ELECTION 2016 | Vulgar, Mean, Classified and Zany ı The 2016 Campaign So Far

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.43.43 PM

Supporters at a campaign event for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in Decorah, Iowa, in January.CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times


DES MOINES — So, to recap.

A fact-indifferent, vulgarity-spouting, tie-hawking, Democratic-donating former reality-TV star is positioned to win the Iowa caucuses, crashing a party to which Republican leaders (and perhaps as many as half the voters) wish he had never been invited.

His hard-line competitor, a Texan with a Princeton class ring — who has for years united a divided Washington in hatred of him — is emerging as a measured alternative, drawing a second look from a despairing establishment that he has derided as an emblem of cronyism.

And across the aisle, a septuagenarian socialist Brooklynite, who speaks of revolution and only recently warmed to combs, is threatening the coronation of the former first lady and secretary of state once considered the surest non-incumbent bet for a nomination in modern times.

Ready or not, voting for president begins here in Iowa on Monday.

In the throes of a rollicking election season, hijacked daily by Twitter warfare and seesawing polls, a wider view can be too easily obscured. The outlandish becomes normal, against all evidence of normalcy.

 Supporters tried to get close to Donald J. Trump at Gerald W. Kirn Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Sunday. CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Every election is different, unruly, strange. This one is just much more so.

“Professional wrestling is more organized, more reality-based,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, who exited the ring in December.

“Kind of a circus,” said Senator Ted Cruz, something of a circus master himself.

“Sometimes you stare into the void,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime political operative. “Sometimes a campaign like this stares back.”

And yet. America cannot look away. (Why would it?) It has in the past rubbernecked at a parade of women accusing Bill Clinton of philandering. It taught itself the paper-thin nuances of a hanging chad. Just four years ago, there was a flirtation with a telegenic pizza man whose seminal policy proposal was the repetition of the word “nine.”

Now, it seems, the marriage of entertainment and politics has been fully consummated — producing a hail of yo-momma jokes, boot bashing, birtherism, illicit peeks at voter data, cellphone destruction (in a blender) and campaign messaging communicated via YouTube comedy clip.

Hillary Clinton with supporters during a campaign event at Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Sunday. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

A few nights ago, Mr. Cruz, the Princeton grad and Texan, walked into the lobby of a hotel here — still swaddled in his winter coat and scarf — whipped out his iPhone and previewed a future Twitter post: a Monty Python video that he used to mock the cowardice of his chief rival.

That would be Donald J. Trump, who hours earlier had withdrawn from a Republican debate to protest the presence of a moderator, Megyn Kelly, whom he might or might not have accused of menstruating onstage during their first run-in.

All the while, the onetime Trump slayer, Carly Fiorina, has slipped into polling oblivion, dashing Republican dreams of a businesswoman with Clinton-esque gravity and none of the political headaches. In recent weeks, she has by turns rooted against her alma mater in the Rose Bowl (because it was playing the University of Iowa), pledged $2 million to charity if Mr. Trump agreed to debate her (because a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Cruz had offered $1.5 million) and quipped that she actually enjoyed spending time with her husband, “unlike another woman in this race.”

That woman, Hillary Clinton, who had promised to put the soap-operatic and self-immolating tendencies of her last campaign behind her, is instead fending off Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an FBI investigation into the highly avoidable use of a private server and the serialized disclosure of 55,000 pages of oddly intimate emails. She is found foisting the nettlesome exertions of modern living (“Pls print?”) onto aides and dispensing motherly advice to old friends. (“Please wear socks to bed,” she advised John Podesta, now 67, “to keep your feet warm.”)

Other spectacles of this election season have been deliberate, proliferating in recent days as the attention-seeking of prospective also-rans grows more desperate.

The last Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses, former Senator Rick Santorum, has been reduced to attacking Mr. Cruz for once reading Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor. The caucus winner before him, Mike Huckabee, has shot an Adele parody, “shredded” bass guitar on an Iowa stage (per his campaign), fired an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and released an ad that begins, subtly: “Washington. It’s a strip club.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas spoke to supporters in Iowa City on Sunday.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

Then there is Ben Carson, who appeared stunned to receive a question about the economy at the last debate.

“Oh, great,” he said, gathering himself.

Mr. Carson’s bootstrapping story and brief lead in the Iowa polls last year produced a squabble almost certainly unprecedented in modern politics: Mr. Trump insisting, through public re-enactment, that Mr. Carson could not possibly have stabbed a peer in his youth. Mr. Carson was guilty, his rival insisted, of being innocent.

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” Mr. Trump concluded, in a flourish that has been replayed repeatedly in attack ads against him (to little obvious effect).

Iowans, seemingly overwhelmed by the zaniness, have decided to embrace it: A cartoonist has sketched out caricatures of his predicted caucus winners on live TV, rendering Mr. Sanders as a wild-haired, bucktoothed professor and Mr. Trump as an effete emperor with a oversize tumbleweed mane (“yuge,” as he would say.)

“This will be — probably — your hairiest caucus of all time,” one of the show’s anchors cracked wise to the cartoonist.

Watch “The Contenders,” a new virtual reality film about the 2016 race, in ,
our virtual reality.

Not to be outdone, a Des Moines eatery has elegantly reduced the entire presidential field to a hamburger

Mrs. Clinton: Hill’s Flip-Flop Sliders

Mr. Trump: The Greatest Most Delicious Burger in the History of the World

Jeb Bush: El Burger de Jeb

Senator Marco Rubio: The Cuban Heel

But at least one American has identified a possible remedy for the chaos: a second New York billionaire — a Republican-turned-independent who is at least as likely to draw support from Democrats — pledging to bring order to a political world gone mad.

Best of luck, Michael R. Bloomberg.

That ought to do it.