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Analysis: Waiting for Answers From Iowa’s Raucous Caucus

The first-in-the-nation tally of regular voters intrudes on the fabulous speculation and fun we’ve all been having so far during the 2016 presidential campaign. The air guitar players on the political stage will soon be forced to sit down or move to the back.

Melody Perez (left) of San Antonio and her daughter waited for the arrival of Ted Cruz's campaign bus in Emmetsburg, Iowa, during a campaign stop on Jan. 29, 2016.

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Rue this day. The presidential nominating races will be a little bit clearer but a little bit less entertaining Monday night after the votes are counted in Iowa.

The first-in-the-nation tally of regular voters intrudes on the fabulous speculation and fun we’ve all been having. The air guitar players on the political stage will soon be forced to sit down or move to the back.

Questions will be answered, with consequences for upcoming primaries like the March 1 vote in Texas and for the parties going into the November general election. The Republican field won’t be so splintered, and downballot candidates won’t have to sputter when asked which presidential contender is their favorite.

It’s when voters actually vote that politicians and officeholders get their instructions. All of the polling, canvassing, speaking and corn-dog eating matters, of course, and can give everyone a feel for what might happen.

Today is when it actually starts to happen.

Gamblers know this feeling — the moment when your expectations, your hopes and your schemes collide with reality. That fantasy football team that looked so terrific when you and your friends made your picks turns into the same sort of dismal dust as last year’s. The pair in your poker hand meets something stronger.

Actual results don’t match expectations. And in something like the raucous caucus the Republicans have been conducting, with its hype and weird interactions and quotes and revelations and debates, an actual vote by normal citizens can be a splash of cold water.

How strong is Donald Trump, really? The guy who currently appears to be the biggest player on the field might be a real movement candidate, with staying power, a real base and a genuine chance to become the Republican presidential nominee, however unlikely that might seem. Another theory holds that Trump is not the biggest player at all, that his crowds are spectators and not voters — that he’s no more powerful or real than the Wizard of Oz — and that Iowa’s voters will let the air out of his balloon.

How strong is Ted Cruz? The Texas senator has issued a steady stream of news releases over the past weeks and months that received only local attention, if any at all: Announcements of local big shots and operatives in various early primary states who have signed up to support him. His is the most visible ground game in the GOP primaries, and some Cruz boosters say it will be the difference when Republicans start to vote. Another question is where Trump’s voters would go if Trump collapses; the Cruzers have their fingers crossed.

It would be simple if those were the only candidates, but others lurk behind them, and the level of uncertainty is high. Downballot candidates in Texas, for instance, do fine until you ask them which Republican they’re endorsing in the presidential race. That makes many of them nervous. Some go with Cruz out of geographic loyalty if nothing else, but many of them would rather not risk offending voters by naming a favorite. That reluctance is a decent measure of the uncertainty today’s voting will start to erase.

Iowa is part of the answer. New Hampshire, which votes next week, is another. Texans will start voting before the next two primaries, but the primaries here fall after the results are posted in South Carolina and Nevada.  

Republicans here have the advantage of voting early enough to have a say in who gets the nomination and late enough to see how the candidates are faring in other states.

The Democrats face a different kind of uncertainty in a race that has fewer candidates and a little less mayhem. Everyone in that primary has been an officeholder. None of the candidates is rich enough to run independently of his or her party structures. It’s not as confusing as the GOP race, which defies the normal rules of politics.

An upset in the Democratic primary would shake things up, as upsets do. The Republican result — whatever it is — will be an upset of some kind. It’s only after votes have been counted in Iowa and other early states that a real favorite will emerge.

It will be less chaotic. What has seemed for the last six months like a reality television show with too many characters will start to do what it’s supposed to do, choosing a couple of partisan champions who will contend for the highest office we’ve got.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz