Monday’s Iowa caucus was a night for the record books.
Two Cuban-Americans together won more than half of the Republican vote in one of the whitest, most socially conservative states in the country. A woman won her party’s backing for the first time in the state’s history. And rounding out the list of unlikely leaders, second-place finishers for each party included a reality television star and a Brooklyn-raised socialist.
Welcome to 2016, the year when conventional wisdom on presidential politics was thrown out the window even before the first voters had their say.
For a state often criticized for holding outsize power in deciding which candidates can ultimately win their party’s nomination, Iowa voters just backed a diverse set of candidates in what just a few short years ago would have been viewed as politically impossible.
Iowa’s demographics are hardly representative of the American electorate. More than 90 percent of the state’s voting-age population is white. Traditionally candidates with the strongest socially conservative bonafides top the race. That’s why Ted Cruz’s rise to the top of the Republican results and Marco Rubio’s stronger-than-expected finish in third place marks a departure from candidates who Iowa Republicans have supported in the past.
Cruz and Rubio, both the sons of Cuban immigrants, prevailed in a state where 97% of caucus-goers were white. What’s more significant is that they did so by taking the wind out of Donald Trump’s surge in popularity, which had grown in part by galvanizing nativists who felt overlooked and ignored by their party.
On its face, this bodes well for Republican elites desperate to win over general election voters. After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican Party had very publicly established that candidates needed to make inroads with Latino voters in order to stay competitive in future presidential elections. And having two candidates able to speak to their recent-immigrant roots with authenticity and through a conservative lens would certainly help that cause. That is, if the party is able to make up ground with Latinos after the entire GOP field took a giant rightward lurch on immigration.
One of the biggest surprises on Monday night came in the photo-finish in the Democratic race between a politically seasoned, mainline candidate and a self-described democratic socialist. The division separating Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders boiled down to the equivalent of less than four delegates. And while it was a much-tighter race than the Clinton camp would have wanted heading into New Hampshire, where she is lagging in polls, it was enough to earn her a title that eluded her eight years earlier – first woman to win Iowa.
Aside from Sanders’ political views that would have traditionally put him on the fringe, the Vermont senator’s standing Monday night is also significant in that he’s the only Jewish candidate to come this close in winning a state. Only Joe Lieberman reached similar heights, ultimately becoming the first Jewish-American on a major presidential ticket.
One race down and already there have been a handful of “firsts” in presidential politics. On to New Hampshire, where candidates are poised to make history-smashing results the new norm.