The fractures in America’s political landscape have been exposed

Hillary Clinton

‘Polls show Hillary Clinton, the establishment favourite, is an accomplished woman but a vulnerable candidate.’ Photograph: Craig Lassig/EPA

As a parent of small children I sometimes surprise myself with the things I find myself saying. “Don’t play in the tumble dryer.” “Stop putting food in your nose.” “Try not to poo on the carpet.” The individual words are all familiar. But prior to the actual moment they are spoken, the notion that I would ever gather them together into a single sentence seemed implausible. The shock resides in realising I am in a scenario in which they both make sense and are necessary.

Analysing the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses forces a similar double-take. For to explain why Donald Trump came second to Ted Cruz among Republicans or why Democrats handed Hillary Clinton the slimmest of victories against “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders first raises the question of how we got to a place that this time last year no one would have deemed possible.

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Iowa caucus results are as unpredictable as this bizarre election season

Iowa, before the storm.

Iowa, before the storm.
Photograph: David Taylor for the Guardian

The rural, snow-frosted landscape of Iowa is so sparse, the horizon so broad and the sky so huge that weather can declare itself with great ceremony. Rain, sleet and snow don’t just happen to you here – when the clouds part, you can see them coming.

As Iowans gather at caucus sites on Monday night to be the first people in the United States to help pick the next president, a blizzard will barrel over the plains. By the next morning, it will have dumped several inches of snow on the state as it heads north-west, leaving a trail of chaos and disruption.

This remains about the only clear prediction that anyone can make about what Iowa will look and feel like come Tuesday. This American primary season has been too volatile, dissentious and just plain eccentric for any overconfident forecast prior to the event.

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Seven ages of Hillary Clinton: a woman who in her time has played many parts

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Family Fun Center in Adel, Iowa.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Family Fun Center in Adel, Iowa.
Photograph: ddp USA/Rex/Shutterstock

At a town hall meeting this week, the first question posed to Hillary Clinton was from a first-time caucus-goer called Taylor Gipple.

“It feels like there are a lot of young people like myself who are very passionate supporters of Bernie Sanders,” he said. “And, I just don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think you’re dishonest, but I’d like to hear from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn’t there.”

Clinton’s response sounded like a mix of Edith Piaf and Sir Elton John: Je Ne Regrette Rien blended with I’m Still Standing; stern resolve with a touch of telegraphed theatricality. “Look, I’ve been around a long time,” she told him. “They throw all this stuff at me and I’m still standing. But if you’re new to politics, if it’s the first time you really paid attention, you go ‘oh my gosh, look at all of this’. And you have to say to yourself, ‘why are they throwing all of that’? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve been on the frontlines of change and progress since I was your age.”

Not for the first time, Clinton finds herself in an existential battle with a rank outsider – Bernie Sanders cast in the role of Barack Obama – which threatens to derail her anticipated processional journey to the White House. Her experience and ever-presence on the public stage seem to be equal parts hindrance and help.

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