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Analysis: Iowa Clears GOP Skies, Darkens Democratic Outlook

The Iowa caucuses started to winnow things down. Texas has a chance, along with the other March 1 primary states, to decide who the major-party nominees will be. That’s relatively rare.

Supporters of Ted Cruz in Des Moines, Iowa, had plenty to celebrate on Feb. 1, 2016, Cruz won the state's Republican caucus.

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Iowa’s voters turned some sections of the Texas presidential primary ballots into tombstones. Three more states vote before we do, and they might add to this list of political obituaries.

Candidates can’t remove their names here even if they hang up their boxing gloves. No matter how things go in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Republican primary voters in Texas will still be treated to this list of names: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Elizabeth Gray, Mike Huckabee, John R. Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Donald J. Trump.

Democrats are already down to two major candidates, but the Texas primary ballot gives those voters a similar thicket of names: Hillary Clinton, Roque "Rocky" De La Fuente, Calvis L. Hawes, Keith Judd, Star Locke, Martin J. O'Malley, Bernie Sanders and Willie L. Wilson.

Iowa prompted Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley to quit and go home. Lindsey Graham dropped out in December, but it was already too late to pull his name from Texas ballots. Some of the candidates still listed are running on inertia instead of momentum. Their undertakers await them. But the voters will still see those names.

The crowded ballot does give us several ways to make protest votes if we don’t like the frontrunners who are left.

And it makes it much less difficult to see what’s going on. New Hampshire might give hope to some of the laggards, but three Republicans — Cruz, Trump and Rubio — came out of Iowa looking like contenders. Clinton and Sanders are virtually tied. A three-person or two-person race is easier to get your head around.

The way the election calendar works this year, Texas is something of a playoff state. The culling in the earlier states makes the choices more clear, the races more competitive. It’s the part of the footrace where you can see who broke from the pack, who has some staying power and maybe a kick left to get across the line. Iowa ended the long tension of a fantasy contest and turned this into a real one, with real results.

Iowa started to winnow things down. Texas has a chance, along with the other March 1 primary states, to decide who the major-party nominees will be. That’s relatively rare: The Democrats were still duking it out when they got here in 2008, but Texas usually comes so late that the choosing part is unofficially over.

This time, this state matters. Other big states, not so much. It would really be something if the nominations are unsettled when Californians vote in June, or even when New York and Pennsylvania go to the polls in the second half of April.

Conventional wisdom, along with some now-stale polls, suggest Cruz and Clinton have some advantages in Texas. He’s the state’s junior senator and the last of several Republican candidates with real ties to the state. She has worked in the state’s Democratic vineyards for years and did well here in 2008 even though she eventually lost the nomination to Barack Obama.

Loads of candidates have come out of Iowa looking strong, only to come up short somewhere between there and the national conventions (both in July this year). It’s a better predictor of the eventual nominee on the Democratic side than on the Republican: Obama, Kerry, Gore and Bill Clinton all made it to the general election — even the ones who didn’t make it to the White House. But your November ballot never featured Huckabee or Santorum, the two previous winners of the Republican caucuses.

But the first punch in the nose contained some information. Cruz is still strong at the kind of ground-game politics that put him in the U.S. Senate. Trump is strong, but some of what looked like a voter base might just have been spectators. And Rubio might be voters’ preferred alternative to the blustery, brick-throwing frontrunners.

On the other side, the big news is that the Clinton juggernaut hasn’t managed to swamp Sanders’ speedboat. The race that appeared to be muddy is a little clearer now. The one that appeared to be clear a few weeks ago now looks murky.

And Texas voters get to help sort it out. 

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz