Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee put the political establishments of the Democratic and Republican parties on warning by winning Thursday's Iowa caucus. Democratic favourite Hillary Clinton came in third place, trailing not only Obama but also populist candidate John Edwards. Huckabee soundly won the fragmented Republican field, defeating all rivals, including the candidate who had invested the most in that state, Mitt Romney.
The caucus in this small farm state has been treated as the unofficial start to the grueling six month, state by state, primary contest by which the two US parties choose their presidential candidates. The actual race to be the 56th US president only begins after the candidates are chosen.
Obama's victory is humiliating, but not necessarily harmful to Clinton. If she had been able to defeat Obama in Iowa, or still does so at the coming New Hampshire primary, his campaign will implode immediately. At the national level, she is still the frontrunner among the Democratic candidates. Not much credence is being given to Edwards second-place win. He has traditionally been strong in Iowa because of his labour union backing but lacks a base beyond it.
The question for Clinton will be: How much will Iowa boost Obama in New Hampshire and the other early primaries? Iowa is not very representative of the rest of the US. Since 1972, only two Democratic candidates who have won Iowa have gone on to win the presidency.
However, the average of four polls in New Hampshire taken in January and December gave her a lead of just six percentage points over Obama. Most US observers say that his Iowa win, especially given the extra media attention he will now receive, should give Obama at least a five point jump. This would make the two neck and neck in New Hampshire. A double victory for Obama would be genuine reason for worry for Clinton.
Studies show that the average Obama supporter is a voter looking for change. Such voters tend to be young, political neophytes. The average Clinton supporter is seeking experience. Such voters are older, more conservative. Curiously and damagingly, 40 per cent of Clinton's backers say they are voting because of nostalgia for her husband rather than for her. Obama may be winning this battle within the Democratic Party: Democratic turnout in Iowa was double what it had been four years ago and he won more women votes than Clinton.
The Republican story remains open. Sixty per cent of Iowa Republicans are evangelical Christians. This automatically assured Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, their support. What Iowa does do is damage the candidacy of Mitt Romney who had invested millions to secure a win. Romney trails Rudy Giuliani and John McCain among Republicans nationally. But he leads in New Hampshire because he comes from the neighbouring state of Massachusetts. Like Clinton, he had wanted a double whammy of Iowa and New Hampshire. That would have propelled him to the top of the field.
Many frontline Republican candidates did not bother to campaign in Iowa. New Hampshire is seen as the real test. Romney's lead has shrunk there. Many polls now show him in a statistical tie with McCain in New Hampshire. McCain, whose candidacy was nearly on the verge of bankruptcy last year, has begun to move ahead even as the frontrunning Republican, Giuliani, has begun to see his ratings drop.