Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

After Iowa, outsiders are in

Analysis: Caucuses leave party establishments searching for voters, but are voters looking to the establishment?

There was a time when sayings like “No sitting senator has won the presidency in 40-odd years” meant something. That was about the same time folks talked about how governors made better presidential candidates than legislators because they had “executive experience.”

That time was about eight years ago.

Then a first-term senator named Barack Obama claimed a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, and the rest was — actually, quite verifiably — history.

Obviously, the election of President Obama was historic in many ways, but looking at the results from the 2016 edition of the Iowa caucuses, it should serve to remind people that the conventional wisdom isn’t always all that wise.

Monday night, five current or former governors were in the Iowa mix — Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley — and combined, their totals do not equal the support gained by one first-term senator: Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.

Two of the former governors — Huckabee, a Republican out of Arkansas, and O’Malley, a once Maryland’s top Democrat — suspended their campaigns after Monday’s poor showings. The others — New Jersey’s Gov. Christie, Ohio’s Gov. Kasich and former Florida Gov. Bush — have all staked their political futures on the New Hampshire primary, now just a week away.

But, for all three of those Republicans, New Hampshire really is a make-or-break vote — maybe each doesn’t need a win, but without a surprisingly strong second- or third-place finish, those men can join their gubernatorial brethren in the ex-candidate’s club.

What makes the governors’ night even more numerically disappointing is that Rubio didn’t win the Iowa caucuses. He didn’t even come in second. But with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz taking the top spot for the GOP, and celebrity candidate Donald Trump tallying a solid number two, Rubio has become the de facto establishment firewall against the self-proclaimed and dutifully dubbed outsider candidates who each garnered more votes.

But the idea that Rubio — originally an insurgent senatorial candidate with tea party ties who beat the odds and a well-known veteran Republican to become Florida’s junior senator — represents the GOP establishment is still a little hard to fathom. That this pro-torture, anti-government, military hawk is the “moderate” in the Republican race (perhaps because he once tried to cobble together a compromise immigration bill with some Senate Democrats) is emblematic of just how far his entire party has moved to the right.

Still, whether this GOP establishment, however it is defined, now gravitates toward Rubio — and more importantly, whether the establishment money does — will be much discussed this week. And with Trump still the prohibitive favorite to win in New Hampshire, many will watch which direction the Cruz campaign feels it needs to focus its attacks.

Many too will look to see if GOP kingmakers ask the other establishment New Hampshire hopefuls to take it easy on Rubio. Bush, who really needs a top-three finish in the Granite State to maintain any claim of a viable campaign, has been especially tough on Rubio, spending millions on attack ads against his fellow Floridian.

And the field will have to sort itself out quickly. Yes, Cruz showed he could take a punch, weathering weeks of high-profile attacks from Trump and still winning Iowa. But Iowa is a “high barrier” state — one where the relative difficulty of participating in the electoral process (the caucuses) rewards well-run, well-funded political machines. And one of the best political operations in the race, which belongs to Cruz, still had to hang on for a narrow victory over a political neophyte, Trump, who did many things Iowa experts tell you not to do (helicoptering, or jetting, in, skipping a debate, choosing large, media-driven events over retail, handshake politics) if you hope to win there.

With Trump well ahead in opinion polls in many low-barrier primary states, Cruz’s Iowa triumph is still in danger of mirroring earlier GOP victories, like Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum, still a candidate this cycle, who was eventually declared the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

Photos: Election night in Iowa

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The Democrats' near deadlock

But as many moving parts as the Republican race appears to have, Monday’s result in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses may stir up their race even more.

The candidate who spent the past year-plus as the heavy favorite to walk away with Democratic nomination, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, announced to a crowd of supporters Monday night that she was heaving a big sigh at finishing her second Iowa sojourn in a virtual tie with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Virtual tie,” however, was a term used by Sanders in his ebullient late night speech, not Clinton. In fact, in what became one of the bigger insider stories of the night, Clinton aids claimed to the press that they had won Iowa, even though, at that point in the evening, no party official or media organization had declared a winner in the race.

It felt like a notable misstep from a campaign that is chockfull of veteran political consultants — reminiscent of assumptions made during Clinton’s failed 2008 Iowa run, if not GOP-operative Karl Rove’s 2006 assertion that he possessed “THE math” while making overly optimistic predictions about his party’s chances that year.

What led to Clinton’s math will be hotly debated for a little while — though going into New Hampshire, other factors might soon dictate the narrative. Like how, for example, Sanders was trailing Clinton by 50 points in Iowa when this race began, and with less big money and a less-seasoned political team, could still hop a plane east Monday night claiming a kind of victory.

[Update: at approximately 2:40 a.m., MSNBC reports Iowa Democratic Party officials are declaring Hillary Clinton the winner of the Iowa caucuses by the narrowest of margins. Five delegates out of more than 1,400 awarded separate Clinton (at 700) from Sanders (695), with Martin O’Malley — who quit the race late Monday — garnering eight delegates.]

Of interest, too, is how, as MSNBC analyst Ari Melber tweeted, “A Democratic socialist tied for 1st in IA delegates, talking about starvation wages, the billionaire class, corrupt democracy & pay equity.”

Clinton’s “victory” speech was filled with some of the same language, proving how much the Sanders challenge had moved her campaign to the left — and how far the party had come since Clinton’s husband Bill had bragged in neo-liberal terms about the end of the “era of big government.”

It should make for a very interesting debate later this week (if the campaigns and the Democratic National committee agree on terms), where the two remaining Democrats — each with decades of government service on their resumes — fight for a progressive tent pole many will call “outsider.”

What’s an establishment conventional wisdom-lover to do?

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