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Ignoring the Iowa Caucus

If Sarah Palin is who puts Donald Trump over the top... how low was that top?

If Sarah Palin is who puts Donald Trump over the top... how low was that top?

The circus comes to a neighboring town, but the train derails. Beasts and freaks once locked behind bars escape and begin to roam the street.

The townspeople are oddly calm about their new guests. They stroke the elephant's leathery hide and ignore the massive dung piles in their yards.

They invite the freaks home for dinner. Some residents fall in love, and begin to make plans for strange weddings and a stranger future. ­

This is how you should think of the Iowa caucuses, where a dozen presidential candidates are hugging cornstalks and wrasslin' pigs, anything to woo voters in our southern neighbor. Only the sideshow monsters are treated seriously — generously, even — handed microphones and asked to opine on matters of state.

As of this week, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are locked in a head-to-combover battle for the state's most conservative conservatives, racing to out-racist (Trump) and out-God (Cruz) each other.

Just when it couldn't get any weirder, Trump plucked Sarah Palin off whatever merry-go-round she'd been riding. Mama Grizzly's endorsement was a series of disconnected crimes against the mother tongue.

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"What about the rest of us?" Palin asked a stupefied crowd in Ames. "Right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religion, and our Constitution."

Seasoned observers called the speech one of the most incomprehensible pieces of rhetoric in the history of the English-speaking peoples. In the next breath, they predicted it would put Trump over the top.

Do yourself a favor: Find the damn remote and change the channel to something that matters.

Iowa has led the most significant election on this planet since the 1970s. The state's Democratic voters have selected well, backing eventual nominees Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama.

But Iowa's Republicans suck at picking. Always have. Back in 1988, George H.W. Bush finished third behind runner-up Pat Robertson, a guy who predicted the world would end in 1982.

Iowa's why George W. Bush had all the momentum in 2000. The turning, pandering point came when Bush told a debate crowd that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher.

There are votes to be found on the margins of discourse — not a lot nationally, but in Iowa enough. Dangle a cross from your neck and announce plans to appoint the Holy Spirit as Secretary of the Interior. It'll turn off even rational-thinking Christians, but you'll get the 30 percent you need to win the Iowa caucus.

Bush's strategy was copied to similar effect in 2008, when Republicans chose Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who got his start as a televangelist. (Think Pat Robertson — breaded, deep-fried, and anointed in gravy.)

In 2012, the GOP swung for Rick Santorum, who ran on a three-plank platform: Abortion is wrong, homosexuality is gross, and porn makes me nervous.

This history informs the histrionics of today, with Ted Cruz treating stump speeches like calls to prayer. A couple weeks ago, he told a room of Iowans that his campaign's goal is to "awaken and energize the body of Christ." The Good Lord was apparently sleepy after a 2,000-year snooze. Quick! Get Jesus some coffee!

Trump is a more recent convert, suddenly claiming to "love" the Bible, the only book he has pretended to read that he didn't pretend to write. He tried talking scripture at Liberty University, the pseudo-school founded by Robertson, but came off as a fraud when he referred to Second Corinthians as "Two Corinthians." Clearly he'd mistaken the passage for the popular Greek rap duo.

Safer and smarter was handing the mic to Palin and letting her ramble to the rabble. Her words are confusing, but her dogma is nothing if not deeply felt. When Palin gets going, it's easy to think she sees herself as a character from the Good Book itself. I'm guessing she appears somewhere in Revelation.

The holy ghosts of Huckabee and Santorum are still around and running, but both are miles behind 2016's leading cretins. Larry Sabato, renowned reader of political tarot cards, blamed these twists of faith on voters' disappointment that the horses they backed came up lame. Santorum and Huckabee "have been branded losers," Sabato told the Omaha World-Herald.

That is, Iowans had their feelings hurt by the two. "You lied! You never told us you were a loser!"

They tried. The problem was, a few too many Iowans mistook messianic messaging for gospel.

None of this is a reflection on the average Iowan, or even the average Iowa Republican. But the math of this equation always arrives at the same sum. A crowded field plus a rabid pocket of conservative activists equals a terrible winner.

I'm tuning into something with a bit more substance. When does Wheel of Fortune come on? 

More from Mike Mullen:

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