THE BLOG
01/25/2016 08:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Iowa Homestretch

Brendan Hoffman via Getty Images

One week from today, the preliminary phase of the presidential campaign will finally be over and "primary season" will officially begin, as Iowans brave the cold weather to caucus for the candidates of their choice. For the remainder of February, the other three early-voting states will hold their contests, meaning next month will see the race sharpen for both Republicans and Democrats. As things stand, both parties have two clear frontrunners: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the GOP; Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. At this point, both races are so close in Iowa that nobody really knows what will happen next Monday night. Will the polls turn out to be correct? Nobody knows. Will enthusiasm trump (pun intended) longtime voter turnout? It could happen on either side, and then again it might not.

In the Republican race, the Iowa state polling currently shows that Ted Cruz might have peaked just a bit too early. For the past few weeks, the storyline has been that Cruz might just beat Trump when the voters finally get to have their say, but since then the polling has shifted back in Trump's direction. This may be due to Trump pointing out that Cruz was born in Canada -- which, beyond the simplistic "birther" line the media gobbled up, is a much more subtle dig at Cruz. After all, both candidates have made being anti-immigrant a centerpiece of their campaigns, so Trump is essentially asking Iowa GOP voters if a Canadian-born Cruz is really the best man to make that argument. Before Trump brought the issue up, many Republican voters in Iowa were unaware of where Cruz was born. Now that they have been informed of the fact, Cruz has slipped in the polls and Trump has regained his lead. Perhaps other factors are at work (Sarah Palin's endorsement may also be helping Trump, to name just one), but Trump playing the birther card seems to have succeeded, for now.

In one of the oddest dynamics of any primary election, both Trump and Cruz are fighting to see who can get the most "anti-endorsements" (disendorsements? unendorsements?) from the bigwigs in their party. The Republican establishment seems torn between its fear and loathing of Trump and its white-hot hatred of Cruz. The well-respected governor of Iowa denounced Cruz (probably for his lack of support for the ethanol program -- which is a honking big deal in Iowa), while a prominent conservative magazine devoted an entire issue to being "Against Trump." Both men proudly wear such denouncements on their sleeves, as badges of honor -- which sounds bizarre, but might be exactly what the GOP voters are looking for this time around. Republican bigwigs are so distracted with making the agonizing choice which candidate to denounce that they've failed to get behind any of their preferred candidates, which has left a scramble among Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich to see who is strongest. Because of this split effort, none of these candidates (with the possible exception of Rubio) has much chance of doing very well in Iowa (the big race for the establishment candidate slot will really come in New Hampshire, a week after Iowa votes).

The sharpest movements among voters always happen at the last minute, making them impossible for polls to accurately chart. If Cruz can't recover this week and regain some momentum, the last-minute surge will likely head towards Trump. The real question, though, is who will actually turn out. If the turnout is higher than expected, Trump likely has a big advantage. Many of Trump's supporters will be first-time caucusgoers -- if they turn up, that is. Because turnout might be such a crucial factor, the weather will play a big role. If it's sleeting and miserable next Monday night, Trump may lose his advantage as more Iowans decide caucusing just isn't worth the effort. Clear skies and mild temperatures (relatively mild, that is -- it's still going to be pretty cold) might result in a bigger than expected turnout for Trump.

This particular dynamic of the race is similar on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders supporters have enthusiasm on their side (obviously), but Hillary Clinton has organization on hers. Enthusiasm counts a great deal in the Iowa caucuses, but then so does getting people out to vote. Again, a very high turnout on caucus night will likely favor Sanders, and a blizzard would likely increase Clinton's chances. Will Bernie's supporters actually turn out to vote, or do they just like going to rallies? The question is an open one (as it is for Trump supporters).

There's the demographic dynamic of first-time Democratic caucusgoers to consider as well. Polling shows a wide split in the respective ages of Clinton supporters versus Sanders supporters. Bernie is winning the youth vote by better than 2-to-1 margins, but Hillary has just as lopsided (and impressive) an advantage among older voters. A true generational split has developed -- one that inherently helps Clinton. Older people are much more likely to be regular caucus attendees, and much more likely to actually turn out to vote. Young voters seldom get excited enough to show up for the caucus process. Now, this isn't always true -- the youth vote certainly turned out for Barack Obama, for instance. The question is whether they'll do the same for Sanders or whether their participation rates will be as low as they normally are.

