Humility And The Iowa Caucus

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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The morning after the Iowa caucuses, The Daily Caller headline read “Ted Cruz Wins Iowa Caucuses, Edging Out Trump and Rubio.” At the same time Richard Viguerie’s ConservativeHQ declared “Cruz Crushes Trump and Rubio in Iowa.” Which was it, an edging out or a crushing?  

Before the last precincts reported from the democrat caucuses Bernie Sanders said it was a tie. Maybe he said that because he was pretty sure Hillary Clinton would prevail by a tiny margin (which she did), and we can be pretty sure he would have declared victory if he somehow had eked it out. Clinton certainly declared victory, though you would not know from her election night speech whether she crushed her opponents or won by a nose.

To be sure, Martin O’Malley did get crushed by both Sanders and Clinton. And it would be fair to say that Jim Gilmore got crushed along with a few others in the republican caucuses. But really, it was a tie between Clinton and Sanders, and the top three republicans were separated by only 4.5 percent of the vote. Among republican caucus participants, 72.4 percent preferred someone other than the winner Ted Cruz. Clearly there is no mandate on either side.

And we should not forget that these people are running for president of all the people of Iowa and the other 49 states, not just for the nomination of their party.  Only 31.8 percent of registered Iowa voters are republican. Thus Cruz’s 27.6 percent of caucus votes represents less than 9 percent of registered Iowa voters. Clinton’s 50 percent in the democrat caucuses represents about 15 percent of Iowa voters. To repeat myself, no mandate on either side.    

Clinton and Cruz won in the same sense that there will be a winner in Sunday’s Super Bowl, whether the final score is 48-0 or 48-47 in triple overtime. In sports one team wins and the other loses. The media reports on elections as it does on sports, with candidates pulling ahead or falling behind as the vote is counted.  Its as if the voting is happening before our eyes with clever strategists devising ways for their guy to snatch victory from defeat. Sometimes it is over in minutes, just like a 48-0 thumping on the gridiron. Sometimes it goes into the wee hours of the morning before the last precincts report and we have a winner – sort of like overtime.

But democracy is not sport. Elections may make it seem that way, but in a democracy we are all finally on the same team. The demos includes republicans, democrats, independents, socialists, whatever. The Super Bowl winner gets a trophy with bragging rights for a year and the losers go home to try again next year. The president gets awesome power over every citizen – those who voted for him (or maybe her) and those who voted for the loser.

Pundits and political strategists are drawing all manner of lessons from the Cruz and Clinton victories in Iowa. But there is only one thing we can say for certain. Iowans are split a dozen ways on who should be our next president. We should not make too much of the fact that Cruz is favored by 8.77 percent of registered Iowa voters and Donald Trump is favored by 7.72 percent of those voters. The voters of New Hampshire will be split a dozen different ways and so on until next summer’s nominating conventions settle on the republican and democrat nominees to appear on November ballots. A president will be elected and, like Cruz and Clinton in Iowa, will do some political version of spiking the ball in the endzone – notwithstanding that nearly half of the voters will have preferred the other candidate.

Contrary to President Obama’s notorious declaration that “I won” in response to congressional republicans who challenged his stimulus proposal, democracy is not about picking winners and losers. It is about the peaceful resolution of differences of opinion in public affairs. Winners of elections don’t get a trophy. They get the humbling responsibility – a really big responsibility in the case of the president – of  serving the interests of a whole lot of people who voted against them as well as of those who voted for them.

Political campaigns do not lend themselves to humility and the honest assessment of results. To carry on – to continue to ask for support – every candidate must be able to find victory in defeat. But when it is all over – when we have a new president to succeed Barack Obama – that person should reflect on the Iowa caucuses just completed, and on every primary election between now and then with an eye to the millions of votes cast for other candidates.  

What Clinton should learn from a tie in Iowa and Cruz should learn from earning barely more than a quarter of the republican vote is humility. Neither candidate is predisposed to being humble, but with the presidency comes great power. It will be in the best interests of our democracy if that power is wielded, by whoever is elected, with the humility of knowing that she or he was favored, at best, by a small fraction of Iowa voters way back in February.