WASHINGTON, DC – If you find America’s presidential election campaign puzzling, you probably have a better grasp of it than those who are willing to predict an outcome. At this point, with both major parties set to choose their nominees in state-level primary elections or caucuses, there can be no predictions, only informed (or uninformed) guesses.
The first major contest, in Iowa on February 1, is usually tricky to forecast, because the outcome relies more on organizational prowess than on popularity. The main question, in both the Republican and Democratic races, is whether the candidates can get enough of their supporters to the caucuses – relatively small gatherings held in the evening in wintry conditions.
On the Republican side, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are within the margin of polling error of each other in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which votes eight days later. Although Trump leads by an enormous margin in national polls, the strength of his Iowa organization is unknown, and what matters are the state-level results as the nominating process moves ahead. His challenge is that many of his supporters have never actually participated in an election.
Trump’s success so far reflects his shrewdness at reading the times and pleasing a crowd. (His reality television show, The Apprentice, gave him plenty of practice.) The electorate is angrier and more fearful than in recent presidential contests, and both he and Cruz are capitalizing on it. That sentiment – a product of slow economic recovery, ever-widening wealth and income inequality, and a racially infused sense of insecurity (particularly among white men) – makes for volatile politics.