MONDAY'S IOWA caucuses produced two mild surprises. The Democratic front-runner, Al Gore, got twice as many votes as his challenger, Bill Bradley--a bigger victory than generally expected. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, something approaching the opposite took place. Although the front-runner, George Bush, won an impressive 41 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field, the news was that Steve Forbes managed 30 percent. The upshot is that the Democratic field appears to have changed from a two-person to a 1 1/2-person contest, whereas the Republican primaries have gone from two candidates to possibly three--Mr. Bush, Mr. Forbes and John McCain, a strong contender in New Hampshire.
But now New Hampshire speaks, and it would be a mistake to read too much into Iowa's poll. Those who did well tried to claim vindication for their ideas, but ideas were not the main currency of the caucuses. Mr. Forbes did well primarily because he had the money to pay for a large staff of organizers in the state and abundant free food at each campaign stop. Mr. Bush wielded millions too. Mr. Gore relied upon union organizers, some from out of state, and the backing of Iowa's Democratic establishment. In a low-turnout race, and in a process that requires citizens to give up an evening to vote, determined political machines made all the difference. They may prove less telling in New Hampshire, where high turnout traditionally makes life easier for challengers.
In fact, it is not even clear whether a strong performance in Iowa helps or hinders candidates at their next hurdle: Victory brings a publicity boost, but New Hampshire folk seem to take pleasure in rejecting Iowa's choices. The outcome of both nomination fights remains mysterious. Savor the uncertainty while it lasts.