For both Democrats and Republicans, this year's presidential contest is another "Armageddon election," the outcome of which will decide critically important domestic and foreign policy concerns. Despite its significance, we are just days away from the "first in the nation" Iowa caucuses and the direction of this election is still very much "up in the air" and about as confusing as any in recent memory. Iowa, therefore, will be important.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump remains atop the field holding a commanding lead. The prospect of a Trump victory is panicking the party's leadership who don't trust his commitment to conservative principles and fear the damage he may do to the party's chances to win the White House and keep control of Congress.
The establishment's concerns are compounded by two key factors. They must be careful that in attacking Trump they don't alienate his supporters - since Republicans will need them to win in November. And there is no logical establishment alternative to Trump. The pretenders to that throne have all run rather lackluster campaigns and have drawn considerable blood attacking each other. A recent poll demonstrates the GOP's problem. In that poll, 20 percent of Republican voters said they will not vote for any candidate in November other than Trump, with another 20 percent saying they will not vote for Trump if he is the party's nominee - a conundrum, indeed.
In fact, at this point, Trump's only real competition is coming from another anti-establishment candidate, Ted Cruz. While the GOP leadership fears Trump, they truly dislike Cruz.
Iowa is important. If Trump wins Iowa and goes on to win in New Hampshire, he would be positioned to win the Republican nomination. However, if Cruz, a favorite among Evangelical Christians, wins in Iowa, it could knock Trump off his pedestal creating a very different dynamic for the contests in New Hampshire and beyond. The problems of no clear establishment favorite and what to do about Trump's supporters will remain, but it will be a very different election for the GOP.
On the Democratic side, the once inevitable Clinton candidacy has shown signs of fading in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge by Bernie Sanders. Sanders' candidacy has been powered by his authenticity and principled progressive politics. Recent polls show Sanders in a virtual tie with Clinton in Iowa and beating her rather decisively in New Hampshire.
Once again, Iowa is important. If Sanders loses Iowa, his insurgent campaign will no doubt continue, but without the same energy. If, however, Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, it will change the entire dynamic of this contest energizing his supporters while at the same time exposing Clinton's weaknesses as a candidate. It will not, however, be decisive because the Democratic Party establishment has many of the same concerns about Sanders as the GOP has about Trump.
Another concern shared by many Democrats is that while they want to keep the White House and win control of the Senate, they fear the polarized partisanship that has long paralyzed Washington politics. With either Sanders or Clinton as the party standard-bearer, they are concerned that we will see only more rancorous rhetoric from the GOP and more paralysis.
Should Sanders win both Iowa and New Hampshire, two outcomes are possible. One is that the Clinton-Sanders contest will get more heated and will continue until one emerges bloodied but victorious at the end of a drawn out fight. Another possibility is that Joe Biden may be pressed to reconsider his decision to enter the race. While Biden has, in fact, missed the filing dates to compete in a number of states, there are enough major states (which account for well over one-quarter of all the party's delegates) in which he could still qualify to appear on the ballot - states Biden may not win outright, but in which he may win enough delegates to insure a "brokered convention" that will have to vote on the eventual nominee.
In such a scenario, the contest would pit Sanders and Clinton against Biden, with Biden rightly claiming to be both the heir of the Obama coalition and legacy, and the one Democrat who can expand that coalition and work to end the partisan divide. With many Democrats nervous about the ability of Sanders and Clinton to change Washington's poisonous atmosphere, Biden could emerge as an interesting choice. While some Democrats might dread a wide-open convention, such a truly democratic exercise might actually create a very positive dynamic that could help energize the party faithful for the November contest.
The bottom line is that we are just days away from the Iowa caucuses and only two things are clear: the stakes are high and the shape of this contest is still uncertain. Iowa will be important.