Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

In Iowa caucuses, outsider candidates seek inside track

Analysis: In the first real test for the 2016 field, Sanders and Trump look to engage new voters

The economy is rigged, our politics are broken and America is heading off the rails. Such seems to be the mood of the country — at least as assessed by its media — as the United States gets ready to kick off the 2016 presidential election in earnest Monday night with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

It has been, by almost all accounts, a surprising election cycle so far. Candidates rich in terms of campaign cash and political pedigree, once expected to waltz to a November showdown, have struggled or flat-out failed to capitalize on their financial and professional prowess. Their “I did it before, I can do it again” messages missed the mark in a year when voters feel “business as usual” just won’t work.

Instead, Republican hopefuls look for an almost mystical mix of fervor and fear to unite and motivate an electorate increasingly on the downside of demographic trends. And Democrats search for a sweet spot that allows them to reassemble the Obama coalition, trying to embrace the legacy of a relatively popular two-term president while still appealing to nervous voters in what has been dubbed a “change election.”

Much will be made of the winners of Monday’s caucuses. But the losers — who they are, how much they lose by and what they do next — will probably provide as meaningful a glimpse at the U.S. political future.

During what has come to be dubbed “the modern era” — presidential elections since 1980, when the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary became solidly ensconced as national electoral bellwethers — no non-incumbent Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire. And only one Democrat has — the sitting vice president Al Gore in 2000.

That perhaps shouldn’t be a surprising factoid — the states are in different regions, have different political histories and, perhaps most importantly, different systems for picking their nominees. While New Hampshire’s primary looks and operates much like the general election, with ballots cast in secret over the course of a day, Iowa’s caucus system requires residents to spend an evening with neighbors, sharing opinions, listening to speeches, fielding entreaties from supporters of other candidates.

Republicans end their evening by casting a paper ballot (which, for the first time this year, is actually binding, and not just a straw poll) — but for Democrats, attending a caucus means having to stand in different parts of a room and publicly declare for a candidate. And if a Democratic candidate fails to garner a minimum percentage of attendees at a particular precinct, he or she is eliminated at that site, and supporters are then expected to choose among the remaining contenders.

The Iowa system is one that requires dedication from its voters and organization from the candidates. Campaigns need to identify supporters, get them to the caucus sites, teach them how to participate and how to stay committed throughout the evening. It is a structure that traditionally discriminates against first-time voters and candidates without well-oiled political machines.

So, Monday night, should so-called outsider candidates — real estate developer Donald Trump, running as a Republican, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent running as a Democrat — come out as winners (or even come very close to it), it could change the dynamic heading into the Feb. 9 New Hampshire vote (where both Trump and Sanders currently hold solid leads in opinion polls).

Even half a year ago, few thought either Trump or Sanders had the ground game and popular appeal to bring enough supporters into the system. Strong Trump showings in the first two contests would give him multiple paths to the GOP nomination, especially heading into a spate of primaries in states, mostly in the Southeast, where polls show Trump well ahead.

For Sanders, who was thought to be little more than a protest candidate when he entered the race, a win in the caucuses — coupled with the expected New Hampshire victory — will not automatically vault him to front-runner status over former Secretary of State, former New York Senator and formidable politician Hillary Clinton. But Sanders’ campaign, which has impressed poll-watchers with its ability to raise a sizable war chest from small donors, hopes that convincing showings in the first two contests will give it the money and momentum to expand operations in a host of primary states originally thought to be Clinton strongholds.

For Republicans less enamored of Trump, the question of who emerges as his chief rival remains an open one. Just weeks ago, it appeared Texas Sen.Ted Cruz was all but a lock to take Iowa. But then Trump — who pumped up his own political profile by doubting the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate — started questioning whether the Canadian-born Cruz was eligible to be president, and Cruz stumbled in last week’s Trump-less GOP debate. Now Cruz, whose hard-right politics and evangelical bona fides, were once thought a good match for Iowa Republicans finds himself looking over his shoulder instead of reaching for the stars.

That opens the door for the so-called establishment Republicans, practiced politicians with closer ties to the party’s power elite — men like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — to assume the mantle of “Trump killer.” Of those candidates, only Rubio polls well in Iowa, and the conservative son of Cuban immigrants hopes that a big finish there will convince the Republican establishment (and the establishment money) to coalesce around him before the New Hampshire vote, where the three other insiders are also betting on coming in as the place horse to keep them in the running.

But to only handicap the horse race is to neglect the track on which the hopefuls run. Interviews with Iowa and New Hampshire residents almost inevitably ask the "Who will you vote for" question, but when the voters explain why, the answers this year have less to do with any particular campaign plank or policy proposal — or, honestly, less to do with the candidates — and more to do with the lives of the citizens themselves.

Republican voters see a country somehow different from what they imagine it once was or should be — they are tired of “political correctness” and fearful of attacks they believe are fueled from abroad. Democratic voters see an economy benefiting a rich few and a political system biased toward Wall Street and big business. But, though members of the two parties might express it in very different ways, all seem to say that the American story, increasingly, is not about them.

The outsider candidates are distinct in how they tap this narrative, but their campaigns seem to make supporters feel they are part of something. That something might be an issue-free or “post-policy” election for Republicans, or it might be “Democratic Socialism” for Sanders Democrats. Both narratives cause extensive handwringing among the punditocracy, but they draw in voters.

The structure of the Iowa caucuses often makes the final outcome difficult to predict, but the route to that result is already much clearer. In the end, this election cycle could still crown more traditional, establishment nominees, but if that candidate wants to punch a ticket to the White House, he or she will likely have to lay new track — if the voters, the original engine of democracy, have anything to say about it.

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