On the Ballot in Iowa: Fear. Anxiety. Hopelessness.

Presidential elections traditionally speak to future aspirations, offering a vision of a better tomorrow, the hope and change of Barack Obama or the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Yet this year, even before a single vote has been cast, a far darker sentiment has taken hold.

Across Iowa, as the first nominating contest approaches on Monday, voters plow through snowy streets to hear from candidates, mingle at campaign events and casually talk of the prospect of World War III, civil unrest and a nation coming apart at the seams.

Four years ago, voters worried about a spiraling pandemic, economic uncertainty and national protests. Now, in the first presidential election since the siege on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, those anxieties have metastasized into a grimmer, more existential dread about the very foundations of the American experiment.

“You get the feeling in Iowa right now that we’re sleepwalking into a nightmare and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Doug Gross, a Republican lawyer who has been involved in Iowa politics for nearly four decades, ran for governor in 2002 and plans to support Nikki Haley in the state’s caucuses on Monday. “In Iowa, life isn’t lived in extremes, except the weather, and yet they still feel this dramatic sense of inevitable doom.”

Donald J. Trump, the dominant front-runner in the Republican primary race, bounces from courtroom to campaign trail, lacing his rhetoric with ominous threats of retribution and suggestions of dictatorial tendencies. President Biden condemns political violence and argues that if he loses, democracy itself could falter.

Bill Bradley, 80, who served for 18 years as a New Jersey senator, remembered when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, spending more than 75 days in Iowa during his bid. “We debated health care and taxes, which is reasonable,” he said, adding, “Civil war? No. World War III? No, no, no.”

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