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The Horserace

Now a bulletin from our Iowa desk:
To most Americans the presidential election is still more than a year away. At this point it’s only generating subject matter for Fallon, Colbert, and Rienstra. But here in Iowa, you can’t swing donkey by the tail without hitting a presidential wannabee.

It amazes me that I often sit in my study in a little Iowa town, knowing that not two hundred yards away in a coffee shop or pizza buffet is a person with serious presidential ambitions. I would love to tell you about the time I literally bumped into a then-still-little-known Michelle Obama at a lunch counter. But enough about my brushes with fame, what do I see this time around?

Every four years we not only have the famed caucuses, we also hear solemn orations from well-intentioned civic leaders about the importance of serious discussion, of diligently weighing the positions of the candidates rather than rooting on the horserace, of more policy and fewer polls. But that’s no fun! Honestly, the policy differences within each party are slight, much better to try to surmise who these candidates are as people. What fills the cellar of their souls? This is what Iowans want to know.

cast your kernel

“Cast Your Kernel” at the Iowa State Fair.

The three outsiders—Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson—are the darlings thus far. So much has been written about Trump, I won’t add to it, except to say that I was heartened when one poll indicated that Christian conservatives do have some misgivings about his claim that he has never asked God for forgiveness.

Carson comes across as a kind, decent, mild-mannered, and deeply-committed Christian with a compelling personal story. No wonder he’s found an audience in Iowa. But as much as those traits might be appealing to Iowa’s evangelicals, there is also an unspoken worry that he lacks the cojones to be president.

Fiorina is an amalgam of Trump and Carson—aiming for the unsullied qualities of Carson, along with the hardnosed business acumen of Trump (although critics point out that neither was actually very successful in business). Other wags have wondered if Carson and Fiorina’s popularity might be overcompensation by Republicans determined to show they’re neither racists nor misogynists.

Already some say that Trump is flagging. This only gives credence to the suspicion that all three outsiders are nothing but the soup of the day, the flavor of the month. It is stories like theirs that make the caucus process so captivating, and keep the Iowa mythology alive—anyone can come out anywhere and suddenly become president.

In contrast are Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton who have an air of inevitability about them. The Iowa process doesn’t like establishment candidates who make Iowa feel irrelevant. Iowans don’t want to be taken for granted. Jeb’s blandness and defense of his brother’s blunders probably haven’t helped him, but his original frontrunner status really pulls him down. Presumptive candidates must always be taken down before they can rise.

Scott Walker, Iowa boy, preacher’s son, governor of a neighboring state, was considered the early favorite, one with lots of resonance here. He’s proven to be about as charismatic as you’d expect a native Iowan, pastor’s son, and Midwestern governor to be. If he can’t do it in Iowa, his future is bleak.

It’s still early, but I was expecting more from Marco Rubio. He’s articulate, attractive, and has a feel-good American dream story—not unlike Obama eight years ago. Maybe that’s the rub. Bobby Jindal is saying the most vituperous of things, fortunately without much effect. If there isn’t an invasion to threaten or war to begin, Lindsey Graham doesn’t have much to say. Ted Cruz feels alarmingly intense, waiting around for Trump to crash and burn, and then to pick up the pieces. John Kasich receives a good hearing from many moderates, even some Democrats, which would seem to be the kiss of death for him. I feel like I’m peddling in stereotypes to say that an abrasive New Jerseyan won’t sell among nice Iowans, but that’s how it feels with Chris Christie. Someone needs to tell Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum that running for president in Iowa isn’t a career or a lifetime gig. Move on. Get a real job!

If anyone wants my advice, I’d tell all the Republican candidates that angry doesn’t sell. Maybe it works with the extremists involved in the caucuses, but eventually we want an optimist, a poet, a vision-caster, someone who gives voice to our best. For now they’re specializing in squeezing out the bile found in our darkest fears.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton struggles with same the inevitability issues as Jeb Bush. No Iowan wants the caucuses to be a coronation. I’ve pretty much ignored her email controversy, figuring it will run its course. It is more interesting to watch her TV commercials. Some are efforts to soften and humanize her—portraying her as devoted grandmother or waxing nostalgically about her own mother. Other ads try to steal a little bit of Bernie Sanders populism—voicing middleclass exasperation with the lack of upward mobility.

Of course, Bernie Sanders is the rock star so far. I went to a rally a few months ago. While I share many of his policy goals, I left feeling a bit unmoved. He came across as a wonk, a grumpy econ professor. I thought he was lacking a compelling narrative. He needed more story, more pathos, and fewer statistics.

The day after seeing Sanders, I saw Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland governor continues to poll at about four percent, and considered it a great accomplishment when he reached fifty percent name recognition among Iowans. Despite his quixotic status, I was drawn by his warmer narrative. He uses words like dignity, neighborhood, and responsibility. If you have ears to hear, his language is laced with Roman Catholic social teaching—the common good, solidarity, community.

And finally true confessions—reasons to disregard all of the above, my mea culpa. Eight years ago I supported John Edwards. My kids were incredulous. “Dad, all these years you’ve said vote for the black or the woman if you can. Now you have Obama and Hillary and you’re going for the white southerner?!” Out of the mouths of babes. But Edwards was the only candidate back then to talk about poverty, to wage “class warfare.” I was taken in. Forgive me. Listen to me only with extreme prejudice. But that’s how it looks to this amateur. The fun is just beginning.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, I enjoyed this. Mostly on what Iowans look for, not the candidates themselves. You must have written this before this morning, because Gov. Walker is already out, and Dr. Carson is in trouble for his “no Muslim” comment. I’m grateful for your surprising take on Sen. Sanders, but it also saddens me, because I just can’t get excited about Hillary. The only vision I can get from her is that it’s her turn. Pretty distressing all around.

  • Yes, initially we were drawn to Edwards, too. Also to Richardson. Good reminders, I guess, of the fleetingness of politics (a la Jacques Ellul).

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Yes, Walker withdrew about the same time I finished up yesterday. No truth to the rumor that it was my blog that finally pushed him to quit.More likely he was so annoyed by my comments, he withdrew as retribution in order to make my post immediately out of date!Regarding Sanders’ lack of a narrative and coming across a grouchy professor, perhaps he has improved as a campaigner since I saw him.People say he was impressive recently at Liberty University.The blog didn’t explore the possible Biden candidacy.My own sense is that the Democrats like him and are grateful to him, sort of like an avuncular uncle.But I don’t sense any great eagerness for him to enter the race.
    Beyond my evaluations of the candidates (after all I have a proven track record of picking losers) I hope I was able to point toward the storylines and rhythms that are pretty predictable in the months before the caucuses and are really somewhat self-serving to keep the Iowa mythos alive.

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