The best thing about the Iowa caucuses, which take place on Monday, is that they are actually happening. After what feels like multiple centuries, the 2016 campaign is finally coming face to face with that most easily forgotten group of people: voters. Not polls, not pundits, but real flesh-and-blood humans. What a relief!
The other good thing about Iowa is that there are two fascinating races taking place. A year ago, it seemed like Hillary Clinton could have conducted her campaign Skyping in from a yacht off the Bahamas and still breeze through Iowa. Bernie Sanders has robbed her of that luxury. The race is remarkably close. Sanders could easily win.
Hillary Clinton is being challenged in ways that she likely never imagined. Life for her must sometimes seem like a long string of torments. She lost in 2008, waited patiently for nearly a decade, rose up again to claim her prize and found it stubbornly elusive once more. She's never quite able to make it her moment. She's always found wanting. Much of this is her own doing—she is a hyper-hawkish Wall Street ally who's championed disastrous, racist criminal justice and welfare policies, and can probably be counted on to sell a string of people out, after all. But some of it must surely rest on the fact that she is a 69-year-old woman running for the presidency. Women have it harder. You don't have to love Hillary Clinton to see that.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has seized his moment with unbelievable gusto. It's true that his rise has been confined to the Democratic primary, a little hothouse where he can thrive. Also, he's a man, which definitely helps. In retrospect, though, it would have been very strange if the kinds of ruptures happening across the world didn't assert themselves in some form in the American political system. There's been lots of talk of "anti-establishment" politics in the U.S., but this is not the only country on the planet. The West has seen huge amounts of political turmoil. And why not? Inequality is raging. The planet is dying. Plutocracy is thriving. In Greece, in Spain, in Britain, in France, in Portugal, the grip of entrenched parties and politicians is being challenged at a peak of intensity not seen in decades. Why wouldn't some version of that happen in the United States?
Of course, this being the United States, the revolt is taking place in a much more subdued form. Sanders, as has been noted ad nauseum, is nobody's idea of a radical. It's a testament to the overwhelming conservatism of American politics that he's seen as some far-left agitator. Nevertheless, he has battled Clinton—and, to some extent, that dreaded establishment—with a discipline and a dynamism he probably didn't even anticipate. He caught the flavor of the time. It is his insurgency, not Clinton's hulking battleship, that has defined the contours of the race.
Iowa will show just how strong that insurgency is. If Sanders wins, it will send the campaign into totally uncharted waters. Things will get awfully nasty awfully quick. If he doesn't... well, he'll still probably win New Hampshire. Things will still get awfully nasty awfully quick. They'll get especially nasty because the campaign is about to move to South Carolina, and that means that black people will suddenly become very important to Clinton and Sanders. The fight over the black vote is sure to be brutal. Clinton currently has it, and she is not going to give it up without a struggle.
Before all of that, though, Iowa voters will have their say. Anyone who tries to call this most un-callable of campaigns is setting themselves up for a fall. There are a million factors that could swing it to Clinton or to Sanders. The polls that have so thoroughly dominated the election cycle have never been less reliable. The caucus system is insane. Iowa is deeply unrepresentative of the country as a whole. We don't know who's going to turn up. We don't know so many things.
But we do know that, at long last, the 2016 election is finally, truly, here, and not a moment too soon.