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Analysis: Iowa Shows the Political Establishments Are Not Dead Yet

by Perry Bacon Jr. /

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The establishment isn't dead yet.

The 2016 presidential campaign — with Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump at times surging in the polls — has been defined by its strong outsider candidates.

But in the first actual votes of the 2016 race, it was a draw. Hillary Clinton, a deeply-familiar figure endorsed by a very long list of Democratic elected officials, effectively tied with Sanders — who few party elites have backed. Trump, another insurgent opposed by many elites in his party, was just ahead of Marco Rubio, a career politician like Clinton and a favorite of the GOP establishment.

Cruz, who won the GOP race, says he is running as an outsider — but he is a sitting senator with a long list of endorsements from key conservative activists. He has both establishment and outsider credentials.

Sanders and Trump had very strong finishes in Iowa. The results in the Hawkeye State illustrated deep support for a pair of candidates whose politics are very unorthodox: Sanders’ socialism and Trump’s conservative populism are more akin to successful European politicians than American ones. No one anticipated a year ago that Sanders and Trump could become viable presidential candidates.

Trump, who rarely spoke publicly of his religious faith before this campaign, nearly won a primary in which more than 60 percent of voters were evangelical Christians. Sanders fought Clinton almost to a draw, despite the long list of advantages Clinton had when she entered the race — from having already campaigned here in 2008 to being able to hire Iowa's most-experienced grassroots organizers because she was the front-runner when the campaign started.

And both Trump and Sanders have big polling leads in New Hampshire, so they remain very viable presidential candidates and could be winners as soon as next week.

“We’re 28 points ahead,” Trump said in his speech in Iowa, referring to his polling strength in New Hampshire.

At the same time, Trump’s defeat in Iowa and Clinton's close call with Sanders are blows to the insurgent candidates. Sanders and Trump have spent months arguing that their successes show the political status quo in America is breaking down.

But the results on Monday in Iowa were familiar: a bloc of deeply-conservative and religious GOP voters in Iowa selected a candidate like them in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and a Clinton won about half of the Democratic votes. Leaders of the Republican Party’s conservative wing have embraced Cruz, while many more moderate elites and donors are behind Rubio. Cruz's victory and Rubio's surge suggest those wings of the GOP are far from dead, and Trump’s coalition of working-class voters may not be a large enough bloc in many states.

For Sanders, Iowa — with an electorate full of white liberals and relatively few people of color — was an ideal place for him to win. Instead, the former secretary of state matched Sanders vote-for-vote in a place with few African-Americans, who so far are overwhelmingly backing Clinton. This means Clinton could have a huge advantage in more diverse states.

Sanders essentially delivered a victory speech on Monday night, while Trump argued he will eventually win the nomination. Both men are right to be optimistic. Sanders, in the week before the caucuses, faced an aggressive push for Clinton from Democratic Party elites, with civil rights legend John Lewis coming to Iowa to campaign for Clinton and President Obama all but endorsing her. Sanders' base stuck with him and appears to be passionate and deep.

Iowa was always a difficult state for Trump, because of its large number of evangelical voters. He could have more success in New Hampshire and the South, where his anti-immigration message could be more salient.

But if the American electorate is very angry with the political establishment, wary of career politicians and eager to turn over control of the government to outsiders, Iowa voters did not conform to that narrative. Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have spent essentially their entire adult lives in politics and are insiders.

And at least half of the voters in both parties voted for one of those candidates.

Iowa didn't reject a political revolution. But the state didn't fully embrace Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump either.

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