Iowa voters embraced the GOP Texas senator and his pledges to carpet bomb the Islamic State, but Clinton’s gamble to hit Sanders by playing up her hawkish bona fides fell short with Democrats.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
This story has been updated.
In a U.S. presidential election where the rise of the Islamic State and attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have pushed national security to the forefront, the politics of Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton could not be farther apart. But while both embraced more hawkish stances on national security policy, it brought them dramatically different results in Monday’s Iowa caucuses: The GOP Texas senator cruised to a come-from-behind win, while the Democratic former secretary of state’s last-ditch strategy to frame Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as too untested to be a commander in chief gave her one of the narrowest victories in the history of the caucus.
It was the second time Clinton fell short in Iowa, after a devastating loss in 2008, though her strengths have never been suited to an avowedly maverick state where the more extremist wings of both political parties tend to hold sway. She sought to show her relief with the neck-and-neck caucus results shortly before midnight Monday, but will be tested again next week in Sanders’ neighboring New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored. For both parties, the surprisingly close results serve as something of a rejection of the status quo and mainstream Republican and Democratic power centers.
In clinching the win against GOP real-estate mogul Donald Trump earlier Monday night, Cruz lassoed a purist conservative coalition of evangelical Christians, Tea Partiers, and libertarians with pledges of “carpet bombing” Islamic militants and blocking Muslim refugees from receiving asylum in the United States.
In the Democratic race, the upstart independent senator from Vermont increasingly threatened Clinton’s once seemingly inevitable coronation for her party’s nomination. Her campaign highlighted Sanders’s reluctance for U.S. military intervention, seeking to paint him as naive on foreign policy while touting Clinton’s deeper experience and “smart, but tough” national security strategy, such as a no-fly zone in Syria.
Into Tuesday morning, their caucus contest remained a virtual tie, though both campaigns, already en route to New Hampshire, still declared victory. The state Democratic Party announced early Tuesday that Clinton defeated Sanders by the narrowest margin in the history of the party’s Iowa caucus, prompting her spokesman, Brian Fallon, to tweet: “Just touched down in Manchester, NH to see it’s become official: @HillaryClinton wins the Iowa caucus! #HillYes #ImWithHer.” By mid-morning, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton had 49.9 percent of the vote with Sanders just narrowly behind with 49.6 percent.
When the race had been too close to call Monday night, Clinton said she was “breathing a sigh of relief.”
“Iowa, I want you to know, I will keep doing what I have done my entire life — I will keep fighting for you,” she said.
But Sanders triumphantly declared the race a “virtual tie,” drawing wild cheers and chants of “Bernie” from supporters Monday night.
“Nine months ago we had no political organization, we had no money, we had no name recognition, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the country,” Sanders said just hours before the results became official.
On the Republican side, Cruz had long placed his bets on Iowa, starting his organization there early. His Monday win handed the teflon Trump his first major setback: Cruz pulled 28 percent of the vote to the bombastic businessman’s 24 percent, according to the AP.
The Texas senator declared his victory one for the “grassroots” and “courageous conservatives.”
“The next president will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists, but will be chosen by the most incredible powerful force … we the people,” Cruz said.
Trump did not sound too discouraged in his concession speech, noting naysayers who once predicted he would not even finish the race among the Top 10 candidates in Iowa.
“We will go on to get the Republican nomination, we will go on to easily beat Hillary, beat Bernie, or whoever the hell us they’ve got up there,” Trump said. The quintessential New Yorker ended his speech by quipping, “I think I might come up here and buy a farm, I love it.”
Beyond Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who made a late surge in Iowa by contrasting his religious faith and political viability against Clinton, may have scored a bigger win with a third-place finish at 23 percent of the vote.
“After seven years of Barack Obama, we have come to take our country back,” Rubio told his supporters after the caucus was called for Cruz. “This is not a time for waiting.”
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson finished far behind the top tier, with 9 percent, and was followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who snagged only 4.5 percent of a vote in which he was once expected to harness Americans’ war-weariness and anger over government intrusions. The more mainstream Republican candidates in the crowded field barely registered on the scoreboard, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and current Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, all of whom now look to survive into a more establishment-friendly New Hampshire primary.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the last two winners of the GOP Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively, finished this year as has-rans, and were expected to immediately suspend their campaigns. Longshot former CEO Carly Fiorina was expected to bow out shortly after Iowa as well.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, third of the three Democratic candidates, suspended his campaign Monday night.
Iowa voters will only choose 44 of 4,763 delegates to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and 30 of 2,472 delegates to the Republican convention in Cleveland, where each party’s nominee will be officially coronated. The Hawkeye State’s population represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. and looks increasingly less like it: Iowans account for some 2.4 million of the 246 million Americans of voting age; the state population is 87 percent white, compared to about 62 percent nationwide. As Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, put it last week, both Iowa and New Hampshire — which holds the “first in the nation” primary on Feb. 9 — “like to be contrarian.”
Looming over the rhetoric that surfaced in caucuses is the crisis of the roughly 12 million people displaced by the war in Syria, and the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State there and in neighboring Iraq.
While Cruz hasn’t given many specifics for his Islamic State strategy beyond what the Obama administration is already doing, his repeated calls for indiscriminate air strikes in Iraq and Syria have drawn reproach even from the U.S. military. Though top Pentagon brass are typically reticent to weigh in on politics or policy, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the U.S. commander leading the coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, suggested hours before Monday’s vote that Cruz’s pledges of carpet bombing could constitute a war crime. “Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay,” he said.
Clinton has repeated her willingness to use force — as a last resort — yet has steadily dialed up her calls for a more aggressive approach to ISIS than Obama.
Initially during the campaign, she kept a careful distance from her complicated record during Obama’s first term when she served as secretary of state and advocated for more hawkish policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. But the Islamic State rampage in Iraq and Syria, and the violence it spawned in Paris and San Bernardino, pushed Clinton toward embracing those policies anew when faced with voters more open to using force against foreign extremists. In the clearest break with the Obama administration, Clinton has called for a no-fly zone in Syria — a GOP-backed policy Obama has called “half-baked.”
Sanders has said an American no-fly zone in Syria “could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region.” The senator staunchly opposes wielding U.S. military force to shape global conflict but also, more grudgingly, would back a forceful American intervention as a last resort.
Both anecdotally and in the polls, Iowa voters seemed more enthused about the spectacle and “tell it like it is” style of anti-establishment candidates such as Sanders and Trump.
Sanders’s steady surge put Clinton on the defense of her extensive record and long resume. Despite the Vermont independent’s own decades in Congress, he leveraged his campaign against income inequality and big banks to inspire his own movement of mostly young, progressive voters. He is heavily favored to win New Hampshire, but his path to the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia sharply narrows after the primary there next Tuesday.
Cruz, despite being a U.S. senator since 2012, has positioned himself as an outsider candidate railing against the “Washington cartel.” He has angered many fellow Republicans in the Senate and House with obstructionism he frames as “courageous conservatism.” Both he and Trump have skillfully tapped into anger and anxiety among American voters nationwide. Despite his loss, Trump remains in the race for now at least — he has primarily self-funded his campaign with extensive personal wealth, and few have yet to match his wider momentum.