Donald Trump figured he could have it both ways with the American news media in the preliminary round’s first vote for president of the United States. It didn’t work. Trump’s novice campaign has dominated the presidential news coverage, but his risky decision to skip last week’s debate with other Republican party candidates cost him votes in the heartland state of Iowa.
The billionaire hotel developer and reality TV personality boycotted the debate in a high-profile feud with the debate sponsor, Fox News, over its refusal to drop Fox’s popular anchor, Megyn Kelly, as one of the moderators. Trump had vigorously argued that Kelly was biased against him stemming from her tough questioning during last August’s debate. Kelly infuriated Trump by dredging up demeaning remarks he had made about women over the years. Her August question to Trump began with this: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’” Trump tried to deflect the question with a response that drew plenty of applause from the audience: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
Arguably, the outcome of the Iowa vote was even worse for Trump than undergoing more of Kelly’s questioning. Although it was close, he didn’t win in Iowa. Indeed, in Trump’s world view, finishing second, even while receiving the second highest vote total in the history of Iowa’s presidential caucus process, still means he’s a loser. His ultra-conservative chief rival overcame Trump’s lead in the polls and other obstacles to finish first in the Feb. 1 vote of Iowa’s Republican caucusgoers (voters who gather at precinct-level meetings to cast their ballots).
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, favored by Iowa’s evangelicals and hard right conservatives, received 28% of the vote to Trump’s 24%. Cruz, aided greatly by a deep, statewide vote-gathering operation, even ran strongly among Libertarians. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the leading Libertarian candidate in the Republican field, finished a distant fifth with scarcely 4% of the Iowa vote. Florida Senator Marco Rubio came in right behind Trump with a surprising 23% of the vote and now apparently is poised to become the leading candidate from within the party’s establishment wing.
After the Iowa returns floated in, Trump delivered a brief but decidedly uncharacteristic concession speech. His conciliatory tone, congratulations to Cruz and willingness to embrace his second-place position were astounding, a far cry from Trump’s usual assortment of insults, self- glorification, shooting from the hip, distorting and grossly exaggerating whatever is on his mind.
Trump has led the way in both national and state polls since shortly after he entered the presidential race 7 ½ months ago. But momentum from the Iowa vote for Cruz and Rubio may present another challenge to the billionaire when the first primary election takes place on Feb. 9 in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, by the narrowest margin in the annals of Iowa’s Democratic Party caucuses, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton survived Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ fierce challenge. Clinton garnered 49.9% of the presidential vote and Sanders 49.6%. Sanders, the underdog independent and Socialist who has mounted a startling run for the Democratic nomination, has come from far behind Clinton in the polls and has a double-digit lead going into New Hampshire’s primary election. His campaign has attracted enthusiastic, growing support from young and old voters as well as other left-leaning Democrats.
Currently, Clinton and Trump remain the favorites to win their party’s nomination and face each other in the general election. If Trump gets that far, he undoubtedly will enter the main event with a bigger tent than I originally predicted.
After the first six weeks of his campaign, I underestimated Trump’s drawing power in suggesting that he was likely to emerge as the “Titan of the Tiny Tent.” I noted that most of his followers were white, blue collar, very conservative members of the Republican base, with little, if any, influx of minority voters and additional women, as advocated by the party leadership and establishment wing.
But the many thousands of enthusiastic Trump supporters who have flocked to his campaign rallies show his appeal is greater than I thought. At his big campaign events, Trump has performed with the finesse of a late night TV talk show host.
From the beginning until the Iowa caucuses, Trump has dominated the sizable field of Republican contenders, seizing the headlines, the nation’s attention and a solid share of the Republican base with an insurgent campaign at odds with the party’s establishment.
Just before the Iowa vote, Trump gave his presidential campaign a new label. He declared that it now is “a movement.” In Trump’s view, his quest to emerge as the free world’s leader is no longer an ordinary campaign.
Nevertheless, Trump’s bombastic approach with his hard-line, mean-spirited views on immigration and other issues is unlikely to resonate with general election voters beyond those he has already attracted.
In my view moreover, Trump would need to launch an all-out effort to attract Latinos, other minorities, women and young voters and succeed beyond all expectations during the general election campaign. Otherwise, he won’t have enough supporters in his tent to win the presidency. In that case, Trump would end up a loser once again.