DES MOINES — This was one long, crazy campaign for the Iowa caucuses.
It had it all: a traveling troupe of 22 politicians, a self-described 74-year-old “democratic socialist” who proved a charmer to college students, and a pugilistic billionaire and reality TV star who climbed to the top of the polls as he dismissed one critic after another as a “loser.”
“Everything this year is like theater. Everything this year breaks conventional campaigns and politics,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames.
“Politeness has gone out the window. People with no political experience are doing well in the polls,” Schmidt said. “It’s fascinating to watch. I love it. It’s American democracy at work.”
The Iowa leg of this once-in-a-lifetime roadshow ends Monday in caucuses across the state as Iowans select their preferred presidential candidates. Those hopefuls who survive the caucuses — two or three could bow out quickly after tonight — will then head to the snowy mountains of New Hampshire.
Initial returns from the 7 p.m. caucuses should start trickling in by 8, with final results expected a few hours later. (The two parties have coordinated to modernize the reporting system so that results are filed via computer rather than by telephone, as was done in the past.)
This year’s caucuses have defied expectations and deviated from past political traditions on numerous fronts. They’ve also had their share of indelible moments.
Who will ever forget Donald Trump questioning Iowans’ intelligence when his poll numbers dipped? Yet no one seemed to mind.
How about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s first foray across the state, when she tried to travel inconspicuously in a long caravan of black vans filled with aides and Secret Service agents?
And could anyone have predicted that it would be a Republican engaging in a full-scale firefight with Fox News, the network deemed friendly territory for the GOP? (Trump remains upset over questions Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly asked him at the first Republican debate, in August.)
The sheer size of the field was unlike anything seen in recent memory. And the self-imposed rules that have long governed candidates — especially “Don’t offend anyone, at all costs” — flew out the window.
The fear that super PACs would rule the political landscape by pouring in unlimited money never materialized. For example, the candidate with the biggest and wealthiest super PACs in his corner — Jeb Bush — has struggled in single digits throughout much of the campaign. Meanwhile, Trump and Bernie Sanders, the independent “democratic socialist” running for the Democratic nomination, are among the front-runners even without the help of super PACs.
In all, 17 Republicans and five Democrats made a pitch for the White House. Today, the field has narrowed only slightly, to 12 Republicans and three Democrats.
“It was crazy. There were 22 candidates — we’ve never had that many,” said Dave Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies the Iowa caucuses.
Along the way, a few heavy hitters dropped out. Remember Scott Walker? The Wisconsin governor was ever so briefly the front-runner, before his campaign started hemorrhaging dollars.
Rick Perry of Texas left the race months ago.
Many of these seasoned politicians found themselves battling for oxygen and support in the year of the outsider. Just ask Bush, the former Florida governor and heir apparent to his family’s political dynasty, who sometimes appears bewildered at his lagging poll numbers.
For much of the summer, the Republicans who have never held office rode high in the polls and on the airwaves: Trump, retired brain surgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
Carson and Fiorina peaked and then began downward slides, but Trump has shocked everyone by remaining the party’s front-runner.
Few can honestly say they gave Trump or Sanders much of a chance at the start.
Schmidt, the political scientist, said he remembers watching on TV at home when Trump made his famous entrance down an escalator at Trump Tower in New York and announced that he was running for president.
Like almost everybody who is being honest, Schmidt blew off Trump’s candidacy as either a publicity stunt or a wasted effort.
“My biggest surprise was when he stuck in there and his poll numbers started to go up,” Schmidt said.
Today, Schmidt is giving a lecture on the trail titled “Fear and Loathing in Iowa” — playing off the title of a political book by the late Hunter S. Thompson.
Oh, if only Thompson had been alive to enjoy this year’s caucuses.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, email@example.com