Here’s what I think of the state of the race on the night before the Iowa caucuses.
The polls right now for Iowa are more or less meaningless. Yes, Clinton and Trump are both up a little in the final pre-Iowa poll, but it doesn’t really matter. Save for the poor bastards in single digits, the Iowa caucuses are one of the least predictable “elections” in modern politics. For candidates within a few points of each other in polling, everything can hang on innumerable (and entirely banal) factors: Will it rain? Is there snow? Are people too busy? Are babysitters available? Are there enough cars and vans to bring people to caucus sites? Do enough people give enough of a damn about who becomes the nominee to show up, or is everyone pretty content with whoever winds up winning? Did we call enough people? Did we knock on enough doors? Did we know on too many doors, and call too many people, and become annoying?
Hell, if it’s really close for the Democrats, it could all come down to which campaign has been nicest to O’Malley, as his utter lack of viability in just about every caucus site means his few voters will have to go with a second choice. The candidate O’Malley’s voters like better could decide the whole night.
I was in the Hillary Clinton war room for the 2008 caucuses, and hopes were pretty high. I think the prevailing sentiment was that we would place a strong 2nd (behind Edwards, I thought), but alas, we were trounced by Obama and edged out by Edwards to land at 3rd. Remember the Democratic race in 2004? Wasn’t Howard Dean supposed to win that with Gephardt close behind? They came in 3rd and 4th.
So forget the polls as far as the top tier candidates are concerned. For Clinton/Sanders and Trump/Cruz, this is up in the air.
So while I won’t predict any winners, I will predict this: Iowa won’t really matter. Let’s say Sanders does win, and by a meaningful margin. He could take that momentum, build on his support in New Hampshire, and win big there, too. A rocket-launch to the nomination, right?
Look, it’ll totally suck for Clinton if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary Death Watch will be on full alert. But I can’t for the life of me foresee a scenario where Sanders takes these wins and turns them into victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and the big states for Super Tuesday. Does anyone really think Sanders can win in South Carolina, where the African American vote is the whole ballgame? Or in California? Or New York? It’s possible, of course, but at this point it seems absurd to think so.
I think Iowa is slightly less meaningless for the Republicans, only because a decisive win by Trump could indeed begin the end of the race, for it would certainly catapult him to an even larger victory in New Hampshire than he is already likely to enjoy. I am skeptical, though, of a Trump win in Iowa, simply because I suspect his on-the-ground operation won’t match the religious fervor of Cruz’s supporters. And if Cruz does win, it’s no big news, it’s more or less expected, so the race remains one between him and Trump, and we trudge on. Nothing in the race’s dynamics change as a result of a Cruz victory.
Iowa’s greatest impact will likely be to begin the weeding out of the also-rans. The bottom half of the Democratic candidates more or less lopped themselves off after Iowa in 2008. I can’t see any reason for folks like Fiorina, Santorum, or Huckabee to trudge on once they get shellacked in Iowa. (And I suspect Huckabee is readying to endorse Trump after Iowa, and so a Cruz victory could be heavily dampened by a key establishment-evangelical nod like that.) Alas, Iowa losses likely won’t deter Kasich, Bush, or Christie, who have their hopes pinned on New Hampshire. And Rand Paul seems to be running for something other than the GOP’s presidential nomination, so who knows.
On the Democrats’ side, O’Malley will stay in the race as long as he technically is able. Why? Bernie or Hillary could get hit by a bus or something, and he wants to be ready to fill a spot just in case.
What do I know? A year or so ago, I certainly thought Cruz would be one of the main contenders for the GOP nod, but I also thought Rand Paul would be his main competition. I could be entirely full of it.
But that’s never stopped anyone from making predictions before. And I think at this point in my career, I’ve learned at least something. I can’t wait to find out!