Iowa is very different from the rest of the US. With an ever-shrinking white majority in the country as a whole, this state is over 91% pale

On Tuesday when you found all your DStv news channels clogged with news from Iowa, blame it on a largely unknown former governor of the US state of Georgia back in 1976.

Until Jimmy Carter won the Democratic Party caucuses in this mid-Western state, no one paid much attention to this obscure contest in an area wildly unrepresentative of the country he would go on to lead. But, back then, his long-shot candidacy for his party nomination received huge momentum when he won Iowa against far better-known rivals.

Did something similar happen in the same state in the early hours of yesterday morning, about 30 years later?
Iowa remains, still, very different from the rest of the US. With an ever-shrinking white majority in the country as a whole (down to 63% and dropping) this state is over 91% pale.

In a nation where fewer than 3% of the population are engaged in agriculture, Iowa is a state where farming dominates. In a country of 321 million people, the state has just over 3.1 million residents.

Yet the overwhelming attention its caucus results get is because, in an almost endless election cycle for president, it’s the first occasion that real people — rather than polls or TV talk shows or professional pundits — have their say.

In the longest, most expensive and, perhaps, the most important election on the planet this year, Iowa matters because it is the first caucus or primary on the calendar.

The last shot in the battle will only be fired on election day, which is nine months from now.

But, other than its pole position, often a win or loss in Iowa — Jimmy Carter excepted — doesn’t foretell who will ultimately win. Ronald Reagan lost to George HW Bush there in 1980, while Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 couldn’t convert their victories there into party nominations later on.

More famously, Bill Clinton lost both the Iowa caucus and the next primary in New Hampshire in 1992 and went on to win the Democratic nomination and, later, the presidency.

Back in 1980, when Carter lost the presidency to Reagan, some forgotten wag wrote a put-down of them both in a letter to Time magazine. He described the contest and the two candidates as “the evil of two lessers”.

But yesterday’s Republican side winner, in his victory speech, thanked a higher authority at the other end of the moral spectrum. “To God be the glory,” declaimed US Texan Senator Ted Cruz.

And well he might have invoked the deity, since it was the strong evangelical Christian base who powered him to a win over the boastful billionaire Donald Trump, who finished a disappointing second. Not a good night for someone whose candidacy is fuelled by his self-proclaimed ability to close the deal and to win.

The virtues of extreme conservatism were on full display on the right side of America’s aisle. On Sunday Cruz closed his campaign in the company of Phil Robertson, star of the reality TV show Duck Dynasty.

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to an Old Testament prophet, Robertson called gay marriage “a depravity and a perversion”.
Just how well this fervour would play out in a general election across the entire US, where a majority supports same-sex unions, must be open to doubt.

More moderate conservatives on the Republican side — the once liberal wing of the party is now truly extinct — had a dismal night, though.
It was once thought that the most famous name on the ballot, the brother of one president and the son of another, Jeb Bush, could win the contest. But he got a paltry 3% of the vote, not being of the fire-eating, far-right persuasion necessary to win among the Republican faithful.
But despite outgoing President Barack Obama once electrifying his country with the vow that “there are no red states or blue states, just these United States” the actual result in his own party caucuses in Iowa proved the opposite.

For the Democrats, the difference between prohibitive early favourite Hillary Clinton and her fast-closing challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, was just two-tenths of 1%.
Not a bad result for him, a 74-year-old self-identifying “democratic socialist”. And in that razor-thin margin lies the essence of the appeal of Sanders.

He has taken his fight against the huge riches of the “one-tenth of the one percent” of the economic elite who dominate America’s wealth and the Wall Street bankers and their “illegal activities” to ignite the passions of liberals and students and the legions of Americans who feel left behind.

A few months ago Sanders trailed Clinton in Iowa by over 20 points; yesterday he virtually dead-heated with her; next week the contest moves on to his neighbouring state of New Hampshire where he is heavily favoured to win.

Whatever else he achieves or doesn’t, he will, in the remaining contests, tug the uber-cautious Hillary to the left.
The Democratic contest is now down to those two candidates.

On the Republican side, though, it is quite possible that neither Cruz, the most detested man in the Senate (and that’s by his own party), or the outrageous Trump will win.

Third placed in Iowa, US Senator Marco Rubio — while extremely conservative — has the sort of self-made life story Americans love. He is the son of poor Cuban immigrants and has the freshness of youth — he’s just 44 — to appeal across the generations.

And if Clinton is regarded as too establishment and past it, and Sanders as too old or too left, Rubio might have a real shot. But first — and it will still take months — each party must choose its nominee.

Meanwhile, enjoy the spectacle every week until June, coming on your TV screens, with a cast of characters you couldn’t invent.

Yet one of them is destined to lead the most powerful country on earth later this year.

This article first appeared in The Times