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Larry Donnelly: If luck and timing count in politics, then both are in Trump's favour for November

Buttigeg, Bloomberg and Trump were the winners in Iowa, writes Larry Donnelly from Boston.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED is an oft-employed maxim and one that suits the election campaigns in Ireland and the United States equally well at the moment.

Here in Boston, news coverage has been dominated by the shambles that was the 2020 Iowa caucus.

My jaw, however, really dropped to the floor as I digested the findings of an opinion poll that nobody envisaged coming this year. It is downright extraordinary that, by at least one measure, Sinn Féin has emerged as the most popular political party in Ireland just a few days ahead of a general election.

Many in the know have attributed this surge to an admittedly vague thirst for change. A desire for something different is certainly in the air.

It has been fuelled largely by anger and pessimism about health, housing and more besides that I have encountered repeatedly over the past several months.

The extent to which reminders about links to the provisional IRA and warnings about Sinn Féin’s economic policies will blunt it on Saturday is the great unknown.

At any rate, a fascinating weekend awaits me on the other side of the Atlantic. And in truth, the verdict of the Irish electorate might provoke more questions than it answers.

The Stateside Shambles

But returning to the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Monday’s speculation focused on 1) whether Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would prove the polls correct and prevail, 2) which hopeful would finish next and 3) whose White House aspirations would be most badly damaged there.

The results were anticipated that same night.

They didn’t arrive.

Chaos is the only word that wholly captures what transpired. There were inconsistencies in counting. A mobile phone application that was intended to expedite the tabulation of the outcome, yet was apparently never tested in advance, then failed.

A host of precinct captains, the dedicated volunteers charged with recording what happened at each of the 1,678 caucus sites and communicating their tallies to state party headquarters, waited on hold for hours as they sought in vain to get through via a backed-up phone-in system.

Campaign strategists scrambled with how to deal with an unforeseeable absence of information. Candidates, in turn, each gave what sounded strangely like victory speeches. But they did so without knowing exactly how they had fared.

The cable news networks struggled mightily to fill the void. It was one of the rare occasions in which Donald Trump’s Twitter description – “an unmitigated disaster” – was not hyperbolic and hard to quibble with. Of course, the president didn’t stop at that:

Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare Website, that should have cost 2% of that. It is not the fault of Iowa, it is the Do-Nothing Democrats’ fault.

And the man who won more than 97% on the Republican side had a point in his punctuating comment:

The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump.’

Indeed, it was an oddly beneficial night for the bombastic billionaire. A relatively small cadre of undecided Americans will determine if he gets a second term on 3 November.

To their palpable sense that the Democratic field is weak and that, other than anti-Trumpism, little is on offer, can be added doubts about the party’s competence.

As the numbers slowly leaked out from Des Moines – just over 70% of the total at the time of writing – it became manifest that Iowans again delivered a surprise.

The mayor of neighbouring South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, exceeded expectations and, it can be cogently contended, is the de facto victor.

election-2020-pete-buttigieg Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters at last night's caucus campaign rally Source: Charlie Neibergall

Avoided impeachment

Geography and his being present, not at an impeachment trial in Washington, DC, obviously worked to his advantage.

Sanders was hot on his heels and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was several percentage points behind.

The loser is former vice president Joe Biden. His fourth-place finish reflects the observations of political reporters that he lacked energy, that his events were often poorly attended and that his messaging was stale.

This will be somewhat overshadowed by the aforementioned problems now dominating the headlines, but Biden needs to reassure his backers and donors by doing considerably better in New Hampshire prior to heading to more favourable states like Nevada and South Carolina, where he is polling well ahead of the pack.

Another Democrat who may have reason to smile in the aftermath is the extremely wealthy former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Given his late entry to the race, he did not compete in Iowa and is not partaking in the New Hampshire primary on the 11th.

Not being associated with the former fiasco and drawing some clear blue water between himself and it could prove an effective tactic in the longer run.

Bloomberg is spending a fortune on saturating the airwaves with television ads touting that his background as an enormously successful businessman means that he is the only one who can rightfully claim the non-political, outsider, “can-do” mantle for himself.

Can he beat Trump?

As a consequence, so goes his argument, Bloomberg is best placed to defeat President Trump.

On the other hand, the historic importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and his more tenuous connection to the Democratic Party (he was a Republican and an independent during his mayoralty) render this a high-risk plan of attack.

If Bloomberg, a moderate, does resonate and gain traction against the odds, it will likely be to the detriment of Biden and Buttigieg, who currently occupy a broadly similar ideological lane.

At the same time, it would probably benefit the leftist Sanders, especially if very strong showings in the first two states knock Elizabeth Warren out of the running or marginalise her.

We are now on to New Hampshire where Sanders’ lead seems untouchable and where Warren absolutely has to do well.

Iowa ordinarily provides a bounce and Buttigieg will endeavour to capitalise upon the support he received there, notwithstanding the unique circumstances.

In the meantime, President Trump was nearly as buoyant in giving his State of the Union address as he typically is in his exhortations to the faithful at one of his rallies. It was an effective political speech.

u-s-washington-d-c-trump-state-of-the-union-pelosi Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scored an own goal by spitefully tearing it up at the end. An article of faith in my political family has always been that luck and timing are the two most important factors in the business.

Donald Trump had both on his side in 2016 and they seem to be favouring him again in 2020. But there’s still a long distance to go.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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