Beyond the demographic argument, though, the next week will be a turbulent one for the Democrats. Clinton has long almost conceded New Hampshire to Sanders (call it the "favorite son next door" advantage), but she knows that losing Iowa would be a much more major blow to her campaign. If she loses Iowa and New Hampshire to Sanders, the whole race changes, because the argument "Bernie can't actually get anyone to vote for him" will be obliterated. On the Democratic side, Nevada will follow New Hampshire, and Nevada is always somewhat of a tossup (for some reason, very little polling is ever done in Nevada, making predictions almost impossible). Even if Clinton holds on to South Carolina, if she loses the first three contests she's not going to look very inevitable anymore, meaning voters in other states will be giving Bernie Sanders a long and serious second look. While the Clinton camp openly calls South Carolina her "firewall" (which may indeed be true, heading into a mostly-Southern Super Tuesday), I'm sure Team Clinton would be much happier if Iowa turned out to be her first win.

Because so much is at stake for Clinton in Iowa, she's pulling out all the stops. Clinton surrogates are absolutely flocking into the state, to talk up Clinton in front of as many audiences as can be managed in one week's time. This includes her biggest surrogate, former President Bill Clinton. Last week, the Clinton campaign began fighting hard against Sanders, essentially reverting to the Clintonian "throw everything including the kitchen sink at your opponent" strategy (which they deployed throughout the 2008 primary campaign). But over the weekend, they seem to have realized that this tactic might not be as effective in famously-polite Iowa. Clinton has reportedly pulled back on the more vicious attacks against Bernie (this involved reining in an attack dog or two), and may spend the week concentrating on making more of a logical argument than an emotional one, in the hopes of avoiding voter blowback against the negativity. We'll see -- anything is possible, at this point. But no matter how positive or negative a tone they strike, Clinton surrogates will be thick on the ground all across Iowa, right up until the caucusing starts.

Clinton did learn her lesson in 2008, and has invested heavily in her Iowa ground game. She's not going to get out-organized again, to put this another way. Bernie has put together his own Iowa team and they feel confident they'll be up to the task, but Clinton began a lot earlier and probably has a slight advantage in this department. So far the polling is about as even as can be -- Hillary showed a bump a few weeks back, and now Bernie seems to be getting a bump. This means it's almost impossible to tell which direction the last-minute movement will take. Since Bernie's currently up, he currently has the advantage here -- but that could change very quickly. Bernie is now focusing on making the "electability" argument, which he can do because of the head-to-head polling showing him to be the stronger Democratic candidate against either Trump or Cruz. This could change too, but it likely won't in one week's time.

Whoever wins Iowa on the Democratic side, the margin of victory may be tiny. In fact, Martin O'Malley supporters could be the key, due to the strange process of the Democratic caucuses. If, in the first round, one candidate doesn't earn a certain threshold of support, they are essentially told to give up on the longshot and choose between the frontrunners. O'Malley is polling in the single digits, meaning there will likely be many individual caucuses where he doesn't get enough support for the second round. At that point, his supporters will either have to move into the Clinton or Sanders camps, or just not vote. But if Clinton and Sanders are very close, the O'Malley supporters may be the margin of victory. That's all pretty wonky, I admit, but it'll be something to watch for on caucus night.

As all the candidates enter the Iowa homestretch, we'll get to see how they act when the pressure's on. Any of the four frontrunners could walk away a winner, which means they're all going to campaign harder than anything we've seen yet. When the Iowa caucus results come in one week from tonight, there may be a major rewrite of the storyline of the campaign so far. Will Trump voters actually show up to vote? Will Bernie voters make the effort? Have the polls been wildly wrong all along? If either Trump or Cruz wins Iowa, how will the Republican Party react? Will we (hopefully) see multiple minor Republican candidates throwing in the towel on their unwinnable campaigns, or will they fight all the way to New Hampshire? Will Clinton begin a march to victory in Iowa, or will everyone start talking about 2016 being 2008 for her all over again?

The presidential race has been going on for an exhausting amount of time already (since last summer, really). During this period, we've seen several improbable things happen. The political pundit class has been wrong about most of them so far. When Iowa votes, we'll finally have some real ballot-box information to digest -- and the pundits will (if history is any guide) likely proudly state the wrong conclusions from the results. The time when political junkies (and I do include myself in that category) have lots of fun obsessing over a race that few are paying attention to is almost over, and the time for the voters to actually have their say is almost upon us. The only prediction that can now be made with any hope of being accurate is that February is going to be a fascinating month to watch, as it could define the rest of the primary season. Whether you're praying for a foot of snow or clear skies in Iowa next Monday night, we're all finally about to find out what the voters truly think of this year's slate of candidates. One week to go, and counting....

 

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