Standing at an intersection in downtown Des Moines, the capital of the state of Iowa in the American Midwest, in early January 2008, I recalled English playwright Noel Coward’s lyrics about mad dogs and Englishmen. As in, only they venture “out in the midday sun” in “tropical climes.” Though the situation here was the reverse, about 20 degrees Celsius below frostbite. The only people crazy enough to be outdoors were politicians, campaign staff and journalists. Among those I encountered were volunteers for Texas Republican Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, the sister and niece of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and a reporter for a Houston daily.
This, of course, was just prior to the Iowa caucus, the first item of the political calendar that winds down with the US presidential election.
Iowa is where American presidential candidates field-test their campaign platforms, which is fairly fitting since Iowa is also the country’s capital of corn. The next stop is the Northeastern state of New Hampshire, which is equally cold in January, before the circus proceeds to warmer climes in the south and the west, to South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that a union of sadists created that itinerary, probably the same group that schedules Indian elections during the summer.
In 2008, then New York senator Hillary Clinton was the pre-ordained favourite among Democrats, and looking ahead to becoming the First Lady. Bill Clinton was probably already getting boxes of cigars addressed to the Oval Office. When the results were declared, Clinton finished third and a scrawny first-term Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, had crashed the party, winning the caucus.
Iowa didn’t guarantee that Obama would wrest the Democratic Party’s nomination but it did underscore one salient point about American elections - if the establishment favourite cannot tune into the enthusiasm or resentment — or both — among voters, they could be shocked, just as Clinton was. As was Republican Mitt Romney, now back for another bite in 2012.
Clinton enjoyed a lead in endorsements, money and machine, but what she lacked was mobilisation. That was tens of thousands of committed Obama volunteers thronging the primaries to create a grassroots organisation that bettered and battered Clinton’s name.
In reality, the number of delegates Obama captured in Iowa was paltry — just 16 against Clinton’s 14, a fraction of the over 2,000 delegates required to seize the nomination. But the psychology of the race changed. Helped by proportional allotment of delegates, Obama survived defeats in large states like California and New York, while winning by three- and two-to-one margins in several smaller ones like Idaho or Alaska, where Democrats had as much chance of winning in a general election as that of finding snowballs in the Sahara.
Clinton’s campaign was devalued quicker than the rupee. The rest, as they say, was hysteria.
As is usually the case with sitting pre-sidents, Obama won’t face a primary challenger in 2012. So the focus is on the Republicans. By rights, his opponent next November should be Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who started running for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2007 and still hasn’t stopped. Romney has gathered supporters from his party’s establishment as fast as Bollywood stars gather followers on Twitter. Campaign cash-rich and blessed with made-for-television optics, Romney should be comfortable with just over two weeks to go for the Iowa caucus. Except he isn’t, as unlikely contenders aim for an upset. Ironically, among them is Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives during the Clinton years and more of a Washington insider than the Lincoln Memorial. And another is libertarian Ron Paul, who’s been in the US House of Representatives for nearly a quarter century. But once again, intensity of support may just prove the determining factor.
Well, a candidate anointed by the High Command being upended by an insurgent campaign fuelled by grassroots enthusiasts rather than party flacks. Isn’t that strange? And nice?
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal