How to read the Iowa caucus results

All eyes are on Iowa, where voters are still undecided. Here is what to look out for in the results.

The Iowa caucus, which sounds the starting pistol in the Republican nomination race, gets underway tonight. Yet as voting fast approaches, there is still no clear frontrunner. Polls show that some two out of five voters in Iowa are still undecided.

There is no clear consensus among the pundits either, who variously predict that either Mitt Romney -- currently topping most national polls -- Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum could win in the state. These three candidates are almost evenly tied.

Richard Cohen at the Washington Post (who predicts that Romney will be victorious) notes that none of the other candidates have emerged from Iowa with their campaign in-tact:

The Iowa caucus has turned out to be a demolition derby for Republicans. With the exception of Romney and Santorum, they all have been damaged. Perry showed he couldn't debate (or talk), Bachmann had trouble with the truth, Gingrich acts like R2-D2 with a short circuit and Paul has been soiled by the ugly newsletters his foundation published in the past. Santorum emerges undented, (al dente?) but that could be because until too late he was not considered worth denting. Aside from him, though, only Romney came out of Iowa as he came in -- boring, but inevitable. He wins because everyone else loses.

Romney is cultivating this sense of inevitability around his campaign, seeking to give the impression that the party is coalescing around him. A big win in Iowa would give this tactic a significant boost, given that it has thus far looked like a tight race. On the other hand, if he falls into third place, he may have to do some explaining, although this will not necessarily spell disaster for the rest of his campaign.

What happens in Iowa does not necessarily reflect the eventual national outcome -- it is an oft-quoted fact that Mick Huckabee won in Iowa in 2008, although the nomination eventually went to John McCain. Indeed, since 1972, only three non-incumbent candidates have won the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the presidency -- Carter, George W. Bush, and President Obama. It is easy to make arguments for why this largely agricultural state does not reflect the US as a whole; yet it does represent the first test of the voting public, and a reasonable indication of the viability of a candidate's campaign.

For this reason, it can be almost more important who does badly than who does well. All of the second-tier candidates have insisted they will continue with their campaigns regardless of what happens in Iowa, but it is not unheard of for low polling candidates to drop out of the race.

Paul, who has stood for presidency twice before, will be particularly affected by this. In the past, he has been held back by the perception that he simply does not have sufficiently wide appeal to take the fight to the Democrats. A more organised campaign this time has worked to broaden his support base outside libertarians and students, and a win in Iowa could provide a counter-argument to those who maintain he is not a viable candidate.

Quite apart from what Iowa means for individual candidates, the level of voter turnout in this swing state -- important in the general election -- should give some indication about the strength of partisan feeling. As Michael Shear notes at the New York Times Caucus blog:

Fourteen months after a tidal wave of Republican energy helped sweep many Democrats out of Congress, the Iowa results will provide a hint about whether that intensity of purpose remains.

If 140,000 or 150,000 voters show up to the caucuses, that would be a good sign for Republicans (who have said for months that they have succeeded in adding to the rolls of registered Republicans). If fewer people show up than last time, it may suggest that the excitement of 2010 has faded a bit.

In a race so far characterised by uncertainty and swift rises to the top of the polls, matched in speed only by falls from grace, Iowa will give the first reliable test of public opinion. All eyes on the results.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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