delegates) in which he could still qualify to appear on the ballot. These are states that Mr Biden might not win outright, but in which he may win enough delegates to insure a “brokered convention” that will have to vote on the eventual nominee.

In such a scenario, the contest would pit Mr Sanders and Mr Clinton against Mr Biden, with the vice president rightly claiming to be the heir of Barack Obama’s coalition and legacy, and the one Democrat who can expand that coalition and work to end the partisan divide.

With many Democrats nervous about the ability of Mr Sanders and Mrs Clinton to change Washington’s poisonous atmosphere, Mr Biden could emerge as an interesting choice. While some Democrats might dread a wide-open convention, such a truly democratic exercise might create a positive dynamic that could energise the party faithful for the November contest.

The bottom line is that we are just days away from the Iowa caucuses and only two things are clear: the stakes are high and the shape of this contest is still uncertain.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa