PELLA, Iowa — When Iowans finally cast their votes Monday, they will cap the first phase of an extraordinary presidential primary season that has crushed conventional wisdom and rewritten the rules of politics.
But the disruptive thrill-ride of a campaign has produced a set of front-running candidates propelled by highly energized supporters but also trailed by negative perceptions, seen by huge swaths of middle-of-the-road Americans as unqualified, undignified, or unacceptable for the presidency.
You thought the 2012 election polarized America? Take a look at 2016.
For months, the 16 candidates — particularly the 13 on the Republican side — have been mired in a swamp of name-calling, slurs of almost every kind, and even accusations of criminality. The top candidates have variously branded each other as socialist, fascist — and, in the case of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, not American enough.
Is it any wonder the candidates are struggling to appear presidential, fit to lead the most powerful nation in the world?
“Everything is so hysterical now,” said Taj Wandling, a hairstylist who was awaiting a town hall meeting in this small central Iowa town, which was founded by Dutch immigrants but also is where Wyatt Earp, the gunslinging lawman, grew up. “I just hope it mellows out.”
A national survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found that most voters don’t think any of the 2016 candidates would make a good president. Of the nine candidates included in the survey, more voters said each would make a “terrible” president than a “great” one.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are viewed unfavorably by some 55 percent of the country, numbers that are even lower than President Obama’s. Bernie Sanders and Cruz, the other top-polling candidates don’t do much better, hovering around 40 percent unfavorable.
But before you blame the candidates, consider the primary voters in both parties, the frustrated core activists whose anger at establishment politics make Obama’s calls for “hope and change’’ seem quaint.
At events in urban centers and rural pockets throughout Iowa last week, candidates made pitches to these crucial voter blocs, each focused on its own brand of ideological purity.
They attacked one another for their lack of executive ability, for being part of a discredited political system, for lying. On both ends of the spectrum, they stoked their audiences by demonizing the other party as the enemy of the middle class.
Attending Republican and Democratic rallies, held just miles apart or even in the same towns, felt like visiting different countries.
Anger seemed to burn hottest at Trump’s rolling carnival, with protesters getting tossed and men in sleeveless shirts playing rock music in 20-degree weather. Cruz threw the political equivalent of Christian tent revivals. Clinton rallies featured well-worn attacks on Republicans. Sanders delivered hour-long, all-caps screeds against the ruling class.
Even willing participants at these events recognize that the vast middle in America is dismayed at the process, and at the options for Oval Office leadership it is producing. Many are aghast at the rhetoric clouding their Facebook feeds, but at the same time, they can’t turn away.
“People can’t understand why I like Trump, and I can’t understand why they like Hillary,” said Julie Fredrickson, a 67-year-old from Ames, Iowa. “It’s like the two extremes. To me she should be in jail. To them, he can be arrogant.”
Candidates trying to run in what they consider the responsible middle are buried in the polls, though some have gained a bit of late. Marco Rubio has found some late momentum in the Republican race in Iowa, while Jeb Bush took a share of second place in a recent New Hampshire poll.
Trump has been the dominant force, leading in every metric — Google news searches, television mentions, crowd size —and has shaped the GOP’s debate on immigration, protectionism, and terrorism.
He held a press conference last week in Marshalltown, 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, where he fielded questions about his acknowledged infidelity (“It’s a cheap shot”) and about Bill Clinton’s (“It’s not a cheap shot”).
He discussed the global economy (“Japan is killing us with their yen”), domestic challenges (“Our politicians don’t know what they’re doing”), and Cruz, his chief rival (“Ted is a wreck”).
But it was his decision that night to boycott the Republican debate that dominated several days of intrigue. Blowing off the party’s premier event in the final Iowa run-up might have proved fatal to a candidate in the past, but Trump appeared to suffer little, if any damage.
“Embarrassing. It’s just embarrassing,” said Charlie Zylstra, a retiree from Pella. “I’ve respected the patience of some of the other candidates have exhibited in the debates. They’ve shown some dignity.
“Trump and Cruz — I’ve been stumbling over why they have such a draw. It’s really concerning.”
The modern rupture within the Republican Party dates to 2010, with the rise of the Tea Party movement and a white-hot hatred toward Obama that supplied the party with the grass-roots momentum it needed to help win back the House that year.
That intense emotion carried into 2012 and sapped the eventual Republican nominee for the White House, Mitt Romney, who struggled to overcome his moderate past as Massachusetts governor in a divisive and prolonged primary.
The lessons of his struggles seemed to have been lost on Washington. A party that talked of the need to widen its appeal to Latino voters has, in Trump, a front-runner who talks of deporting millions and erecting a wall on the Mexican border.
In 2016, big-money donors and establishment figures lined up behind Bush, a relative moderate seeking to extend the dynastic White House run of a blue-blooded family.
Trump, a businessman whose past flirtations with running for president were generally laughed off, seized the moment with all his trademark flamboyance, egoism, and rhetoric as subtle as a Jerry Springer shouting match.
It has been so far a winning brew. The arc of the GOP’s civil war was neatly summarized in an image this month, when Sarah Palin endorsed Trump on a stage in Iowa.
In retrospect, say insiders, the party should have seen this coming. “We just went through two big elections in 2010 and 2014 that were based on the Tea Party and anger. And to not recognize that the party had a streak of anger earlier [in this election] was totally missing the boat,” said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and is now the senior political strategist at the US Chamber of Commerce.
Trump hasn’t imploded, despite numerous predictions of his demise, that this time — finally — he had gone too far. “But now we’re entering a new phase where the pundits step aside and it’s all left up to the voters,” Reed said.
Cruz, another Tea Party figure, has clawed his way into second place with swelling support from evangelical Christians, but he is seen as so divisive in Washington that top party leaders are beginning to do what they could not before have countenanced: warm to Trump.
“Donald Trump . . . wants to make America great again and I think that theme has resonated with a lot of people,” Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor of Iowa and a top establishment figure, said at a Des Moines breakfast.
Democrats, too, have been surprised by the potency of a candidate way outside the mainstream, not realizing that the fervent base energized by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was yearning for a version of her in the presidential election.
Sanders has used that angst — and a blatant class-warfare message — to disrupt what many figured would be a coronation year for Clinton.
Iowa’s caucus Monday night will give the rest of America a sense of just how strongly voters believe in the ideological tug of these candidates, or if the political center could show signs of coming back to life.
The other day in Pella, an old manufacturing town, a small crowd gathered to listen to Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, a onetime moderate from a blue state who is in a predicament similar to Romney’s. Halfway through his town hall, a woman stood up to say how frustrated she’s grown over the last decade watching all of the divisions and dysfunction of Washington.
“When you get to know each other, when you develop a personal bond, it’s a lot harder to not get things done,” Christie responded. “It’s harder to hate up close.”
Near the back of the room sat Sue Van Vark, a 62-year-old librarian at Central College. She’s hopeful for her grandchildren. She’s unsure of who she’ll caucus for. And she’s tired of the divisiveness, and the heated rhetoric.
“It’s a little out of hand,” she said. “They’ve got to get along. These guys can make all the promises they want, but they can’t do it without working together.”