Now that out-of-towners aren't hogging the best tables at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, the campaign buses no longer clog downtown Des Moines and the lines of voters at the Hillis Elementary School precinct won't be stretching out the door for at least another four years, it's time to assess the significance of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
In two words? Nothing much.
While the breathless commentariat littered across the cable television landscape Monday night would have you believe that the Iowa results were historic, stunning or even unexpected, that wasn't especially true. Prior to Monday, the most recent polls suggested the Republican presidential race was essentially a threesome, with long-time front-runners Sens. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump battling each other and a surging Sen. Marco Rubio, and lo and behold, they finished 1, 2 and 3. The Democrats have known for months that it was a two-person race for that party's nomination, and so it was with Sen. Bernie Sanders coming up a wee bit short in his quest to top Hillary Clinton.
The takeaway? Perhaps the age-old wisdom that winning Iowa requires a ground war, an army of motivated organizers spread out across the state and a candidate willing to press the flesh, was proven once again. Senator Cruz was just such a candidate, Mr. Trump was not, and Mr. Rubio has emerged as the most viable alternative to the intemperate duo. Meanwhile, Mr. Sanders' rise from obscurity outside his home state of Vermont over the past year has been impressive, but if he can't win in Iowa, what happens when the election heads to the South where he has so far demonstrated little appeal to African American voters?
History suggests the Iowa caucuses are not so much kingmakers as weed-whackers. Michael Dukakis came in a distant third in 1988 but eventually won the Democratic nomination. The last two GOP winners were Sen. Rick Santorum and Gov. Mike Huckabee. John McCain came in fourth in 2008 but eventually became the nominee. Strike out in Iowa, however, and you can call it a day: As it was this week for Mr. Huckabee (how soon they forget) and Maryland's own Martin O'Malley, both of whom quietly bowed out after receiving mere trace support.
The campaigns can spin the actual totals as much as they want. Yes, Secretary Clinton looked a bit more certain as the Democratic nominee months ago, Senator Rubio has come on strong in recent days and Mr. Trump may not be the juggernaut he portrayed himself to be. But, as previous results indicate, finishing within hailing distance of the winner is generally good enough. The next stop, New Hampshire, has only a slightly better predictive record. (Bill Clinton's second-place finish to Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992 solidified his reputation as the Comeback Kid after he finished with a miserable 2.8 percent of the Iowa vote).
Thus, Iowa appears to be a place not so much to win but to overcome. It favors local candidates and believers in ethanol. Say what you will about 2016 being the year of the outsider, politics is rarely so simple that it comes down to one type of voter, one issue or one region of the country, let alone one state. This is February. The first delegates have just been selected, and although the election already seems to have been going on for years, the primary season has just begun.
One more word about Governor O'Malley. As much as his candidacy never took flight — unless serving as a late night TV host's punch line counts — even his critics acknowledge he can leave the battlefield with his head held high. Issue by issue, he tapped his party's zeitgeist as well as anyone, and his analysis of the race — that Democratic primary voters would be receptive to someone running to Ms. Clinton's left — was entirely correct. It just wasn't him. Even Marylanders who elected him to statewide office by big margins showed little interest in his presidential bid. It's an intriguing contrast to that other Maryland-connected candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, whose appeal sparked broad support early but faded the more Republican voters heard him muddle through the issues. That the former Johns Hopkins pediatric surgeon has opted for trips to Florida, D.C. and North Carolina rather than to spend the full week campaigning in New Hampshire suggests he will be joining Mr. O'Malley on the sidelines soon enough.